Franklin ship discovery no accident: Harper recasting Canada with Royal and military history

"We’re seeing a concerted campaign to change how Canadians think about their history... [to] an almost endless emphasis on battles, and heroic deeds of male adventurers," says historian.

Stephen Harper shooting rifle in Operation NANOOK in York Sound - PMO photo
Harper Franklin discovery announcement Ottawa - Parks Canada
Frankling ship in Artic water 2014 - Parks Canada
(first image) Harper shooting a rifle in the Arctic in August - PMO photo; (second image) Prime Minister Harper announcing Franklin ship discovery in Ottawa on Tuesday - Parks Canada photo; (third) Sonar image of the sunken Franklin ship - Parks Canada photo

Every national TV newscast had it: the Prime Minister boasting about his taxpayer-funded expedition that discovered one of two doomed 1846 Sir John Franklin ships in Arctic waters.

“This is truly a historic moment for Canada,” said Stephen Harper on Tuesday.

"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."

The ill-fated Royal British expedition that killed all 128 seamen was an attempt to find the northwest passage and to open the north to resource exploitation.

But a prominent historian says Harper's hunt for the ships, which began in 2012, was just the tip of the iceberg of a larger Conservative agenda.

“We’re seeing a concerted campaign to change how Canadians think about their history, said Queen’s University history professor Ian McKay on Wednesday.

“To emphasize the British connection, and northern exploration.”

McKay says the ship’s discovery is part of a long list of recent Harper efforts to revitalize royal, military, and colonial conquest history for political gain.

“How Canada has become a ‘warrior nation’ in this kind of symbolic sense – an almost endless emphasis on battles, and heroic deeds of male adventurers.”

“There’s a traditional base in rural English Canada and in certain areas of the west… who still have a reverence for the British connection,” said McKay.

“[Harper’s] view of history is profoundly different than what most Canadians would accept.”

Altering our view of history?

Canons on Franklin ship underwater in Arctic - Parks Canada photo

Canons on Franklin ship underwater in Arctic - Parks Canada photo

McKay said he first noticed what he believes is Harper’s attempt to alter our history with the makeover of the Citizenship Handbook in 2008.  What once was a dull guide to government and how to vote, got remade with more romantic and adventurous accounts of Canada’s military past.

In 2011, Harper's government also oversaw the renaming of the navy and air force to the “Royal Canadian Navy” and “Royal Canadian Air force” – a reversal to when the “royal” was removed by Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson nearly half a century ago. 

Then in 2012, the Prime Minister gave a huge push to commemorate the War of 1812 across Canada.

Even in Vancouver, 19th century-dressed actors with muskets told passers-by and children at Canada Place about the heroic defence of Upper and Lower Canada from American invaders.

The altering of history has also been institutional, said McKay. 

The Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa (formerly the “Canadian Museum of Civilization”) was recast with less history stories about immigrants and ordinary citizens, and given more emphasis on soldiers and war.  The National Archives was also restructured to focus on the needs of military historians.

“What I find troubling is how this government is pushing this view of history so aggressively.”

“It comes fairly close to official propaganda in the name of history,” said McKay.

Harper Franklin discovery announcement Ottawa - Parks Canada

Stephen Harper announcing the Franklin ship discovery Tuesday in Ottawa - Parks Canada photo
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