Recently, the Conservative government announced major cuts to Parks Canada, the government agency primarily responsible for funding various national historic sites in Canada. Among the sites hardest hit by the funding cuts was Riel House, where Riel’s body lay “in state” following his execution in 1885 following the so-called Northwest Uprising (and where his wife later passed away). While the House itself is not being closed completely, an important part of its distinctive historical storytelling – told by the St. Boniface Historical Society – will be cut. This means that only self-guided tours (with information panels, etc.) will now provide context for the Riel House’s material culture and presence.
Like all national historic sites, Riel House sits at the crossroads of a number of different narratives: perhaps the most obvious of these is its links to Louis Riel and his family, but it is also an example of Metis social relations more generally. Alternatively, it can be legitimately presented as part of Manitoba’s early history and, for that matter, of western Canadian history. Like all symbols, then, its meanings are never obvious, never singular and perhaps most importantly, never exhausted by its official renderings.
Many have seen these funding cuts as evidence of the Conservative government’s war on Canadian history. This is certainly part of the story. But there is more going on here than can be explained by simple repression narratives. Indeed, as scholars in numerous disciplines have explained, national historic sites represent important venues for the telling of national histories – and, like all national histories, they are as selective in what they “forget” to tell (and thus marginalize) as what they remember (and thus emphasize). As one of my colleagues perceptively stated in a Facebook conversation we were having last week, it’s too bad Louis Riel didn’t fight in the War of 1812: given the absurd amount of money being spent on its commemoration, who knows what kinds of improvements and upgrades Riel House might have been in store for?
The improbable budget for the War of 1812 provides a different story about the relationship between history and the Canadian nation-state. That is, history is not simply (or only) being expunged. Rather, something more constitutive is going on here, because, as various pundits in the media and in the academy have explained, Harper and his officials are not merely erasing history, they are melding it to specific policy objectives. In this case, this includes casting Canada as a militaristic nation, one with a martial history “we” can be proud of. Pouring money into the bicentennial commemoration of the War of 1812 demonstrates a constitutive, rather than merely repressive, character of official history. Harper said that we wouldn’t recognize Canada once his government was finished their work – constituting and suturing together official national narratives represents important venues through which this rewriting of Canadian history will take place.
But, to those worried about the reduction of historical narratives at Riel House, take heart: perhaps Parks Canada (or for that matter, the Department of National Defense and Canadian Forces) will find money in their budget to reenact the violence at the 1816 Battle of Seven Oaks. Or perhaps, with their permission, historical interpreters will find a budget to pop off a couple of long-range buffalo gun shots at the Sioux in a reenactment of the 1851 Battle of Grand Coteau (a battle at least as “Canadian” as the War of 1812). For that matter, the martial potential of the Red River Rebellion or the Northwest Uprising have barely been scratched. Because the Riel House cuts notwithstanding, if the Conservative government can turn the War of 1812 into a paragon of Canada’s military history, the Metis’s military “relationships” with the Canadian state is a financial windfall just waiting to happen. By my math and according to the Conservatives militaristic rewriting of “Canada’s” history, 2016 ought to be a big year, commemoratively speaking, for the Metis.