For the record: Re contextualizing Canada’s history

By Chelsea Kemp

 Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The ways in which the general public understands the historical record are transforming. Canadians are increasingly engaging in  conversations about new historical perspectives that are changing how  the nation’s past is understood and remembered.

It is often said of history that it’s written by the victors,  but there has been a growing push to interpret significant figures in  their historical context using multiple perspectives. Manitoba offers  unique examples of this phenomenon in how communities can talk about the  past positively and productively.

In the public sphere, people are investigating and trying to learn  more about different aspects of their community and country, said Max  Hamon, associate professor in the department of history at Brandon  University.

Their curiosity can be piqued by the mundane things they  encounter in their community, such as a historical plaque or street sign  they walk by each day.

As the public re-discovers and re-contextualizes what were once  commonly accepted historical narratives, he said, they are starting to  push back against what was once accepted academic “truths.”

He described this process of learning as “public history.” The National Council on Public History describes this concept as a movement  promoting collaborative study and engagement with history.

The goal of  the practice is to make unique insights accessible and useful to the  public, helping them better understand their past.

As people learn more about Canada’s history using multiple  perspectives, the traditional focus on French and English settlements in  the country can often leave people feeling like other narratives are  missing from the past.

“The national narrative it’s simply not satisfactory,” Hamon  said. “Canada is not just French and English. Canada is so much more  than those things and, in many ways, Canada is insufficient to explain  the complexity of all these things. It’s a good thing to start  recognizing the work that goes into this.”

Hamon cited Louis Riel as an example of a trans-national  history. Historians continue to expand the narrative surrounding the  Metis icon to better establish his place in Canadian history.

As a historical figure, Riel exemplifies the deep divide that  can exist when people are interpreting historical records, Hamon said.  While he is now widely accepted and celebrated by Canadians as the  father of Manitoba and a critical figure in Canadian Confederation, this  interpretation is relatively new.

“It’s hard to understand how people saw it differently in the  past,” Hamon said. “If we’re thinking about the evolution of Riel, I do  think that it’s simplified and I am always shocked to hear a historian  try to say Riel is `such a controversial figure,’  it’s no longer  controversial to recognize Riel’s significance, but that has changed  through work. People have worked to better understand who he was.”

Born in St. Boniface in the Red River Settlement in October  1844, Riel played a pivotal role in bringing Manitoba into  Confederation. His direction of the Red River Rebellion led to the  Canadian government at the time labelling him an “outlaw.” In 1884, Riel  was asked by Saskatchewan Valley settlers to lead them in protest  against the Canadian government resulting in the North-West Rebellion in  1885.

Following the rebellion’s defeat, Riel was tried for treason and hung in Regina in November 1885.

The example of Riel demonstrates how history can be seen in a  different light by embracing additional historical perspectives.

Studying the historical icon over the years has helped Hamon understand  Canada and its history in new ways.

“We often say history is told by the victors, by those who were  able to grab and hold onto power. All the other voices and  perspectives, the views of the other side  are drowned out, whether  it’s women, whether it’s poor, whether it’s marginalized communities,”  said Kelly Saunders, Brandon University political science professor. “We  only see one story and that is the story that our government  institutions choose to tell us.”

In Canada, there has been a carefully crafted historical and  cultural narrative largely based on the country being more diverse,  peaceful, respectful and civil compared to other jurisdictions such as  the United States.

Using multiple viewpoints to examine Canadian history shows that it can be viewed as a country “built on genocide,” she said.

“This is what history tells us, and historians, the experts who  are studying what actually happened in this country and the story of  how we came to be from multiple perspectives and not just what the  British Crown or what the Canadian government wanted us to know, but the  true history told by the voices that have been shut out _ that is our  story.”

These nuanced conversations that take into account various  historical experiences are becoming increasingly difficult to  participate in and facilitate in the public sphere, because there has  been a loss of trust in and respect for authority, political experts,  senior experts, elected officials, historians, scientists, among others,  and the insights they can provide to the historical record.

“We just dig our heels in and come at it from a very emotional  point of view and that everybody is a `self-styled’ expert. When you add  those two things together, it ends up where we are today, it’s just  butting heads and there’s no sense of talking our way through and  reaching consensus anymore.”

Saunders saw a break from this trend after children’s bodies  were rediscovered in unmarked graves at former residential schools  across the country. She said these histories were known by Indigenous  communities for generations and documented by the government. However,  the facts about residential schools had not significantly entered the  sphere of public history and discourse prior to the 215 unmarked graves  located near the Kamloops Residential School in 2021, which gained  international attention.

The unearthed bodies of these children broke through Canadians’  mental discomfort when it came to viewing the country’s past  atrocities. Difficult conversations have forced Canadians to engage with  the traumatic legacy of residential schools and the disenfranchisement  of Indigenous communities and people for decades.

“We could no longer deny it because it was in front of us,”  Saunders said. “I noticed the conversations that started happening.  People that just went about their lives, not very knowledgeable or very  caring about these issues, were now texting me and saying, `I want to  talk about this. I want to learn more.”’

Growing up, Louis Riel was spoken of with admiration in his family  home and was a celebrated figure for his impact in Manitoba, said John  Fleury, Minnedosa-based Manitoba Metis Federation (MMF) minister of the  Indigenous skills and employment training strategy.

“But, then, of course, we heard the English version that he was  a traitor and everything else. But, from our own people, he was always  doing something good,” Fleury said. “They  would  talk about Louis Riel  and he was a traitor in the war against Canada, but they didn’t talk  about how he secured the Metis’ future; he tried to protect their  language, and not only the Metis language but the French language and  English. He was protecting all peoples.”

The new understanding of Riel as a crucial figure in Canada’s  history slowly began to shift in the mid-1960s, he said, aided by the  formation of the MMF. The organization was able to share views from all  areas of the province with the common thread of speaking to Riel as a  hero and protector of people, a father of Confederation and the father  of Manitoba.

Non-Metis were not always open to this historical perspective  but over time, minds slowly began to change, he said. It has been  powerful and uplifting to see the monumental place Riel holds in  Canadian history gain acceptance by the general public.

“It was a big shift, and I think that’s when society began  becoming more open to another person’s point of view. They allowed us  our point of view whether they liked it or not, and then they began  accepting another point of view.”

Regardless of how it is presented, people will formulate  opinions based on what they have been told by their families, teachers  and others in society. He said when up against these experiences,  changing opinions is a slow process, but they can be transformed.

The MMF remains committed to promoting truth and education to  open minds. Fleury encouraged people to push boundaries and learn as  much as they can, because reconciliation cannot take place without  truth.

“That’s what we need more of _ more educated opinions. We all  need to do our part,” Fleury said. “We are now living in a new era, and  education and communication is the key.”

The namesake of Rosser Avenue came under scrutiny after John Simpson  appeared before Brandon City Council in September 2020, requesting the  name of the thoroughfare be changed. Simpson said a rechristening of the  street was essential given the tainted history of its namesake.

The avenue bears the name of former late-19th-century Canadian  Pacific Railway (CPR) chief engineer and Confederate General Thomas  Lafayette Rosser. According to the Manitoba Historical Society, Rosser  worked for the railway for less than a year before departing the company  “amid accusations, recriminations and scandal.”

Rosser served as a Confederate general during the American Civil War and his family engaged in slavery.

“I’m not so sure that this is such a glorious, glorious past  that we are looking for, particularly as I began to learn more and more  about him,” Simpson told the Sun. “ I’m not sure that he’s someone who  is really worthy of our attention and our honour here in Brandon.”

The Manitoba Historical Society described Rosser as a complex  figure who was “almost ruthless, action-oriented approach to getting a  job done, and his ever-present eye on the possibilities for profit, are  amply demonstrated through his actions during his short time with the  CPR.”

Simpson pushed for the Rosser Avenue name change out of a sense of indignation.

He expects these discussions around how historical figures are  honoured will only broaden as the public has been forced to reckon with  truth and reconciliation since the rediscovery of hundreds of unmarked  graves in former residential school sites across Canada.

These graves  are prompting a re-examination of Canadian history.

Simpson proposed alternative names for Rosser Avenue that could  honour Westman’s Indigenous history, including Tommy Captain, the first  child who died at the Brandon Indian Residential School in 1896.

“Tommy and all those children who died represent lost  potential, potential never realized,” Simpson said. “I really hope for  the sake of inclusivity, for the sake of reconciliation, for the sake of  all people who don’t fit the traditional mould that Brandon has grown  from, I really hope that we change and we continue to change. We can do  that one way through the symbols that we proclaim within our  boundaries.”

It can be challenging for people to learn and accept new  historical facts that challenge what was once widely accepted views. It  is a positive case when it comes to Riel, Fleury said, but Rosser’s  legacy stands in stark contrast.

Rosser’s motivation for coming to Canada was, in Fleury’s opinion, centred on “greed.”

“He wanted to make a name for himself and he didn’t care how he  did it,” Fleury said. “After all of his manipulations on the railroad  and elsewhere, he went out of here to the States because he was found  out to be a bit of a shyster.”

History shows Rosser departed Brandon with a “stain on his name.”

There is a stark contrast between Riel and Rosser’s experiences  in Canada. It was at a time when Indigenous people were being chased  off their lands and facing the expansion of the settlers across the  prairies, Fleury said.

Rosser profited during this era of Canada, while Riel fought for the future of his people.

It can be hard for people to reassess and adjust perspectives  as they learn new historical facts, Fleury said, but it is even worse  when people do not take the time to learn the true history of their  nation.

These debates about history come down to education, especially  because stories like the history of Rosser are not taught, he said.

Debates over the historical legacy or shame should be treated with  care, because they can distract from more urgent and contemporary  community issues. Indigenous people in Canada have experienced cultural  genocide, land disposition, residential schools and other acts of trauma  for the past 150 years.

The discussions around Rosser Avenue’s name need to be  discussed carefully with civility and understanding, said Kris  Desjarlais, Brandon Urban Aboriginal Peoples’ Council vice-chair. The  name “Rosser” has largely been decoupled from the individual, and most  people are unaware of the Confederate General’s controversial legacy.

It can be difficult to make a definitive decision when it comes to sites, streets or statues named after historical figures.

Desjarlais  cautioned there is a need to be careful in how far these conversations  are pushed when looking at historical figures from a modern-day  perspective.

“Where do we draw the line?” Desjarlais said. “I think in order  for us to wrap our heads around these issues collectively, we need to  have the dialogue. I don’t think we can just say  1/8it’s 3/8 `because it’s  the right thing to do.’ We need to bring people along with us to get to  that place.”

Seemingly trivial conversations like Rosser Avenue’s name can  only increase divisions in the community. Desjarlais said there are more  important things to do to support marginalized populations.

Support for First Nation, Metis and Inuit peoples needs to be  centred on systemic changes that directly help and provide equity and  equality for contemporary populations. This can include improving  outcomes around education, health and employment, reforming child and  family welfare and returning power and control to Indigenous  communities.

“You end up risking fighting  for these changes  over window  dressing,” Desjarlais said. “I’m more interested in important things,  because changing Rosser Avenue to an Indigenous name is not going to  employ anybody, it’s not going to reduce the anxiety of a single mom in  Brandon who is Indigenous and struggling to make ends meet.”

Desjarlais is hopeful for the future of Canada. He cited how  Brandon’s inaugural Truth and Reconciliation week saw around 1,000  people participate in the Orange Shirt Day walk. It was an amazing  experience, he added, because it included meaningful conversations  around truth and reconciliation.

“This could be a turning point in Canada ? You start and you  plant the seed, it creates slow and incremental gains. It’s not going to  be a sea of change,” Desjarlais said. “It is different than it was 25  years ago, we are making inroads, but we have a long way to go.”

Rosser is not the first figure to have newly recognized  historical records transform their legacy, Prof. Hamon said. Riel has  been a fluid figure throughout Canadian history, with his significance  and legacy gaining a positive light as he became better understood  outside the traditional Western historical narrative.

“If we’re going to tell the story of Rosser and make it  meaningful, it’s going to be a lot more complicated than just a road  sign,” Hamon said. “These local histories which focus on specific  communities, they’re so rich and they’re so filled with detail, the  problem is they don’t connect it to the broader context always.”

The presence or lack thereof, of a statue or street name, does  not change history, he said. Instead, it impacts the types of  conversations being initiated based on what is in the world around you.

People need to understand the constructed nature of their  worldview and how it is influenced by their life experiences, he said.

One of the most important steps is moving away from the  binaries and to stop thinking in terms of settler versus Indigenous, he  added. Canadians need to understand how to talk about the countless  different cultures, including Indigenous, as a whole and their unique  experiences in the country.

Some members of the public may choose to portray symbols like  Rosser Avenue as extremes, Saunders said, but most controversies are not  as polarized as presented.

“To say that we have to keep the name to honour our history,  well, what history do we want to honour?” Saunders said. “What history  do we really want to privilege and whose history do we want to privilege  and what does that say about who we are as Canadians?”

Conversations are taking place across Canada that unpack  colonialism’s ongoing role in society and how it reproduces itself in  new, more nuanced and indirect ways. Saunders said a key aspect of  breaking this cycle is talking and working with Indigenous communities  involving them in the decision-making process and allowing them to exert  power.

People are learning history is an intersectional experience,  and she can see people are changing, giving her hope for the future.

“Just by having conversations, you can really change one person  at a time. We just have to be open-minded and be willing to look at the  world a little bit differently than what we have done before  1/8and 3/8 ask  the big questions that have to be asked.”

Chelsea Kemp is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the  BRANDON SUN . The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI government funding.

 

 

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