Cutting Through the Fog: Public Memory and Confederation

The following post is the second in a series that features collaboration between the Acadiensis blog and the students in Jerry Bannister’s undergraduate and graduate Canadian Studies and History classes at Dalhousie University.

by Alex Martinborough

The 150th anniversary of Confederation is rapidly approaching, and around the country plans to commemorate the occasion are being implemented.  How the past is remembered and celebrated is a central component of national identity, and the ongoing process of nation-building.  Plans for Canada150 began as early as 2011 under the Harper Government, as a committee began preparing a report on previous commemorations[1] of the British North America Act, 1867 or as it is now called The Constitution Act, 1867.  The legacy of Confederation is highly complicated, especially as it remains shrouded in the nearly impenetrable fog of nationalist mythology.  Though coming to an agreement on a system that brought four, and eventually ten, provinces together was a significant accomplishment, neither the British North America Act nor its authors should be celebrated without reservation. Canada150 presents historians, and the broader Canadian public, a unique opportunity to consider how we discuss and commemorate our past.


The Peace Tower

The idea of history, and as a result the nation, being under threat is hardly a new idea, the declensionist narrative serving as a powerful political tool.  Peter van Loan,  Conservative critic for Canadian Heritage, declared the plans for Canada150 to be “just another salvo in the Liberal war on history”[2].  The Conservative Party of Canada, building their arsenal from Granatstein’s Who Killed Canadian History, has long promoted a narrative of the country being torn apart due to inattention to our true history.  In this skirmish, Van Loan claims that the Liberals’ decision to have diversity and inclusion, Indigenous reconciliation, the environment, and youth as the themes of Canada150[3] demonstrates a sense of shame of our collective past that weakens the nation as a whole.  The idea that history is under siege because these themes are being promoted suggests a better or more truthful history, and that this history is fixed and unchanging.

Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party actively sought to reshape Canadian history[4] with a heavy focus on military, monarchy, and the “Fathers of Confederation.”  Between 2006 and 2015, the Conservatives returned the word Royal to the armed forces, celebrated the monarchy, spent millions on the commemoration of the War of 1812, celebrated John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday[5] and proposed a monument to the victims of Communism.  Somehow, however, the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the rest of the Constitution Act 1982 went uncelebrated[6].  What a government chooses to commemorate demonstrates how it views the nation, and shapes future identity as much as it illustrates the past.

Neither the Conservatives nor Liberals are innocent in the public history wars, and though historians have, it seems, reached a truce in their own wars, they may find themselves plunged into yet another battle for the Canadian past. Almost every change in government in Ottawa brings with it an attempt to reinterpret Canadian identity, and what governments choose to emphasize and commemorate contributes to the continued construction of the Canadian nation.  Identity and nation are not static, and attempts at public commemoration and memory are vital components to the construction of an imagined community[7].

By choosing to emphasize something other than the traditional narrative of great men forging a nation by sheer intellectual fortitude and singularity of purpose, the Liberals have given historians, and the broader Canadian public, a reason to reconsider our past.  Though continuity in government policy in the transition from Conservative to Liberal government has been far greater than many of us (university students, first time-voters) may have hoped[8], this is one area in which I am pleased to see a substantial and meaningful divergence.  By choosing to focus on inclusivity and diversity, and Indigenous reconciliation in the celebration of Canada150, important questions about the Canadian constitution, nation, and state can be addressed.

The British North America Act, 1867 provided an important legal framework, but it did not produce an independent nation-state.  Despite this it holds an important space in public memory as a foundational moment.  No matter how many times historians insist that this was not the creation of a country, July 1st, 1867 remains entrenched in public memory as the moment of Canadian independence.  The idea of Confederation and the legislative act – how Canadians see it – is as important as the exact details of the event itself to our national identity.  These ideas form a key part of Canada’s imagined community, not in the details and substance of the BNA Act but in its existence.

The Liberals’ plans for Canada150 presents an opportunity to dispel the fog of nationalist mythology that has obscured our conceptualization of Confederation.  The British North America Act created a settler colonial dominion that actively excluded women, workers, immigrants, and racialized people, and encouraged the further dispossession of Indigenous land.  Recognizing this element of Confederation is not out of sense of shame in our past, but from a realization that our hope for the future lies in understanding the complexities of our past.  Supporting organizations[9] and individuals that are promoting these goals is an important part of the Canada150 effort, and fits with the efforts to re-evaluate the past.

The 150th celebration of Confederation will not be the one that Conservatives dreamed of when they began planning in 2011, but perhaps the Liberal version will allow for a less romanticized view of our past.  By choosing to emphasize something other than the authors of the BNA Act and Confederation itself, the Liberals are demonstrating the importance of a new political history that moves beyond traditional narratives of inevitable progress and growth. I hope that this is one of the final battles of the Canadian history wars, but the contestation and politicization of the past has been central to Canadian politics. For the moment, however, the battle for Canada150 appears to have been fought and won, and is the type of celebration worth having.

Alex Martinborough is a graduate student at Dalhousie University writing a thesis on the role of ideas and the public sphere in Confederation.




[3] eng/1468262573081







About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at
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