Saturday, 18 February 2017

The Presence of the Past

Lessons for Kenney Part 2


Photos of my ancestors look down from my walls.  My paternal great grandfather, Samuel Hartford, who came from Vermont to open a general store in Neepawa. My maternal great grandparents Charles and Eliza McNaught who moved from Brantford to pioneer in the Beaverlodge area. My paternal grandmother Muriel Fryer, a nurse of possibly uncertain parentage. My maternal grandfather who was sent to Canada as an orphan. My parents who chose to start a new life in a brand new town. 

Their faces look down on me every day.

The impact of my ancestors of my life is immeasurable. I carry their DNA and their actions and their life stories and the secrets they never told. I carry their sense of adventure. Their curiosity and openness and willingness to make changes in their lives. I'm influenced by the sacrifices they made when they left their own land to find a better lives with more opportunities and religious freedoms. Their quests to find and make communities where they belonged and where their descendants could thrive.

I carry my own past wherever I go. Who I am is the sum of all my life's experiences as well as the experiences of those who went before. My aching ankle, the voices of my children, the man I married, the job I have, the place I live. Voices I listened to. Voices I ignored. Choices I made, for good or for ill.  I am 58 years old. My past looms large behind me as my future shrinks.


I also carry my mistakes and the mistakes of those who went before and the indignities we have suffered as well as the indignities we inflicted, knowingly or unknowingly, on others. Financial risks that didn't pay off. Options not available due to class and gender and world events. Misunderstandings of culture. Misappropriation of lands. Part of my heritage. A legacy I carry forward. 

The past is all around me.

It cloaks me and protects me.

It gives me hope for tomorrow.

It is a burden I bear.

Just as my past led me to my present, so has our shared Canadian history led us to the nation we celebrate today. Knowing that history illuminates a way forward.  Hiding it blinds us. For generations we as a country suppressed the ugly parts of our past as we focused on the present. A present that was only fully open to some of us. Understanding our story and knowing our truths is important. Otherwise how do we navigate our way into the future? 

The Germans have a word. "Vergangenheitsbew√§ltigung". The attempt to come to terms with the actions of the past. Acknowledging the truth and its attending shame and guilt. Here in Canada, coming to an understanding of our own history is something we are just beginning. Here, we call it reconciliation. How do we, as Canadians, work towards reconciling the actions of our respected ancestors with the indignities offered to our first peoples?  How do we come to terms with that?  

History is not only what happened in the past. It's not just a list of dates and events. It's with us in our institutions and our laws and ideologies. It's with us in the faces of the homeless and the silence of the marginalized. As I understand the impact of my past on my future, so too do I hope my students understand that their histories and the history of this land matter. All of their histories. The good history and the bad history. The history of privilege and the history of oppression. All of their stories make up the story of Canada. We need to know these stories and know how they shape us in order to move forward together.

The past is with us always.