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Harper's military obsession

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The Harper government's plan to spend an estimated $83 million celebrating Canada's military past during the next six years is under attack from critics who say the money should be spent on veterans and their families.

They are separate issues, however, and one should not exclude the other. The government should respond to veterans with unresolved complaints, and it should invest in important commemorative events.

Countries around the world, including some African and Mideast nations that were swept up in the conflict, will spend as much or more than Canada to mark the Great War. Britain alone is spending about $90 million to commemorate the four years of fighting, while France is reportedly spending more, including some $30 million for a new museum.

Canada's funds also include spending on anniversaries other than the First World War, including the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 2020, as well as this year's celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

It may be too much for some critics, not enough for others. Military historian Jack Granatstein, for example, says the government is not doing enough to remember one of the most important periods in the country's history.

"The Great War needs to be marked in Canada, and marked well," he said.

If there is a problem with the Harper government's passion for promoting Canadian history, it is not the relatively modest events it is planning for the two world wars, or even the $28 million invested to mark the War of 1812.

The problem is the government has been overwhelmingly focused on military events, which it regards as the pivotal events in the development of Canadian identity and national self-awareness.

And so while Prime Minister Stephen Harper was beating his breast over the War of 1812 -- it was "a seminal event in the making of our great country," he said -- not one word was uttered over the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Selkirk Settlers in Manitoba.

Historians have described the arrival of the settlers -- Western Canada's first European farmers -- as a nation-building event, albeit one that may have failed without the support of aboriginals.

Nor is the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike within the government's inventory of seminal events. The same is true of the anniversary of the founding of Port Royal in 1605, Canada's first permanent European settlement.

Canada could learn a lot from the Americans in this regard. The 2007 commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, for example, was described as the first permanent English settlement in North America.

Events went on for 18 months and generated $1.2 billion in sales in Virginia, created more than 20,000 jobs and provided an extra $28 million in tax revenue for the state and local governments, according to an economic impact analysis.

There's clearly a lot of gold in historical tourism, if you know how to mine it.

There's no suggestion Ottawa should take the lead in remembering every important event in Canadian history. Provinces and cities have a role to play, too.

The point is, however, that military events alone did not build Canada. Most historians agree that while Vimy Ridge was a key marker, there were many moments both before and after the 1917 battle that contributed to Canada's development as a nation.

The country is now entering a four-year period of historical recollection about the First World War, which is entirely appropriate.

Some countries are sponsoring debates about the meaning of the war and whether it was worth fighting. Pacifist groups are getting funding to make their points, while victims of current wars have been invited to France to share their experiences.

Hopefully it will make us all a little wiser.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2014 A8

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