With all of the discussions in the press and the internet as of late about Canadian history, its value, its interpretation, and of course calls of history wars, I have had cause to think about what history actually is and why it is important. This is a complex question, of course, particularly as I am a trained historian, and make my living researching and disseminating it to a larger public.
I will begin with a journey back in time:
It is 1918 on a crowded street in a part of Birmingham, England. A young man is visiting with his mother, who owns a haberdashery shop there. He spots in the distance, a lovely young woman dressed in black. He goes to introduce himself. This was a pivotal moment in history.
This was a time of great change for all coming out of a World War, for both the soldier who was that young man visiting his mother, and for his mother, who had run her business there since 1913. The economy was changing, society was changing. For the young woman wearing black it was not only the coping with a pre-War Britain, but with the impact of the recent death of her mother in the Influenza epidemic. These people lived and were influenced by the greater historical moments of their times, but were themselves actors in their own history. Like the great waves of history, they were themselves making ripples in time, which can be felt today.
It was in that moment that my Grandfather met my Grandmother. They married had my aunt, and then my mother, and so goes my own history. ‘So what?’ you ask. This is not important at all, except to you. Yes and no. You are reading this aren’t you? Without that moment these reflections would not have been possible. Everything is interconnected, and the ripples, large and small somehow touch us, through time, to shape us today.
The study of history is not just about the great men and women, the conflicts and the great inventions, but the people who lived around them. The great moments that we commemorate in our statues and national narratives are but a small part of the greater whole. They are certainly important, impactful, and deserve to be studied, but they did not happen in a vacuum, and cannot account for the whole of the human experience.
If we take the twentieth century as an example, World War One lasted four years (1914-1918), the Second World War six years (1939-1945), the Korean Conflict three years (1950-1953) and the First Gulf War one (1990-1991), for a total of fourteen years. Narrowing your focus to only on this aspect, and such a limited amount of time, is not realistic.
Historians study not only the big moments but the smaller ones too, for in the end their impact is just as important. I understand that my grandparents were a part of a larger group of people, adjusting to a new world after the war, dealing with the economic and social impacts of the war, and the influenza epidemic. The war itself marked them all, my Grandfather as a soldier, and his family as people living through the pain and uncertainty of war. My Grandfather survived the war, and commemorated the passing of his friends who were not as fortunate. But his history did not end with the war, he built a life, got a job, married, had children, participated in society as a citizen (voting in elections, paying taxes), as a member of voluntary societies such as social clubs, raising money for charities, as a participant and observer in the cultural landscape (television, music, theatre) and as a consumer, keeping up with the new technological developments. The war was only a part of his life, as with others. History is the large and the small, which ripples through our lived experience to make us what we are today. Even when we are not aware of these moments they touch us. In studying these details, we understand more about ourselves and the society in which we live.
The press has lately been featuring discussions about the teaching and interpretation of Canadian history, as the current federal government has instituted policies and financed specific interpretations of history, while restricting the budgets and mandates of those institutions which are held to preserve the fabric of Canada’s history. It has become a debate as to what value we as Canadians place on history, and to whom do we allow to interpret it.
History belongs to all of us. The ripples of time of which I spoke came from all, not just the heads of governments. As citizens of this country, we have the right to access not just these pre-selected moments of time, valued by politicians as identity-defining and thus important, but those other aspects which shaped us, our institutions (large and small), our culture (popular and highbrow), and our ancestors.
Many interpret the actions of the government as an attack on those who actually make a living in the historically-based industries, academics, librarians and archivists. But this is merely smoke and mirrors, hiding that through these appointed professionals history, large and small, is disseminated to a wider public, hiding that the wider public also is invested in these institutions. There are no signs above the doors of the Library and Archives Canada that state that access is limited to professionals. It is a public institution, open to all. And the visitors our institutions understand this, for not only do academics comb its depths, but ‘amateurs’ interested in their own stories, and stories of moments and events in time, not already uncovered. These are not necessarily the sign posts of identity promoted by the government, but important nonetheless to the understanding of Canada’s history.
If these history ‘wars’ can have any impact, perhaps it is that through them we realise the value of our history, the understanding Canada’s story is a complex and amazing thing, worthy of investment by our society, and of benefit to our society.