Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov was not a nice man but, for a time, he was an important one.
He was a favourite of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and was head of the NKVD, the Soviet Union’s secret police. He was responsible for the arrests, tortures and executions during his master’s Great Purge of 1936 to 1938.
But a tyrant’s favour is short-lived. One day, Yezhov was the second-most powerful figure in the country; the next day, he was arrested and brutally interrogated to confess to imaginary crimes for which he was secretly executed.
Yezhov went from holding high office to being an ‘unperson.’
The ability to alter the reality of the past is explained by an employee of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel 1984. “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
You might be surprised to learn that a similar project to alter our memories is underway in Canada. It has been revealed that Leslie Weir, Canada’s chief archivist, has ordered a purge of documents that “may offend people.”
Weir did not supply a definition of what ‘offensive’ content entailed to his employees, who scrambled to come up with criteria for material to be thrust down the memory hole. Some of the anxiety-producing documents on the department’s 7,000 web pages appear to have fallen in these categories:
- “Anything lacking Indigenous perspectives and/or that ignores or dismisses the impact of colonialism on First Nations, Inuit and the Metis Nation.”
- Reference to people like Sir John A. Macdonald or Egerton Ryerson that makes no mention of their role in the Indian Residential School system.
- Mention of Liberal Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier that doesn’t mention his role in instituting the Chinese head tax.
- Referring to the 1885 Northwest Rebellion instead of the “1885 Resistance.”
- Content on the Northwest Mounted Police with “no diversity at all, no language to explain the diversity.”
- The War of 1812.
This undertaking wasn’t just a replacement of once-acceptable terms with more politically-correct language. It’s an attempt to rewrite the traditional narrative of our nation.
Heroes must now – at the behest of the chief archivist – become demons; men who created and built our country are to be condemned simply because they held opinions that were accepted in their day.
The minuscule part played by residential schools and the head tax in the careers of giants such as Macdonald and Laurier are now reasons to regard them as creatures of shame, to be discarded by right-thinking Canadians much as Stalin ditched Yezhov.
It’s not an archivist’s job to decide what views from the past are acceptable. It’s not an archivist’s job to shield Canadians from opinions held by their ancestors.
It is an archivist’s job to preserve and protect the nation’s collections of historical documents. If Weir doesn’t think she’s up to that job, she should resign.
Gerry Bowler is a historian and senior fellow of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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