Conference sparks debate over Canadian military history

Experts from across the country will stand off against each other at the Wars With Words conference on April 9. They will be battling it out about some of Canadian military history’s most controversial subjects at the Canadian War Museum.

The conference is taking place on Vimy Ridge Day, which marks the battle widely recognized as a major Canadian victory. Debates such as “Did Vimy Ridge shape Canada?”, “Strategic Bombing – did it work?” and “War of 1812 – who won?” are some of many subjects that will be covered that day.

A sign displayed at the Bomber Command exhibit in 2007 sparked controversy among veterans who argued that the display portrayed them as war criminals. Many historians and educators were outraged that the museum caved to the pressure and reworded the sign, changing the whole sense of the exhibit.

“The exhibit seemed to be adult-oriented. It gave different points of view that were all valid. I suppose it was intolerable to people who are set in their opinions,” suggested Desmond Morton, a history professor at McGill University, in regards to the veterans group’s reaction to the exhibit. “Now, with one point of view, [the display] almost seems childish.” Morton will be one of the speakers at the conference.

But the one-day conference will open the floor for discussion about ongoing historical debates. The conference will examine issues as major as who the true winner of Vimy Ridge was and as minor as what helmets were the most effective.

Dean Oliver, director of research and exhibition, says the conference aims to appeal not only to specialists and educators but also to the public.

“I hope it says it that the museum is not just a place where history is behind glass, where it’s carefully arranged and dimly lit so people can reflect,” says Oliver. “I really hope that these types of events encourage people to see museums differently.”

According to Victoria Copland, conference coordinator, the event could draw in anywhere from 75 to 175 visitors, especially as the list of speakers grows. The attendees include retired general Lewis Mackenzie, David Bashow, editor of the Canadian Military Journal and Randall Hanson, professor and author at the University of Toronto. The conference will consist of a variety of conversations, spanning over lunch and dinner. The day will end with a head-to-head debate between Morton and Roger Sarty from Laurier University who will not know the topics in advance. The audience will be encouraged to join in the discussion at a number of points during the day.

“It’s been a great opportunity to be able to reach a different audience base and show that we’re looking beyond our exhibitions,” says Copland. “It’s an opportunity to involve the public and people who are researching this field with the growth of the museum.”

The conference will include a number of speakers from across the country. Some, such as Professor Jonathan Vance of the University of Western Ontario, says interaction is the key to the success.

“I think that they’re constructing it around these debates, and I don’t want people to think they’re formal or serious. We are looking for something more fun and interactive. People should be ready to join in and not just listen.”

The museum shares this goal with Vance. Oliver says he hopes the event succeeds in reminding the country that Canadian history is still very much alive.

“The museum used to be a place where you learned about your ancestors and what they preserved on your behalf, and now it’s here to engage you in a discussion, which in the end, is about you,” says Oliver. “The museum is a dialogue with you about your own past.”