By Rupert Nuttle
On the evening of April 6, a dozen or so protesters from the environmental group 350.org gathered at the entrance of the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau. It had been raining steadily all day, and they took shelter under the building’s iconic curves. The group’s name derives from the threshold of atmospheric carbon dioxide — 350 parts per million — that scientists believe is safe for the planet.
The group was protesting the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ sponsorship of the museum’s new Canada History Hall, billed as the renovated museum’s signature exhibition and scheduled to open to the public on July 1, the country’s 150th birthday.
According to the museum’s promotional material, the three-storey exhibition will showcase the country’s history “as you’ve never seen it before.” The ancestors of Canada’s First Peoples, who came to the Americas some 15,000 years ago, will be “brought to life for the first time through scientific reconstructions.” Colonial narratives will be dutifully retraced. And the nation’s modern myth — that of an “inclusive and diverse society” emerging “as a prosperous and independent country on the world stage” — will be patriotically reinforced.
The exhibition’s website, historyhall.ca, also shows a video, which consists of words flying across the screen and a solemn male narrator. “This summer’s must-see,” he declares, “15,000 years in the making. DRAMA. HOPE. HEARTBREAK. VIOLENCE. ACTION. OUTRAGE. COURAGE. WELCOME TO YOUR HISTORY.”
The objections raised by 350.org’s campaign stem from the activists’ discontent over the power wielded by fossil fuel companies in public institutions. Their concern is that oil and gas companies are rewriting history. On its website, the group cites CAPP’s 2011 meddling with the Canada Science and Technology Museum as a dangerous precedent in corporate censorship. (CAPP demanded that images of an ugly, open-pit oilsands mine be removed from the exhibit “Energy: The Power to Choose,” which it had sponsored. The museum complied.)
Katie Perfitt, who leads the 350.org campaign against CAPP, argued in a recent Ottawa Citizen op-ed that “museum sponsorship is part of CAPP’s grand strategy to ripen the social and political conditions for fossil fuel expansion.” She went on to accuse “Big Oil” of “using (the CMH) to sell environmental destruction and rejection of climate change.”
While the notion that CAPP will propagate climate change denial through the History Hall is far-fetched, it’s no question the companies it represents have spent the last half-century wreaking environmental destruction. Nor is there any doubt that CAPP’s political influence — particularly under the lax regulations of the former Harper government — has been instrumental to this destruction. The Museum of History is guilty by association.
In 2013, when the museum announced CAPP would be its “Official Partner and National Presenting Sponsor” for the planned programming around Canada 150, Mark O’Neill, the museum’s CEO, called it “a shining example of a private and public partnership.” Dave Collyer, the president of CAPP at the time, described it as “an opportunity to reflect on our history and take pride in our achievements as a nation,” adding, for good measure, that “responsible development of Canada’s diverse energy resources contributes to the prosperity of all Canadians.”
No matter how you look at it, the influence of oil money is ubiquitous in public institutions. Most national museums — including the Canadian War Museum and the National Gallery of Canada — rely on donations and sponsorships from oil and gas companies such as Suncor, Enbridge and Irving Oil to fund their programs. Their boards of trustees are stacked with fossil fuel executives and veteran bankers who handle resource investment portfolios.
Perfitt and the handful of demonstrators who gathered outside the Museum of History are right to protest this economic entrenchment. They are also right to question the effect these conflicts might have on the telling of our national story. They point to other public museums, such as the Tate Museum in London and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City — both of which have severed ties with oil companies — as examples to emulate.
Realistically, however, the Canadian Museum of History’s dependence on the oil lobby, and the advantage CAPP gains by normalizing its industry through culture, means there’s very little reason for them to break up.
In fact, with the 150th anniversary of Confederation approaching, the two are starting to look cosier than ever. Winners, after all, are the ones who write history.