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Museums Act - Third Reading

Debate Adjourned

Hon. Nicole Eaton moved third reading of Bill C-7, An Act to amend the Museums Act in order to establish the Canadian Museum of History and to make consequential amendments to other Acts.

Honourable senators, I rise to speak, once again, to Bill C-7, which amends the Museums Act to establish the new Canadian Museum of History. I begin by offering my thanks and gratitude to my colleagues on the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.

I would like to recognize as well, the significant contribution to the debate made by my honourable colleague Senator Joyal. His eloquent and insightful intervention greatly informed the debate and the discussion of this bill at committee. Senator Joyal reminded us all that examining history can help us to better comprehend hidden realities in our present world and to enlighten our understanding of society today.

Helping people learn about Canada, promoting understanding of our rich past, and appreciating how our past has made us the people we are today are reasons why our government is proud to be creating a new Canadian Museum of History. The essence of the amendment to the Museums Act, setting out the new museum's intended purpose is:

...to enhance Canadians' knowledge, understanding and appreciation of events, experiences, people and objects that reflect and have shaped Canada's history and identity, and also to enhance their awareness of world history and cultures.

There is certainly need for such enhancement of Canadians' knowledge of history in light of some compelling statistics.

John McAvity, Executive Director of the Canadian Museums Association shared with us that museums are viewed as respected institutions, accurate in their knowledge and the presentations that they give. According to public opinion research, 92 per cent of Canadians believe it is important for children to be exposed to museums and 96 per cent of Canadians believe that museums contribute to our country's quality of life.

However, not all figures paint such a positive picture. Of the students studying Canadian history before graduating, more than 80 per cent failed the Dominion Institute's Canadian history quiz. Yet, 78 per cent of Canadians feel that learning more about Canada's history would be a significant factor in strengthening their attachment to Canada. In a society made up of large numbers of immigrants, this is an important point.

This certainty speaks to the need for and value in having a world-class museum of Canadian history. We heard in committee of the need to broaden our understanding of our history. In practical terms, this means refreshing and updating the museum's content and exhibits. The stark reality of the matter is that there have been no major renovations or significant alterations to the museum in the last 24 years. I was involved with the Royal Ontario Museum for 20 years. I know all too well of the need for museums to remain current. After a quarter century, galleries and exhibits get tired and old. Furthermore, if you don't modernize you fail to present recent history — thus, in this instance, creating a nearly 50-year gap in Canada's history in the museum. This gap freezes us in time and fails to highlight entire categories of endeavour from politics, culture and sport to our numerous contributions to the world during this period.

The committee learned from Mark O'Neill, President and Chief Executive Officer of the current museum, of their plans to overcome these shortcomings. Half the permanent space will be used to create the largest and most comprehensive museum exhibition on Canadian history ever developed. A new permanent hall with a continuous span of 50,000 square feet will house Canada's national treasures and contain exhibitions exclusively and chronologically preserving the memories and experiences of the Canadian people.

The depth and breadth of experience being brought to bear on this significant undertaking is considerable: 25 museum staff, half of them curators, including archaeologists and anthropologists, working with six advisory committees, including a women's history committee and an Aboriginal history committee that includes Aboriginal elders, and many members from the Canadian Historical Society with whom they are cooperating. All of these changes are being brought about through a one-time federal investment of $25 million.

Honourable senators, it's equally important that we can be reminded of that which will not change as we move towards the new museum of Canadian history. As things progress, it will be business as usual for the museum. Its governance structure will remain intact, with no interruption of the corporation's ability to operate and no impact on the status of its employees, officers or trustees.

The power of the new museum to collect objects and other museum material and the responsibility to manage their collections will remain unchanged. Knowledge-sharing will also remain a key role of the institution. The new museum will play an even more active role in working with museums across Canada to ensure that national collections are available to as many Canadians as possible.

The museum will not lessen the role of Aboriginal history in the story of Canada. In fact, for the first time in 20 years, Aboriginal history will play a large part of the Canadian history exhibition. Consultations with Canadians, launched by the museum on the day the new museum was announced, yielded information that demonstrated the importance of Aboriginal peoples to Canadians' perspectives of our history.

In acknowledgment of this, Aboriginal history is one of the three strategic priorities in the research strategy recently released by the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The plan, which will guide the museum's research activities over the next 10 years, recognizes the centrality of First Peoples to Canada's past, present and future, and promises to broaden and deepen research in this area.

Specifically, it encompasses the multiplicity of Aboriginal narratives and accomplishments and the nature of lived experiences and encounters, with particular emphasis on Canada's Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. Aboriginal narratives will be pursued in the context of multi- and inter-disciplinary work, community engagement, appropriate forms of consultation and continued awareness of the importance and sensitivity of the museums' efforts to Aboriginal peoples.

This determined effort to enhance focus upon the pivotal role of Aboriginal peoples in our history is another amelioration of an egregious shortcoming. The current Canada Hall begins the telling of our nation's history not with the Aboriginal people's presence since time immemorial but with the arrival of Europeans in the 11th century. It is high time this obvious oversight was corrected, and we are pleased to see the plans in this regard.

All of this points to one of the major themes made by my honourable colleague Senator Joyal when he joined the debate on this legislation: History must constantly be reinterpreted. In the spirit of this assertion, once again my experience with museums has taught me that we should probably be looking at refitting galleries every 10 to 12 years if we are to ensure our national story remains relevant, current and reflective of the ever-changing nature of Canadian society.

Yet despite the efforts to ensure a truly objective Canadian context, there remain some who suggest the change of name and mandate for the new museum is motivated by political reasons. This is not the case. Experts in the field of museology and history agree with this fact. Museologist Adriana Davies was quoted as saying:

In every generation, museum leaders struggle to make collections, exhibits, public programs and other outreach activities as accessible as possible to a new generation of visitors. What our national museum is doing today is just that, but it is infused with serious discussion about what it is to be Canadian.

Some critics do not understand there needs to be a serious discussion about what the "national narrative" or "national story" should be at this time. It isn't "revisionist" history; it's about feeling the pulse of the nation to see what Canada is today and what brought us to this state.

Brian Lee Crowley of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute similarly challenged those in opposition to this change. He said:

Two criticisms of the re-naming seem to be most in evidence. First is the notion that the politicians will be reaching into the decisions of the museum itself. In fact all the protections that have insulated the museum from political interference remain robustly in place. One is an independent board operating under an act of Parliament that gives them both authority over and accountability for the museum's operations. Another is a vigilant academic, cultural and historical community, much in evidence and in a celebratory mood at the announcement of the name change.

In closing, this bill seeks to help us both show and tell our rich and compelling story. Colleagues, it is important to note the distinction between civilization and history. History tells the story of civilizations in a linear, sequential narrative fashion. This new museum of history will present a comprehensive and chronological story of Canada's civilization to all Canadians and indeed to the world in a world-class fashion.

Honourable colleagues, I heartily encourage you to pass Bill C- 7 and thus enable the enactment of these changes to bring about the Canadian museum of history.