Canada prides itself on being a multicultural, inclusive country. Many identities now exist under the umbrella of Canadian identity, where individuals can express different value systems, opinions and perspectives. This reality poses a challenge to policy makers and cultural institutions since it becomes difficult to represent all Canadian voices. In order to create a more comprehensive history it is important to discuss the concept of social cohesion. This concept refers to the process that bonds individuals together at both the communal and national level, achieved by establishing common values, civic order, democratic participation, equal opportunities, and a sense of belonging.[i] Under Pierre Trudeau’s government the Constitution Act and Multiculturalism Act were passed as a means for creating a cross-cultural understanding and harmony in Canadian society. They aid in integrating different groups into society and allow them to take part in social, cultural, economic and political affairs.[ii] Acts like these paved the way for the Museum Act (1990), which resulted in museums becoming more democratic institutions. This Act states that its responsibility lies in “preserving and promoting the heritage of Canada and all its peoples throughout Canada and abroad and in contributing to the collective memory and sense of identity of all Canadians.”[iii] This policy shifted heritage institutions’ focus away from a one-dimensional nationalistic narrative and directed it towards creating a more inclusive story.
Increased globalization and immigration have changed the way Canadian society has imagined itself and museums are now aiming to articulate these changes within their exhibits. [iv] Presently, museum experiences have become essential for enhancing citizens’ confidence about belonging and help foster a larger community identity.[v] For instance, the Canadian Museum of History is currently in the process of creating a more inclusive exhibit space. In the 1970s the museum decided to treat Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal histories as two separate entities, with the creation of the First People’s Hall and the History Hall.[vi] These separate halls symbolically demonstrated that the Aboriginal story was still seen as separate from the Canadian narrative. By keeping them separate, the museum failed to provide a comprehensive view of Canadian history. Now, the museum is changing the History Hall into the Canadian History Hall, which is due to be complete by 2017 (in time for Canada’s 150th birthday). They state that “[t]he new Hall will tell the story of Canada and its people from the dawn of human habitation to the present day, through events, experiences and people that reflect and have shaped the country’s history and uniqueness.”[vii] It is the most comprehensive exhibit that they have worked on to date. This exhibit will give agency to many voices that have been previously marginalized in Canadian history. Dean Oliver, the museum’s Director of Research, stated that Canada’s First Nations will play more of a prominent role in the new space.[viii]
Further examples of democratic principles are now seen in museum vision statements throughout the country. To give a few examples, the Canadian Museum Association states that inclusiveness is a cornerstone of their vision and express that they “embrace inclusion by respecting diversity and seeking different perspectives and opinions.”[ix] Similarly, the Burlington Museum in Ontario conveys that, “Burlington is a community that knows and celebrates its diverse cultural heritage…”[x] The Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta articulates that it wants “more people to experience art and culture more often”[xi] These visions are especially important because in some sectors of the Canadian population “cultural insecurity and nostalgia for ‘Old Canada’” are reducing tolerance and compassion. [xii] By having museums become havens where every Canadian feels included, not only in the narrative, but also in the creation of the exhibits themselves, these archaic attitudes can be dispelled.
[i] Policy Horizons Canada. “Diversity, Identity and the Social Cohesion Advantage,” (accessed July 15, 2015)
[ii] Government of Canada. "Canadian Multiculturalism: An Inclusive Citizenship,” (accessed July 25, 2015)
[iii] The Museum Act, S.C. 1990, C.3, (accessed July 20, 2015)
[iv] Ashley, Susan. “State Authority and the Public Sphere: Ideas on the Changing Role of the Museum as a Canadian Social Institution.” Museum and Society 3. No. 1 (March, 2005): 5-17.
[v] Stanley, D. “Introduction: The Social Effects of Culture.” Canadian Journal of Communication 31, no. 1 (2006)
[vi] Although these histories were treated as separate entities conjuring up the notion of Canadian history and the history of the “other”, it is worth noting that the Canadian Civilization Museum (now the Canadian Museum of History) took great care to include Aboriginal community members in the process of creating the narrative found in the First People’s Hall. Dean, David, and Peter E. Rider. “Museums, Nation and Political History in the Australian National Museum and the Canadian Museum of Civilization.” Museum and Society 3, no. 1. (2005): 35-50.
[vii] The Canadian Museum of History. “The Canadian History Hall-Coming in July, 2017!” (accessed July 20, 2015)
[viii] Unlisted Author, “Canadian Museum of History Plans Revealed,” CBC News, July 30, 2013.
[ix] Canadian Museum Association, “CMA Strategic Plan 2015-2018.”
[x] Museums of Burlington, “Our Vision,” (accessed July 20, 2015)
[xi] Glenbow Museum. “About Us.” (accessed August 4, 2015)
[xii] Jenson, Jane. “Identifying the Links: Social Cohesion and Culture.” 141.
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