History: what is it good for?

      “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there (L. P. Hartley).”

The past seems mysterious. Noble savages appear as apparitions out of the mist. Prairie schooners drift across the cloud-strewn horizon buoyed by waves of grass.

Or, maybe not. Maybe the past is ancient history: over and done with. Get on with life.


History is a bore. That’s how some students in Professor Tina Loo’s UBC class feel. Their comments are hardly uplifting. “Professor Loo tries hard, but what can you do with Canadian history” and “Wake me when it’s over.” The end of history can’t come soon enough for them.

What do we want from history? “A lot, as it turns out,” says a weary Loo in Canada’s History magazine.

A safe point of agreement is that dry facts are ancient history. At one time the recital of dates was used to test history.  Now they are no more history than arithmetic is part of mathematics. “The Dominion of Canada was formed on July 1, 1867,” may be true but without the context of our territory being swallowed by the U.S. the fact is meaningless.

We expect history to be a teacher. If we don’t learn from history, the saying goes, we are doomed to repeat it. Without any real evidence to back the claim, the past can apparently predict the future. True, current events may have echoes in the past but do they predict the future? Stock market investors sure hope so.

“Or it’s a judge,” offers Loo. Is Stephen Harper the greatest prime minister that Canada ever had? History will be the judge. History as judge evaluates the legacy of leaders in the context of a larger narrative. History, like hindsight, is 20/20.

History is reconciliation. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation commission has wrapped up after touring the country for 4 years, listening to stories of cruelty and abuse at the hands of those entrusted with their care.  The effect has been cathartic. “A lot of people got healed just by telling their story,” said 80 year old Vicki Crowchild of the Tsuu T’ina Nation, just outside of Calgary.

We want history to tell us who “we” are. Canadian identity is shaped by historical events. The struggle of the prairie populist Tommy Douglas to bring universal health care is a story we take pride in telling.

We want to be amused. “Finally, and not least, we consume history –literally as heritage foods, and figuratively, as entertainment, whether in the form of documentary films, historic sites, or museum exhibits,” says Loo.

While we may want history to teach and judge, are we prepared for the lessons and judgments that history offers? What we find might not be flattering such as the settler colonialism that stole the land of indigenous people, or the racist policies that ended in Japanese internment camps, or discriminatory Chinese head taxes.

What history has to offer is an argument, not a quarrel, not just the facts. “We should expect — even demand — of history and historians is an argument, and interpretation based on evidence and a deep understanding of context.”


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