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The Franklin Expedition and the Harper Government’s assault on the past

by Adam Kostrich

The so-called discovery of a ship from Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition made many headlines this month. The Harper government’s celebration of the ostensible find seems two-faced given the government’s present relationship with Canada’s archaeologists.

In 2012, the Harper government spent over $50 million convincing Canadians of its commitment to preserving and honouring Canada’s past — $25 million to change the name and mission of the Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History) and $28 million to celebrate the War of 1812.

But that same year’s federal budget was a catastrophe for Canada’s archivists, librarians, and archaeologists.

Since 2012, Parks Canada — the organization whose mandate it is to preserve and foster engagement with Canada’s cultural heritage — has seen its funding cut by $29 million annually. 638 of its staff, including 80 per cent of its archaeologists, lost their jobs in 2012-13. In many cases, staffs of six, eight, or a dozen archaeologists have been reduced to just one. A single archaeologist is now responsible for conducting and overseeing work in the 120,000 squared kilometres of Canada’s arctic.

The cuts also saw Parks Canada’s Historical Research Branch, which reviews sites’ eligibility for historic designation, have all three of its positions relating to Indigenous culture, history, and archaeological sites unceremoniously slashed.

The budget cuts also revoked $1.7 million in annual funding for Canada’s National Archival Development Program. This money was used primarily to preserve and/or digitize historically significant maps, photographs, diaries, and oral histories of communities which are fast vanishing, including Inuit elders and Holocaust survivors. It was a boon for Indigenous history in Canada.

The combined effects of these changes were so drastic that the American Archaeological Association wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Harper on May 23, 2012 condemning the cuts as “a de facto shutdown of Parks Canada archaeology” and said that, “Given the number of… positions proposed for elimination it is difficult to see how Parks Canada can accomplish its mission to both educate the public and protect the nation’s archaeological and cultural record.”

It is not as if this is a good time to cut Parks Canada’s funding, either. A report published last December showed that 53 per cent of its heritage sites are in “very poor condition,” requiring several billion dollars of repairs, and, for the first time in several years, Parks Canada saw tourism revenue and attendance increase in 2013.

Another casualty of this federal defunding is the Historical Thinking Project (HTP). Launched in 2006 by members of the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Historical Consciousness, the HTP sought to change the way Canadian history is taught between grades K-12.

Fostering historical literacy, critical thinking, and a desire to experiment with new methods of teaching and learning about our past, the HTP was instrumental in changing history curricula in Ontario and B.C. last year and delivering new, improved teaching materials to classrooms across the country.

But the project is now defunct. Since 2008 it had been bankrolled by the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Canadian Studies Fund. Last year, that fund changed its name and mandate. It is now the Canada History Fund, and rewards “projects that commemorate key milestones and celebrate people who have shaped our nation as we know it today,” with an eye towards the nation’s 150th birthday in 2017. Presumably the HTP does not meet these standards, pushing students as it does to “understand the ethical dimension of historical interpretations.”

Of course, the Franklin expedition is a worthy site of investigation for this government. Five years ago Harper’s minority government led a unanimous vote to rename the Northwest Passage the “Canadian Northwest Passage.” In a statement to the CBC after the ship was revealed, Harper said that “Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history, given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s arctic sovereignty.”

In this context, sovereignty does not mean a positive relationship with the people who have known and lived on that land for hundreds of years. Despite the fact that Inuit oral histories had pinpointed the location of the ship generations ago, the ship’s discovery by a settler institution is considered a discovery (much like Franklin’s alleged discovery of the passage itself, or the “discovery” of the Americas in the fifteenth century).

Inhabitants of Canada’s arctic territories are still trapped in this discursive power relationship. Last year saw the renewal of a five-year, $100 million to map the arctic for mineral extraction. The first phase of the plan produced over 700 maps, and the next phase intends to completely map Canada’s arctic by 2020, providing over $500 million in potential mineral and oil extraction revenue.

As we approach 2017 and the nation’s 150th birthday, the Harper government plans to spend $83 million over the next six years commemorating Canada’s role in the two world wars of the last century. These commitments are not only fiscally irresponsible — that money could, perhaps should, either be rerouted towards funding the projects axed by the government over the last two years or at the very least be used to buttress the nation’s horrendously poor veterans aid programs — but socially irresponsible, too. Such a focus on the military achievements of Canada’s settler population effectively whitewashes our sense of national identity and perpetuates the treatment of our land and its Indigenous peoples as resources to be exploited.

George Orwell warned us in Nineteen Eighty-Four that “He who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past.” The Harper government has made a clear bid to refocus Canadians’ historical consciousness for this very purpose. But here as elsewhere — the muzzling of climate scientists, legalizing the destruction and poisoning of crucial ecosystems, and systematically brutal treatment of its Indigenous population — this government is drawing the ire of its citizens. It is, perhaps, treading on thin ice.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 7, No. 1

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