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Manitoba History: Book Review: Cecilia Morgan, Commemorating Canada: History, Heritage, and Memory, 1850s–1990s

by Harold Kalman
University of Victoria and University of Hong Kong

Number 88, Winter 2018

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Cecilia Morgan, Commemorating Canada: History, Heritage, and Memory, 1850s–1990s. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016, 224 pages. ISBN 978-1-4426-1061-3, $26.95 (paperback)

History, heritage, and memory are three closely interrelated disciplines of interest to readers of Manitoba History. Cecilia Morgan, a prolific historian who teaches at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), addresses the three in her new book on commemorations. This is the fourteenth volume in the series, Themes in Canadian History, which was initiated in 1997. The publisher’s blurb tells us that the book is “a concise narrative overview ... designed for use in courses on public history, historical memory, heritage preservation, and related areas.”

The author looks at the various activities in which “Canadians have attempted to craft historical narratives” (p. 13). These include writing history and public history, establishing museums, teaching in the classroom, erecting monuments, preserving historic buildings, and promoting heritage tourism. The scope is ambitious. The text is national in breadth and spans a century and a half, all squeezed within some 200 pages in a volume only 8½ by 5½ inches in size. An inevitable outcome is the inability to treat most topics in depth, although this is not necessarily a shortcoming, given Morgan’s stated objective of providing “an overview.”

The book alternates between being organized chronologically and being organized thematically. Two chapters, “History and Memory, 1750s-1870s” (Chapter 2) and “Shaping History through Tourism” (Chapter 6), provide overviews of approaches to, and the uses of, historical narrative. Indigenous, African-Canadian, European-Canadian, and women’s histories are all briefly addressed. Other chapters look at public commemorations, including familiar monuments such as Nelson’s column in Montréal’s Place Jacques-Cartier (the cover illustration) and the statue dedicated to Joseph Brant and the Six Nations in Brantford, Ontario. As readers from the West have come to expect, the Prairie Provinces, British Columbia, and Yukon yield far fewer examples than Quebec, Ontario, and Atlantic Canada.

Morgan raises the critical question of “determining whether the commemorative events, societies, and edifices ... were successful in fulfilling their organizers’ aspirations.” She then goes on to say that this “is difficult for historians” (pp. 72-3). Only a partial response follows. Rather than providing a conclusion, the last chapter looks into the teaching of history.

This reviewer’s professional interests are particularly reflected in Chapter 5, “Commemoration, Historical Preservation, and the Canadian State.” (We may quibble with the term “historical preservation,” as the discipline is usually called “heritage conservation” in Canada and “historic preservation” in the United States.) The author properly devotes considerable attention to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, on which I had the privilege of serving. The HSMBC is the federal entity that was mandated by statute in 1919 (not 1953, as appears on p. 120) to advise the federal government “on the designation of places, persons and events that have marked and shaped Canada,” and which therefore have national historical significance. The Board, states Morgan, “helped shape narratives of Canada’s history” by the choice of sites, places, and people that it chose to commemorate (p. 114). The author seems to find the Board wanting in the limited attention that it has given to preservation. However, it is important to note that the Board’s mandate is not preservation, but the duty to recommend to the federal government places, persons, and events that deserve commemoration. Indeed, Canada’s constitutional division of powers gives responsibility for culture and planning, and therefore for preservation, to the provinces.

The book often cites the Board in the same breath as Parks Canada. In this, it seems to misinterpret the role of the Parks Canada Agency, whose responsibilities for preservation are limited. In the context of commemorations, Parks Canada is primarily responsible for the management of federally-owned national historic sites, national parks, and national marine conservation areas. As only 171 of 970 national historic sites are owned and operated by Parks Canada, the vast majority of designated national historic sites are managed by other levels of government or by the institutional and private sectors, and relatively few are protected. Nevertheless, Parks Canada is essential to the commemorations process, because it administers the HSMBC and provides it with staff support, thereby enabling the Board to fulfil its mandate.

Old-timers may remember a time when Parks Canada had the strongest contingent of historians and conservation architects in the country. Budget cutbacks and mandate revisions over the years have reduced the volume and quality of the historical background papers that it provides the Board, and have all but eliminated its restoration capacity. Parks Canada does offer limited (and sporadic) programs of financial and technical support to externally-managed national historic sites, and it leads the national initiative to identify World Heritage Sites, but these activities are not central to its work.

Continuing with the theme of attrition, a recent series of ‘de-commemorations’ (this reviewer’s word) across Canada and elsewhere has made the present book particularly topical. The abrupt removal of the public statues of Edward Cornwallis in Halifax and Sir John A. Macdonald in Victoria, preceded by that of the monument to Robert E. Lee in New Orleans, has led society to reflect on the impermanence of positive memory and reputation. Cornwallis is condemned for his acceptance of slavery, Macdonald for accepting the placement of Indigenous children in residential schools. These single facets of each of the two highly complex political personalities brought the men down. As Marc Antony declares in Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” No debate occurred on the broad significance of these Canadians’ careers, nor on the achievements that led Cornwallis to become Governor and Macdonald Prime Minister.

Both of the city councils that made the hasty decisions to remove the statues failed to consult their wider constituencies. It turns out that a majority of Canadians disagree with their actions. A national Angus Reid poll revealed that more than twice as many oppose the removal of the Macdonald statue as support it (55% versus 25%). In Victoria, CHEK television news put the question to its audience. An impressive 79% of respondents voted ‘no’ to the removals, representing more than 2,200 voters in a poll that regularly attracts only about 500 to 800. The book under review may have been published before the Macdonald and Cornwallis events occurred, but it becomes all the more poignant when considered in the current context.

The author consulted many sources in the preparation of her book. In the interest of promoting readability, sources are listed in a bibliography, avoiding the clutter of footnotes. The prose is quite clear, although it is overloaded with qualifiers. Connectives such as ‘thus’, ‘moreover’, ‘however’, and ‘furthermore’ (used, for example, six times in two adjacent paragraphs on pages 82-3) unnecessarily burden the text. The book certainly meets the objective of the series, which is “to open up a subject to the non-specialist reader ... in a clear, accessible fashion.” It makes for enlightening reading. This is good and topical public history.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 14 April 2021

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