media and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

03 Mar '10

New Citizenship Handbook Twists ‘the Canadian Story’

A close read reveals shrewd propaganda designed to expand Harper’s immigrant base. There’s a lot of war and no medicare.

Beginning March 15, the 170,000 immigrants who become Canadian citizens every year will need to learn their facts about Canada from the new 62-page citizenship guide, Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship, which was released last fall by Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

Discover Canada is the culmination of a decade of concerted effort by a coalition of big business and conservative ideologues to turn back the clock and make Canada into a more traditional and compliant nation.

Stephen Harper outlined his plan to bring economic and social conservatives together into a ruling majority in his talk to the seventh annual Civitas conference in Toronto in 2003. Civitas is the secretive organization of 300 neoconservative and libertarian academics, politicians, journalists and think-tank functionaries who meet annually to plot strategies to move Canada to the right. Harper is a member and Jason Kenney a founder.

In his address, Harper urged a return to social conservatism and values, to change gears from neo-con to “theocon,” as Alberta Report publisher Ted Byfield framed the mission. Alliances must be forged with ethnic and immigrant communities — the new immigrants — who vote Liberal but espouse traditional family values, Harper said. This was the successful strategy counselled by the radical conservatives under Ronald Reagan, Harper explained, to pull right-wing Democrats into the Republican tent.

Movement towards the goal must be “incremental,” he told his Civitas audience, so the public won’t be spooked.

Discover Canada is the next increment. The picture of Canada painted in the document will not be recognizable to many Canadians who grew up in a country of peacekeepers, of equal rights and opportunities for all, of the cultural mosaic, of a country shaped by collective experiences and a respect for a social safety net.

What’s missing: Unions, gay rights and more

The Globe and Mail presented a useful compilation of the most frequently-used words in the new guide. Leading the list are words like Canada (385 uses), Canadian (208), citizenship (83), government (71) and Quebec (66).

What the Globe didn’t do, though, was tabulate the words missing from the document or used infrequently, words we would expect to be included, given our understanding of what’s important in a modern social democratic state.

The word “unions” doesn’t appear in the guide, for instance. This is curious, given that 4.2 million Canadian workers, or nearly 30 per cent of the workforce, are union members.

The word “union” does appear once, but in a negative sense. In relation to federal elections, newcomers are informed that “no one, including family members, your employer, or union representative, has the right to insist that you tell them how you voted.”

If you’re a new Canadian wondering how a worker gets to join a union, have a union representative and benefit from its members’ generally higher wages and better benefits, you won’t find that information here.

The word “feminist” is blanked from the guide and “activist” appears only twice. The first use of the word is in relation to Mary Ann (Shadd) Carey who, in 1853, “was an outspoken activist in the movement to abolish slavery in the U.S.” The second use of the word is of more recent vintage and refers to Mark Tewkesbury, who the guide calls an “Olympic gold medallist and prominent activist for gay and lesbian Canadians.”

Gay and lesbian Canadians! Choke. But do not fret, social conservatives. This is the only use of these hated words in the document. And because they are used in relation to an Olympic gold medallist, and not in relation to the thousands of gays and lesbians engaged in the struggle for equal rights, the sting is conveniently removed.

A newcomer might wonder who gay and lesbian Canadians are, but will not discover this fact in Discover Canada.

Lots of war, no medicare

There are no prisons or prisoners in the new Canada, no poverty, no landlords or tenants and no rich or wealthy Canadians. The word “unemployment” is used four times, but for historical references only, the most recent being the introduction of unemployment insurance in 1940. Apparently, unemployment has not been a problem since.

You won’t find “medicare” in the guide, and “housing” is used only once, in relation to First Nations band chiefs and councillors “who have major responsibilities on First Nations reserves, including housing…” (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.)

“War,” meanwhile, is used 55 times.

“Environment” is used nine times, but never in relation to environmental issues. There are no concerns about climate change or global warming in our fair “Dominion” (this word is used 16 times).

The word “women” is used 13 times and, while this may seem like a lot (although not nearly as many as “war”), seven of the references occur in one historical paragraph on women getting the vote. The booklet refers to the equality of men and women three times, and contains this interesting paragraph:

In Canada, men and women are equal under the law. Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, “honour killings,” female genital mutilation, or other gender-based violence. Those guilty of these crimes are severely punished under Canada’s criminal laws.

As for everyday Canadian-style violence against women, which is perhaps a thousand times more prevalent that the “barbaric cultural practices,” not a word.

Discover Canada‘s version of Canada may be unfamiliar to many Canadians, but this new rendition of the country seems just fine with the mainstream press, which gave Discover Canada a rousing thumbs-up.

Women and children last, at last

The Globe and Mail called the booklet “a welcome move that places a new and appropriate emphasis on Canada’s history and personalities.” The Globe had waited a long time for this day. In an editorial written almost ten years earlier, the paper complained that “[s]choolchildren learn about the story of women, the story of natives, the story of the labour movement, but little about the story of the country as a whole.”

Now we have it: the wars, the prime ministers, the great moments. This is the story of the country as a whole. Women, natives and labour are “disappeared.”

The Winnipeg Free Press opined that “all Canadians will benefit from its pages,” while the Ottawa Citizen offered that “all Canadians, whether born here or not, could probably learn a thing or two from this guide.” The Calgary Herald went over the top in applauding the guide — it “teaches Canada’s key values and history that are a crucial part of Canada’s identity as a nation” — and warned that “those of us who love this place intend to keep it that way.”

So watch out, “special interests” like women, natives and labour. Don’t mess with the Herald.

Where did this new — actually old — version of Canada come from? Globe and Mail writer Michael Valpy suggests that the image of Canada as a military nation is a reflection of the aging baby boomer generation, which is growing more conservative and demanding a more secure society.

But it’s a myth that people become more conservative as they age. True, they gain in experience and perhaps become more cautious about financial matters, but conservatism is not necessarily related to aging. Recent studies have found that if an older generation is conservative in its values, it was also conservative when it was younger. The baby boomer generation was thought to be liberal, but may today look conservative when compared with a younger, more vibrant, one.

Powerful influences: Dominion Institute and Historica Foundation

There’s another explanation for the conservative turn in Canadian political culture. It occurred because of the efforts of well-funded advocacy organizations like the Dominion Institute and Historica Foundation. For over a decade these organizations beat the drum for a more establishment, business-friendly rendition of Canadian history, one devoid of the special interests.

About half of the individuals acknowledged in Discover Canada are connected to these two organizations.

The Dominion Institute was set up in 1997 by a group of young conservatives with funding from the Donner Canadian Foundation which, during the 1990s, was known as Canada’s paymaster to the right, supporting a host of social conservative and libertarian organizations and activities.

The goal of the organization was to challenge the prevailing social-history approach taught in most schools, which emphasizes race, ethnicity, gender and class, subjects which so irritated The Globe’s editorial board.

Like many Donner-backed projects, the propaganda function was central. “Everything we do at the Institute,” executive director Rudyard Griffiths explained to the National Post’s John Fraser, “is done with an idea to how it will play in the media. We measure success in hundreds of media hits for each project.”

The Dominion Institute attracted conservative historians like Jack Granatstein and Margaret MacMillan. The federal government jumped on board because institute programs were cleverly designed to fit with various departmental mandates. War veteran visits to schools are sponsored by Veterans Affairs and Canadian Heritage. Passages to Canada — stories told and written by prominent immigrants to Canada (UNESCO ambassador Kim Phuc, author Shyam Selvadurai, Ken Wiwa, and MPs Ujhal Doshanjh, Mario Silva, and Hedy Fry) — is sponsored by Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

The Globe also sponsors Passages to Canada, which the Dominion frames as a “personal search for identity and belonging.” Absent is any mention of immigrant groups or the dynamics of immigrant communities. In the new Canada, immigration is a story about individuals and families, not cultures or communities. Margaret Thatcher would be pleased.

Rewriting the past with a purpose

Every year on the day before Canada Day — the Dominion people wish it was still called Dominion Day — the institute releases a survey measuring how little Canadians know about important dates and events. And every Canada Day, the Globe runs a front-page story decrying the abysmal state of Canadians’ historical knowledge.

The Historica Foundation was started with big business money two years after Dominion. Lynton (Red) Wilson, chairman of BCE, put in $500,000 of his own money to promote traditional history. Corporate Canada quickly jumped on the bandwagon. Charles Bronfman, whose CRB Foundation was already producing Heritage Minutes television mini-documentaries, promised to match every dollar raised to a maximum of $25 million.

Just two months before the release of Discover Canada, the organizations merged, bringing ideology and big business together into one powerful organization lobbying for history based on “the Canadian story.”

Historica had the money (up to $50 million), but lacked ideological focus. Dominion had the strategic vision to take down advocates for social history.

In keeping with its militaristic agenda, Historica-Dominion successfully urged the Harper government to declare a national day of commemoration when the last veteran of World War I recently died.

Historica-Dominion’s approach to history can be seen on its Black History Canada web site. The home page claims to be “an annotated guide to online resources on the history of Canada’s Black community,” but stories about individual Black achievement and short summaries of historical events predominate. There is hardly a word about Black social and economic conditions now or in the past.

Andrew Cohen, a former journalist and journalism professor, was installed as the president of Historica-Dominion. He engaged in a bit of Orwellian double-speak when he explained the merged organization’s mission: “to become… the future of the past in Canada.”

Steven Harper and Jason Kenney are already hard at work on that task.

First published by The Tyee.

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Margaret Thatcher transformed British political life forever. So did Ronald Reagan in the United States. Now Canada has experienced a similar, dramatic shift to a new kind of politics, which author Donald Gutstein terms Harperism. Among its key tenets:

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The success of Harperism is no accident. Donald Gutstein documents the links between the politicians, think tanks, journalists, academics, and researchers who nurture and promote each other’s neo-liberal ideas.