Re-writing Canadian History

As an undergraduate history student, I often retorted to friends and family questioning the wisdom of my chosen field of study with “those who don’t know where they’ve been don’t know where they’re going.”

I preferred that line over the Spanish-American philosopher Jorge Santayana’s oft [mis] quoted adage “those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”

Yet, both sayings – mine and the famous one – beg the question. Which history? Whose version?

This came to the fore recently during coffee with some dear friends. They’re from Bosnia, and fleeing the war there – dodging bullets, literally – they spent a year in Croatia before immigrating to Canada. They didn’t realise until later that their son, 7 years old at the time, became “Croatianised” at school during that year.

And that in turn got me thinking about a concern I’ve had ever since our boys started going to school, that is how Canadian history is taught from a military perspective. Our children learn year after year of the fundamental role war has played in our national self-identity.

“In World War I, Canada grew up to take our place on the world stage.” “Vimy Ridge was our defining moment when Canadian bravery and valour led to the tremendous victory for the entire Allied Force and was considered the turning point of WWI.”

Or as the War Museum declares: The Battle of Vimy Ridge was “a defining moment for Canada, when the country emerged from the shadow of Britain and felt capable of greatness.”

Greatness defined by war…. Which history? Whose version?

Canadian schools teach that war defines us, that in war we show valour and bravery.

In primary school this focus is most apparent during Remembrance Day celebrations; now with our oldest in Grade 10, war and how it defines who our country is permeates how Canadian History is taught.

Which history? Whose version? That’s the military’s version. Our Canadian history is taught through military lenses.

So much so that now this year, during the bicentennial of the War of 1812, Canadian history is being re-written to fall in line with the military version. Witness what happened at Stouffville (Ontario) city council just last week.

The Stouffville area was settled over 200 years ago by Mennonites and their co-religionists, the Brethren in Christ, and have been a significant part of the area’s history to this day. They were and are followers of Jesus who refused to participate in war.

However, last week, the area’s Member of Parliament proposed to city council a “Freedom of the Town of Stouffville” event and military parade, making a connection between the War of 1812 anniversary and the town of Stouffville. The “Governor General’s Horse Guards,” so says the proposal, trace its local roots back 200 years to the Stouffville area; thus, the event will “celebrate Stouffville’s military heritage and role in the War of 1812.” The proposed event is a “unique opportunity for Stouffville residents to celebrate their rich local heritage” in which the city bestows honours upon a particular military unit.


With only a day advance notice, incredulous area Mennonites and Brethren in Christ quickly organized and attended the city council meeting. They were 42 youth, adults and seniors who stated via spokesperson Arnold Neufeldt-Fast “We are concerned that the proposal ‘Freedom of the Town of Stouffville’ does not reflect an historically accurate picture of the earliest beginnings of Stouffville. The history of the founding members of the Stouffville area is predominantly pacifist.”

These Stouffville residents continued: “The attempt to connect Stouffville’s earliest history to Canada’s military history, and specifically the War of 1812, is a key concern to our churches. In our view, the proposal significantly distorts Stouffville’s earliest history, and discounts the real contributions of Stouffville’s settlers to the fabric of Canadian identity. Stouffville’s history for the first decades of the 1800s is overwhelmingly a pacifist story, a history of the first ‘conscientious objectors’ in Canada’s history.”

How again is greatness defined? Which greatness? Whose version?

Unfortunately, the majority of council members did not take seriously the Mennonite delegation, and the proposal passed.

Re-writing Canadian history.

However, the Mennonites of the Stouffville area are not finished. Looking to the Niagara area where the three historic peace churches in Canada have already created War of 1812 historical markers commemorating the witness of those who refused to participate in the war, they have proposed a historical plaque and marker commemorating the experiences of those early Canadian pioneers of peace and conscientious objection who first settled what is today the Stouffville area.

Indeed, amid the various commemoration events surrounding the bicentennial of the War of 1812, there is little attention paid to the experience and sacrifice of those who refused to fight on the basis of conscience.

Re-writing Canadian history. Which history? Whose version?

Tim Schmucker, MCC Ottawa Office Public Engagement Coordinator

4 Thoughts

  1. Excellent post, and thanks for sharing this. Some may take comfort in Canada’s reputation for international peace-keeping, but that is quickly eroding. At the same time, many of our Canadian city centres and towns bear markers of war – monuments, tanks, cannons, etc. We are so used to them they go unnoticed. It’s no wonder Stouffville wants to be included. But as pacifists, we might also learn to reframe our stance from “refusing to participate in war”, to something akin to “taking an active stance against war by…” etc. This may be an important differentiation from phrasing that may be mistaken for mere cowardice and may be repulsive, to a moral and religious stance that is a witness to a peaceful world through alternative means. War resistance and conscientious objection was not an easy stance, and was not a position arrived at passively. It took great courage, and a lot of work. It was much more than mere refusal, and how we phrase and frame that message is as important now as it was then.

  2. It’s unfortunate, in part because, while I personally feel that the military history of Canada is quite interesting, being able to learn about the War of 1812 through the eyes of these settlers, as well as settlers of similar beliefs elsewhere (such as those from Waterloo County, where I’m from) would also be quite interesting and a refreshing change from military-themed events that don’t really reflect the history of the locality in question. However, it might be more difficult to get government grants to explore this sort of history (-:

  3. A new book, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety is the story of how the Canadian government and military, assisted by complicit historians, think tanks and some media, are trying to shift public opinion to support a new militarism. “[They] are attempting to establish war as the pith and essence of all Canadian history,” the authors write. To do that, they have to “conscript Canadian history” – that is, to glorify wars past and present.
    — from Pulpit and Politics, the blog of Dennis Gruending, an Ottawa-based writer and former MP. He has worked as a print, television and radio journalist, and has written six books.

  4. I don’t think I can fully express how happy I am that MCC Ottawa started this blog. Clear and thoughtful political writing that is undergirded by a deep passion and faith… just wonderful! Thank you, and keep up the great work!

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