Canadian Museum of History Act (Bill C-49)

On Tuesday, May 28th, 2013 in Speeches

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, I confess that I find myself somewhat surprised that a speaking slot has opened up at this hour. I found out a few moments ago. I have been enjoying this debate, and at this hour of night, I hope I will be forgiven for trying to cheer everybody up by telling a short story about my daughter.

We were watching Canada: A People’s History. The last episode, I hate to say, involved me. CBC decided that I was a good thread to describe the origins of the environmental movement. My daughter had been watching this program in school. Thank goodness for the CBC and the great programming that tells Canadians about our history.

As the last episode ended, she turned to me—she was in grade four at the time—and said, “Congratulations, Mommy, you’re the first”. I said, “I’m the first what?” She said, “You’re the first person who could ever watch herself on Canada: A People’s History, because everybody else is dead”.

I just thought the hour called for some levity.

I find myself standing here having read Bill C-49 carefully, having listened to the debates, and particularly having heard what I regard as a very sincere, well-meaning presentation by the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, for whom this is clearly a vision he cares about deeply. I think he has persuaded the Prime Minister to allow him to do something that I have come to believe is in the interest of Canada.

That is not without trepidation. It is not without sharing a lot of the skepticism of my colleagues on other opposition benches, but I come to this. We have had this museum, in one shape or another, since 1856. It has not remained static, and it will not stay the museum of history in another few generations. If we go back to 1856, it was for the displays of the Geological Survey of Canada. It was a hodgepodge, I can imagine, and by 1968, it was decided to split it into two things. We still have the Museum of Nature, of course, on Metcalfe Street.

That was one part of it. The other part became known as, and all of my women colleagues in the House should brace themselves, the National Museum of Man.

By 1986, it was seen that the National Museum of Man was probably a gender-loaded term. They did not mean to call it that. One of my friends, who is currently a parliamentarian here, quipped that when they name this thing again, please, God, let us not call it the mausoleum of man. Let us inject the history and contribution of Canadian women.

In any case, in 1986, the name Museum of Man changed to Museum of Civilization and the inspired and entirely magnificent building on the other side of the river, built by architect Douglas Cardinal, was given to Canadians.

I remember well, because I was living in Ottawa at the time, that they were racing to the finish line to be ready for opening. It was such a nip and tuck effort that they called on Canadian senators to show up and help Douglas Cardinal fit the bits of marble to the curvy bits. It is all curvy. My dear friend, now retired, Senator Mira Spivak, was one of those who showed up and was on her knees until after 11 o’clock at night finishing work at the museum. Given current events, some people might suspect that it was the last time senators actually worked. In any case, it was a great opening.

I love the Grand Hall. I hate the idea that anything about it will change. I love the fact that the great silkscreen of ancient forests that we see in the Museum of Civilization today is actually a silkscreen photograph of Windy Bay in Gwaii Haanas, now part of Gwaii Haanas National Park. I would love it not to change at all, but change is not a bad thing if we can use the additional money to make sure that exhibits that are now in storage get out to people across Canada.

I see this as a way of invigorating our understanding of history. I have great concerns that the current administration is trying to re-mould our own iconography, how we see ourselves, and get rid of our notion of peacekeeping and see ourselves as a warrior nation. I share these concerns, but I have gone to section 26 of the Museums Act, and I see that the role of a curator and the way a museum is run is separate from political interference. We will have to watchdog this as it goes forward. I am not denying that, but I want the records of the debates in Parliament in accepting the museum of history to reflect that at least someone on the opposition benches was prepared to take a leap of faith, prepared to go with the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages and say, “Yes, okay. Let us modernize. Let us update. We will have a museum of Canadian history”.

It hardly sounds like we are updating when we are going back to our history, but let us imagine for a moment that we can. Let us imagine that we tell the stories of the women of Canada and their contributions, and of the new Canadians we celebrate at Pier 21, at the museum in Halifax. Let us exchange exhibits with Pier 21 in Halifax.

Let us ensure we tell the stories of the contributions of people whose stories are unsung and untold, and of the role that Canada has had in the world in the past. I hope we will reclaim it by once again being the best country we can be, by re-engaging with the world on climate negotiations, on drought negotiations, on all the things we have done historically for worldwide development and so on.

This legislation does include international exhibits. It does not say we are going to be insular and parochial. Let us try to see if we can accept the idea of a Canadian museum of history with an infusion of funds that allows our history to be real to our kids, and not just the kids who come to Ottawa to see the Museum of Civilization.

I remember when the Museum of Civilization opened. As I said, I went to the opening, but beyond that, initially the exhibits were panned. People were outraged that we had Disneyfied—I think that is what some of the commentators said—the collections by making them too touchy-feely, too hands on, too kid-focused.

Change will happen to the way we share our heritage. Change will happen to the way we tell our stories. If we engage ourselves with this effort in good faith, we will tell our stories more honestly. We will reflect more of the read Canadian mosaic and identity.

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