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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2014

Harper’s history museum betrays First Nations

By Frances M. Slaney
When the Harper government’s “new” Canadian Museum of History (CMH), announced a $1 million sponsorship from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), it risked placing the world-renowned museum in conflict with Canada’s First Nations — those whose cultu­ral heritage still forms the heart of the CMH’s collec­tions, despite Harper’s name change (from the Canadian Museum of Civilization, or CMC).

Many of these museum source communities vehemently oppose CAPP’s extraction industries and pipeline projects on their lands, a First Nations stand recently publicized by Neil Young’s and Diana Krall’s benefit concerts for the Athabasca Chipewyan’s legal battle against Shell Canada.

Mi’kmaq protests against shale gas explo­ra­tion at Elsipogtog had made headlines for months when the museum’s president and CEO Mark O’Neil announced the CAPP funding last November. Announcement of the sponsorship also followed on the heels of British Columbia Grand Chief Stewart Phillip’s declaration of “complete solidarity with the Elsipogtog people,” given, “our mutual fight against the devastating and destructive practices of resource exploration and extraction activities within our territories” (Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Oct. 17). What’s more, National Energy Board hearings on Enbridge’s eastward proposal for Line 9B had sparked further concerns from First Nations communities along its route, including a day of anti-pipeline protesting among Kanien’kehà:ka (Mohawk) and others.

It was also against Harper’s Omnibus Bill C-45 — that extraordinary Parliamentary measure to afford CAPP members easier access to Canada’s waterways and reserve lands — that the Idle No More movement had arisen. Yet the museum’s funding arrangement with CAPP paid this widespread aboriginal movement no heed.

Why would Harper’s CMH risk alienating its First Nations source communities, especially given this museum used to endeavour, with considerable success, to establish positive and collaborative working relationships with them?

First Nations’ worries about CAPP acti­vities are neither rare nor recent. Alberta Cree have long expressed fears for their sovereignty, health and environmental conditions in the face of oil sands industries. And BC’s considerable First Nations’ opposition to Enbridge’s “Northern Gateway” pipeline for moving Alberta bitumen across BC to China was consolidated by 2011. Nevertheless, the museum administration approached CAPP while looking for possible corporate sponsors, later describing this as “a meeting of the minds” (Ottawa Citizen, Nov. 26).

Experienced curators know that big oil can spell trouble in Canada’s museum world, ever since the 1988 Calgary Olympics when Lubi­con Cree boycotted the Glenbow museum’s The Spirit Sings exhibition because of its Shell Oil sponsorship. Lubicon took this funding as flagrant disregard for their struggle against Shell’s extraction and contamination on their traditional lands. In response, McGill archeologist Bruce Trigger asked Montreal’s McCord Museum to withdraw collections it loaned to the show, warning against the “ruthlessness of governments and big business unchecked by a vigilant public.”

From this conflict emerged a Task Force on Museums and First People, set up by the Canadian Museums Association and Assembly of First Nations. Following its 1992 report, task force guidelines and recommendations were conscientiously adhered to by ethnologists at the then Canadian Museum of Civilization (now CMH). Already collaborating with First Nations, museum ethnologists redoubled their consultation efforts and esta­blished a program to train aboriginal curators. They learnt something from the Lubicon boycott, which Harper’s museum administration ignores.

Until now, this museum’s unique ethnology collections and archives have figured strongly in legal procedures between First Nations communities and Canadian governments. The museum’s archival records address indigenous land use patterns, property relations, genealogies and more, comprising documents, sound recordings, photographs and films. These precious records are complexly related to extensive and priceless aboriginal artifact collections. Together, they evince impressive histories and the cultural heritage of Canada’s many distinct aboriginal peoples and comprise 80 per cent of museum collections.

But these resources are being cut off from research expertise and the public. Last May, public access to the museum library was quietly locked. And since 2009 six ethnologists and aboriginal art specialists working closely with First Nations collections and their source communities left the museum and have not been replaced. Live connections between First Nations collections and their source communities are stifled. Museum research is now directed by a military historian unfamiliar with its First Nations source communities and collaborations.

So CAPP’s funding for Harper’s history halls clearly signals that First Nations collections at Ottawa’s internationally-acclaimed museum have been side-lined, along with its prime source communities. The CMC isn’t just “rebranded” as the Cana­dian Museum of History; this unparalleled museum of fundamental significance for all humanity is now disconnected from its historic and uniquely powerful ethnographic collection, along with its rightful roles, curatorial expertise and respectful ties to the knowledge and collaboration of its First Nations source communities for whom these unique collections are held in trust.


Frances Slaney is an associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

Trigger, Bruce. 1988. “Reply” Anthropology, Today 4:6:9–10.

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