At the 150th year anniversary of Confederation, in 2017, the Canadian Museum of Civilization will become the new Canadian Museum of History. What does this change imply and why is Harper’s government undertaking it? The iconic Canadian Museum of Civilization, located in Ottawa, has been a long-standing guardian of treasures from all over the world. It represents multiple international cultures as well as rich Canadian history.

As the website of the museum states, the purpose of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, as stated by the Act, is: “To increase, throughout Canada and internationally, interest in, knowledge and critical understanding of and appreciation and respect for human cultural achievements and human behaviour by establishing, maintaining and developing for research and posterity a collection of objects of historical or cultural interest, with special but not exclusive reference to Canada, and by demonstrating those achievements and behaviour, the knowledge derived from them and the understanding they represent.”

The Museum Act clearly specifies that the museum has a special but not exclusive focus on Canada. It is an inclusive approach which characterizes the museum’s appeal to our shared humanity.  The Museum of Civilization does already focus on Canadian history. In fact, the Grand First People’s hall is one of the main features of the current Museum.

If the museum does already cover Canadian history, what will the Harper government actually change? What is the agenda behind the change?

According to the government website, Mark O’Neill, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation, said that “the Canadian Museum of History will inspire curiosity and a greater understanding of the forces that have shaped the Canadian identity. Canadians, as well as visitors from around the world, will leave the Museum with a deeper appreciation of Canada’s unique and fascinating national journey.”

Furthermore, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages James Moore declared that Canada’s 150th birthday “offers us an unprecedented opportunity to celebrate our history and those achievements that define who we are as Canadians. Canadians deserve a national museum of history that tells our stories and presents our country’s treasures to the world.”

However, what defines Canadian identity? It will indeed be a challenge to elaborate a national identity based on “those achievements that define who we are as Canadians.”

So, if Canadians are to be given a national museum that best represents their national identity, what will the museum show? Kate Taylor, a journalist for The Globe and Mail, believes that “the emphasis on major political and military events makes critics suspicious that the displays will only advance a traditionalist version in keeping with the Conservative government’s emphasis on the military and the monarchy as appropriate national symbols.”

Perhaps the government sees that there is a need to cover military history as a symbol of national unity. However, the Canadian War Museum already covers the major military events in Canadian history.

This move by the government touches upon politics of representation; what is going to be represented and how?  The government seems to be trying to build a nationalist sentiment, creating a unitary national identity. The icons of this nationalist representation are yet obscured but many argue that military symbols will shape the new museum’s agenda. This contrasts with the generalized, almost stereotypical, vision of Canada as a peaceful nation. 

It also contrasts with the general view of Canada as a “cultural mosaic”—a country built on the basis of a multiplicity of identities brought by immigrants, alongside the identity of the first Canadians of them all: the First Nations communities. If Canadian identity is formed by the mixture of different cultures, doesn’t the Canadian Museum of Civilization best represent it?

It is not surprising that the Harper government is attempting to shape national cultural identity. Harper’s vision of Canada as an energy superpower and focus on creating new jobs needs a cultural backing. By focusing on the military events that shaped Canadian history, the government is perhaps trying to build an identity based on a strong nationalist feeling that supports and backs up all the sacrifices (namely the catastrophic environmental consequences of the Tar Sands) as a way of achieving Harper’s vision.