Avoiding history

One of the reasons I enjoy learning about human history is that the past often presents analogues to current-day situations, and someone who knows history will know what choices and alternatives have been explored already—to positive or negative effect.  Those who operate without that benefit would be at risk of repeating history’s lessons.  There is a certain strain of thought in the Canadian body politic that likes to imagine the past not as it actually was, but as one might have wished it to be through the lens of current opinion.

In giving way to such tendencies we partake in what Jean-François Lyotard called “memorial-forgetful history”; this is the construction of a historical narrative which distorts the story of the past into its own present image, conveniently forgetting all that might be contradictory.  I’m a little disappointed that Craig and Mark Kielburger—men who have earned one of the country’s highest honours for merit, the Order of Canada—seem to engage in this practice.  Writing in the National Post‘s Full Comment blog, Mr. Matt Gurney takes the Toronto Star‘s Kielberger brothers to task for having a particularly narrow view of Canadian history.

There’s a lot to pick apart in their column, but let’s start where they did. Here’s their intro:

Last month, archaeologists unearthed a street lined with sphinxes in the Egyptian city of Luxor. We have to wonder if they found any remnants of Canada’s once-strong record on foreign policy down there.

Maybe that’s a little harsh. Nonetheless, Canada’s prominence on the international stage started back in 1956 when Lester B. Pearson launched the world’s first peacekeeping mission during the Suez Crisis.

… the contention that Canada sprang into being the moment Mr. Pearson accepted his Peace Prize, while much beloved of starry eyed progressives, kind of skips over a few chapters of Canadian history. History isn’t for everyone, of course, so while I might not expect them to know much about the Reciprocity Treaty, it’s not unfair to expect to them to know that there were two really big wars — world wars, very much on the “international stage” — that Canada played a major, disproportionately large role in. Right?

— Gurney, Matt. “Would it be wrong for the Kielburgers to learn some history?National Post, 15 December 2010.

Mr. Gurney’s snark-meter is turned up a little, but it is worth reading for the impressive list of achievements in Canadian arms and influence.  There’s a lot of history that is poorly taught, dimly understood, or willfully ignored because it is contradictory to the prevailing political or popular winds.  In Canada it is generally our martial history which tends to get papered-over, in our vain rush to convince the world (and ourselves) that we were born a post-modern nation, free of the bloodshed, strife and sins of the Old World.  The danger in intentionally forgetting our past—even the unpleasant bits—is that at some point, a future generation will be forced to relive it—but without any benefit of hindsight, since we will have struck any potential lessons from their collective memory.

RELATED: Another little-known episode in our military history, Canada’s occupation of Iceland.

Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa Z-Force occupation patch, from the collection of Hinrik Steinsson.

Category: Amor Patriae, Historica, Media  Tags:
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