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Heritage Minutes: History, culture, and propaganda

Canadian Politics

Still image from “Jacques Cartier” (1991), part of Heritage Minutes, a collection of sixty-second short films, each illustrating an important moment in Canadian history. The Minutes integrated Canadian history, folklore and myths into dramatic storylines.

“I smell burnt toast.” For those of us of a certain age we remember these words not as part of the discovery of Dr. Penfield’s brain research but our own discovery of Heritage Minutes. In the late 1990s Heritage Minutes, one-minute historical vignettes that played during advertisement spots in prime time on both public and private television broadcasts in Canada, were seemingly everywhere. By 1999, their distribution was widespread, airing on prime-time television across Canada as well as being included on Universal Home Video releases. More than twenty-three million Canadians per year saw at least one of the Heritage Minutes. At that point, there were sixty different Minutes produced from 1999 to 2005 and although they stopped producing them in 2005, production of new Minutes resumed in 2012. Television broadcasts of Heritage Minutes became more limited as they moved to classroom distribution for Canadian K-12 schools, and every Minute was made available online along with resource packages for teachers.

With the federal Conservative Party leadership race starting in earnest, some of the hopefuls including Erin O’Toole are taking the angle that Canadian history is being taken away from us because John A. Macdonald’s record is being scrutinized and his role in the structural racism and genocidal policies of residential schools is being exposed.

It seems a good time to reflect on how the Conservative party has used private history organizations such as Historica as part of their propaganda arm to achieve and maintain cultural hegemony. For example, when the government of Canada decided that Canadians were not reflective enough of John A. Macdonald’s importance, James Moore, then Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages “invited all Canadians to reflect on Sir John A. Macdonald’s life and accomplishments, in honour of the 197th anniversary of his birth.”

The government created an event with the Historica-Dominion Institute (the name has since been changed to Historica Canada and I will refer to simply as Historica) at an elementary school in West Vancouver. The stated goal of the event was “to showcase how classrooms across Canada can celebrate the birth of Canada’s first Prime Minister.” Historica was part of the event and quoted in the government’s official press release: “We are thrilled to be in Vancouver to celebrate Sir John A. Macdonald Day with schools in British Columbia and across Canada,” said Jeremy Diamond, director at the Historica.

Historica launched a campaign that fit right into the heritage minister’s agenda: launching a campaign to “encourage schools across Canada to organize their own Sir John A. Macdonald Day celebrations on January 11.” The Government of Canada provided $263,250 to promote this campaign. The line between Historica as a charitable entity interested in preserving the history of Canada becomes blurred with Historica as an arm of government historical revisionism. This is important to reflect upon as credible historians who have begun to criticize John A. Macdonald as an architect of genocide are facing criticism from conservatives and white supremacists in a pantomime of outrage that JAM and his ilk are being removed from history. This could not be further from the truth. When they were in power the Harper Conservatives spent an awful lot of taxpayers’ money to venerate John A. Macdonald and celebrate colonialism.

The year after John A. Macdonald Day celebrations, Moore announced another partnership with Historica related to John A. Macdonald, stating, “the Historica-Dominion Institute will receive support to create two new Heritage Minute videos featuring Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Étienne Cartier.” Anthony Wilson-Smith, then president of Historica, stated, “Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Étienne Cartier are two of the greatest Fathers of Confederation, we’re proud and grateful that we’ll be able to use our Heritage Minutes format to tell stories about their roles in the making of Canada.”

Despite holding political power over the whole country and the ability to fund their history projects with hundreds of thousands of dollars, Conservatives and their attack dogs against “political correctness” and “cancel culture” want to frame themselves as the downtrodden little guy in this conversation. However, they are the ones who have had the power and the money to fund commemorations to colonialism.

It bears repeating that the Government of Canada has granted Historica Canada and its predecessors $88 million over a 14-year period. This averages $6.3 million per year. It is clear that Historica was a favourite of the government (and the Canada Heritage Department in particular) in terms of funding.

The analysis of the Minutes as a means of creating a unified Canadian identity is useful in understanding how the Heritage Minutes construct a very particular sort of collective memory about Canada’s past. Conservatives know that history can serve the needs of the present through the creation of national myths that all citizens identify with. It is an important part in the successful maintenance of hegemony.

The Heritage Minutes gloss over the linguistic, social, cultural, and economic fractures in pre- and post-Confederation Canadian history and the Conservative Party of Canada when in government has directly funded these efforts. The false outrage of Conservatives over the portrayal of Canadian history masks their own very real efforts to construct a Canadian history that compliments their own ideology.

John-Henry Harter lectures in History and Labour Studies at Simon Fraser University. He writes on issues of class, the environment, and the politics of popular culture, when not consuming too much coffee and TV. Follow him on Twitter @JohnHenryHarter.

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