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Iain Hunter: Some pieces of history can be ignored

The prime minister wants Canadians to celebrate the coming anniversaries of what are described as historic milestones — such as the First World War, the birth of Sir John A. and Confederation — and I wonder why.

The prime minister wants Canadians to celebrate the coming anniversaries of what are described as historic milestones — such as the First World War, the birth of Sir John A. and Confederation — and I wonder why.

His replaying of his own version of the 1812 overture shows that Stephen Harper has an appreciation of history. But it’s a pretty selective one. The 1914-18 war that he wants us to feel proud about contributed to Canada’s coming of age, but it was a bloody awful experience and it was, in essence, a war in which Canadians fought and died in foreign lands for foreign nations.

I hope this doesn’t signal an appetite at 24 Sussex Dr. for other foreign entanglements for Canadian troops. Sometimes people who can’t ignore history are doomed to repeat it, too.

Harper, who calls himself Conservative now, may believe himself to be the reincarnation of Macdonald — a pipeline substituting for a railway. If so, it’s to be expected that we’re all to celebrate a birthday at which Harper gets to blow out the candles on the cake.

Confederation in 1867 was the first milestone on the road we share today, but it has worked only in spite of itself. Like all written constitutions, ours passed its best-before date long ago. Our Confederation’s constituent powers have had to be readjusted constantly. Its survival has been allowed by side deals between Ottawa and the provinces.

The national interest is not everyone’s, but anyone can claim membership of nations within a nation. A lot of Canadians today would claim that milestones with regional or local significance should be commemorated — a road bringing communities together, the birth of a resource-based industry bringing new prosperity. Recognition and guarantees of rights and freedoms, social justice, education, health and living standards surely are worth commemorating.

A lot of Canadians, on the other hand, probably would say the opening of the first Tim Hortons was a historic Canadian milestone. There’s a certain relentlessness about history in its raw state. It has its facts and figures, its events and sequences. It’s when history is interpreted, or reinterpreted, that passions and prejudices are reignited and resurrected. Politicians appreciate this and seek advantage from it.

The passions that Harper seeks to reignite are not for war, no more than for a sometime prime minister or a document. He seeks in this impassionate, phlegmatic land to inflame a national passion, a pride in a shared past.

It’s not in the national interest to remind Canadians of manmade disasters, however unplanned or unintended, and ask them to celebrate them. The establishment of residential schools requires no celebration.

The news of Harper’s interest in milestones has reached me on an islet in the Pacific, the rim off of which I’ve slipped temporarily. Gazing out at the vast ocean upon which the future of this planet may depend, I think of historic milestones that mark so much more than those selected by temporary leaders of temporary nations.

I saw this week what I thought could have been the re-enactment of a milestone in the progression that produced humankind and human not so kind: Gainless turtles struggling through the surf and up the sand. Thus did my far-off ancestors — and Harper’s too, presumably — rise from the sea to populate the dry land. And then what?

To stand erect and restless, ever restless, to roam in search of lands over which, periodically, to claim dominion, to put down roots and tear them up, to build and to destroy. And to put up milestones.

Now, here they are, the descendants of extinct beings from the sea, at its edge and often not a pretty sight.

They’re heaving themselves from meal to meal and baking on a beach and under a sun that they’ve bought with their fortunes. They’re testimony to their own history. They’re a part of the history of nations even if unremarked and unrecorded, and of what some call Creation.

They stand, anonymous, at the ocean’s edge, looking discontented, restless still, as if poised to go back to their origins. Now that would be a milestone.