In December 2012, seventh-grade students assembled in a classroom for their third round of history presentations. Like every presentation so far, they were expected to write and present a eulogy of a famous deceased Canadian. Like every presentation before, the famous deceased Canadian was chosen from a textbook, and most of these historical figures were white, upper-class, middle-aged men.
Perhaps it is not a surprise that at least one history student was disinterested. Whether it was Alexander Mackenzie or Samuel de Champlain, after a certain point I grew tired of researching, writing and extolling praise on a single type of person -- especially since I felt that not all the people we were supposed to admire merited such unconditional celebration. Jacques Cartier did not “discover” Canada; when he arrived, people were already living there. There was nothing commendable in The Gradual Civilization Act from 1857 or the 1874 Indian Act, which permanently disenfranchised First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples and rendered them second-class citizens.
This is not to say that white, powerful men did not have any positive impact on their communities. But raising them to sainthood, without an understanding of their effects on everyone, including on those pushed to the margins, serves to push those at the margins off the page of history. Where were the stories of Asian passengers on the Titanic? Why was there only one paragraph in my textbook on the racist Head Tax of 1885, forcing the Chinese to pay exorbitantly high rates to enter Canada? Indeed, why, to this day, are white people outside their motherland called expats, while people of colour are called immigrants?
I have only recently been able to articulate the problem with how history was taught. That seventh-grade year, I felt history was tedious, but it isn’t -- I only thought it was because we were repeatedly told the same story, a one-sided, incomplete story. And maybe, at the time, it was also because I couldn’t see myself in any of those white, middle-aged males.
The problem, however, is not that history can bore seventh-grade students. It’s that history, as a record of the past, needs to have different perspectives. There is no one truth; we can only approach it if we collect enough stories from various perspectives. The erasure or absence of such diverse stories means that we forget the lessons to be learned from history. We make ourselves vulnerable to the mistakes of the past, to creating the same social inequities while priding ourselves on social progress. Silence itself can be a type of oppression.
So let us take action; let us acknowledge and speak our truths. Support films, books and media that provide a different perspective from the predominant narrative. If you can tell your story, do, because if you don’t, others will do it for you.