There’s a danger of forgetting our past

I believe there is an obligation to learn about and acknowledge our past, for better or worse

I read with interest the recent columns by Simon Nattrass (Rights under attack on Canada Day) and D. Granlich’s response to it (Columnist’s portrayal of Canada was ‘disgusting’).

Both raise the interesting issue of interpretations of Canadian history and the ways in which we define ourselves as Canadians (often linked to ideas of who we are which may or may not be substantiated).

While we all like to feel good about who we are as Canadians, we must acknowledge that elements of Canadian history are, indeed, not pretty. There’s ample evidence of past (and present) racism, poor treatment of indigenous peoples and Asian immigrants, women, labour organizers, etc.

I believe there is an obligation to learn about and acknowledge our past, for better or worse, so that we can learn from it. How are we to become better Canadians unless we learned what happened (and why it happened) in the past?

When students take my Canadian history classes, they are often shocked and they wonder aloud why they never learned this history in school. They want to know. They need to know. We all need to know.

Occasionally I will meet someone who suggests that indigenous peoples should simply “get on with it.”  I see this as an opportunity for a “teaching moment” because I realize most people do not understand the aboriginal land issue in B.C.

I normally ask if they know that Canada amended the Indian Act in 1927 to prohibit First Nations people from hiring lawyers to pursue land claim cases.  People don’t know that – and they should. I could also enlighten them on other ways the Canadian government removed land from indigenous peoples.

Sometimes I come across people who use labels to suggest that another’s argument is ideologically based. My favourite is “you liberals.” Another is  “Marxist apologist.” My teaching moment here would be to ask these folks what these terms exactly mean, then ask them to tell me how that label is relevant to the argument at hand.  We have the ability to ask these questions of ourselves and, again, I think we should.

So, in conclusion, I see no harm in Canadians accepting their past, warts and all, and learning from it.

When we try to define ourselves as Canadians, let’s really look at who Canadians were and are, instead of embracing some mythological idea of who we are. The danger comes when we do not know, acknowledge and accept the past.

Paula Young



Editor’s note: Paula Young teaches history at Camosun College.