Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Those Who Forget History

McGrath and Henshaw have commented recently about the sorry state of historical awareness and education in this country. Henshaw in particular ran a devastating post about his grandfather's experiences at Vimy (so did someone else but for the life of me I can't find the link now) [Edit: found it - it was Dave at The Galloping Beaver]. All reference the recent Dominion Institute survey showing that most Canadians knew next to nothing about the Battle of Vimy Ridge before the recent ceremonies.

(I nearly posted all of this as a comment to one of these posts, but noted the length and thought better of it.)

I suspect that part of the problem lies in the way Canadian history is taught in schools. Year after year of the same endlessly repeated stories about Cabot, Cartier, Rupert’s Land, the Plains of Abraham, the Family Compact, Mackenzie, Riel, blah blah blah… By the time they got to Confederation I had already dropped history. It’s marginally better now, but not much.

Today I am a history fiend. Why? Genealogy.

Face it - nobody really gives a rat’s ass about what Haldimand or Brock or Laurier did on which dates at what places. It’s far more interesting to read about some poor schmuck who gave up his farm to fight with the British at Saratoga, only to die of smallpox along with most of his family within days of arriving in Quebec with the battle’s other refugees.

It’s far more interesting to read the newspaper accounts of a Quebec bar brawl in 1834 that ended with a young man dead, and how that random tragedy lead his parents to pack up thirteen of their children and settle hundreds of miles away at the far end of Upper Canada.

It’s far more interesting to read the sermons and essays that resulted in a Methodist minister being tried and expelled from the church for heresy in 1893, and how that eventually led to the settlement of Beaverlodge, Alberta.

THEN it becomes interesting to find out about the context of these events, about what led up to them and how they affected other people and events. THAT’S how you teach history - start with ordinary people and work your way up, not the other way around. And I honestly think that most Canadian historical MOWs do a very good job of this. Think ‘The Arrow’ (which, BTW, made me yell and cheer and love and hate my country). Think ‘Shattered City’. Even something like ‘Divided Loyalties’, which was about big names and major events, showed how these were really just ordinary people minding their own business when history forced them to take a stand and make a difference.

As for Vimy, I’m not sure that knowing the name, date and circumstances of any specific battle, even one this significant, is nearly as important as having an understanding of the soldiers and what they went through. Who were they? Why did they join up? What did they write in their letters home? What was the battle like, and how did it affect them after? Once we get that, then we’ll remember the name and the date of the battle and maybe what it meant in the larger context of our history.

That would be a movie worth seeing. Think ‘Band of Brothers’.


  1. Great post, Jennifer. And you're absolutely right. For any story to have an impact on an individual it has to either have personal relevance to them or fire their imagination.

    A film like Robin Spry's "One Man" has far more to say about the October Crisis than CBC's recent mini-series because it personalizes and contextualizes the event rather than just regurgitating the facts.

    Our media and particularly our broadcasters have always been (in my opinion) overly infatuated with politicians. I think that tells they wish to please that constituency more than their audience.

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  3. that's an interesting observation, a little sobering, if that was your evaluation of the mini-series.

    one of the things we tried to do was personalize the crisis by focusing on the personal journey of people involved in the flq story without turning it over to the politicians (a tactic that was criticized by some reviewers).

    in our attempt to tell the story we focused on people who lived the crisis intimately (lanctot -- leader of one terrorist cell, rose -- the leader of the other, the two hostages (cross and laporte) and the police officer charged with bringing the thing to a conclusion (giguere).

    We made a decision to not have trudeau in the story at all and the politicians we focused on were bourassa and to a lesser extent drapeau. in fact I don't think we placed a single scene in Ottawa in the whole eight hours and instead tried to focus on the cops, hostages and kidnappers and the dynamics that lead to the murder of laporte and the evenual "deportation" of the kidnappers.

    I would guess that if you saw this as a "regurgitation of the facts" then it didn't play for you. That's OK, unfortunate but OK...

    what was also interesting (and it plays to your original post) is that while we wanted to go this route from the beginning informal polling brought us to the realization that the majority of the audience (or at least close to the majority of the audience under 40) had NO knowledge of the events in October.

    Given that, it was impossible to not include at least some of the facts becuase they were unknown to a large number of the people we were trying to reach.