Why History Matters in a Cancel Culture World
Canada has become extremely polarized. Conservative versus Liberal. Woke versus right-wing conspiracy theorist. Climate change believers versus global warming deniers. Everybody has a view. And south of the border, the U.S. is equally, if not even further, divided.
As a student of history and an author of a historical fiction novel, Those Who Would Be King: The People’s Prince, I find one trend particularly disturbing—canceling our history, and those most associated with its making.
Our Past is Our Past
The purpose of history is not to venerate the past; it is, in fact, a guide to our future. For history to serve as such, we cannot rewrite or cancel it, or simply pretend it didn’t happen. Objective, unbiased historical chronicling of events past serves as a roadmap to the future—setting forth both paths to and not to be taken.
Let me first state that I am as horrified by atrocities committed in our past as any other human being should be.
Let’s take the most egregious example that everyone (well, almost everyone) can agree upon—Hitler and Nazi Germany’s extermination of over 6 million Jewish people, arguably the single most heinous crime against humanity ever committed, at least in modern times. History has judged Hitler and judged him harshly, and appropriately so.
But what of the German people? Today, do we all look down on people of German descent as racists and Hitlerites? I hope not (er, look at my last name). But let’s make no mistake, Hitler was a populist leader who enjoyed the broad support of his people. Of course, there were conscientious objectors like Oskar Schindler, but history has shown that Hitler could not have achieved his military success without the broad support of the German populace.
We all like to tell ourselves that we would never have blindly followed Hitler, and that we would have objected to what he did. But do we know with certainty? No, we do not.
Canada and First Nations People
In Canada, our political leaders have (somewhat inconsistently, as surfing is a very important pastime) virtue-signaled their shame, horror, and disgust over atrocities committed within the residential school system. In the late 1800s, schools were built across Canada for First Nations people. There were certainly and, in fact, unspeakable horrors committed within the walls of these schools, all of which were created with the express legislated intent to help educate/assimilate “Indians” into “white” society.
Believe it or not, the drafters of this legislation (which included Canada’s Father of Confederation, Sir John A. MacDonald) had altruistic intent—they genuinely believed that they were helping Canada’s indigenous population. Our present “lens” cast backward to the late 1800s finds these efforts, at a minimum, misguided, if not abhorrent.
But at the time, the fathers of the confederation genuinely believed their objectives to be altruistic. The execution of their plans by the various churches charged with running the schools was harsh, callous, and almost certainly, at times, murderous. Yet it remains to be proven that any unmarked graves recently found at the sites were due to deaths inflicted by the harsh hands of the schools’ religious overlords or were, in fact, more natural and less insidious demises.
Still, the accepted and only “permissible” interpretation is that hundreds and thousands of First Nations children died at the callous hands of their teachers.
The Canadian government is considering passing legislation making it illegal to “deny” the residential school mass murder story—even though that story is, in fact, far from written, despite having occurred many decades ago. Legislated suppression of free speech and discourse is NOT the way to objectively debate an important, even if dark, part of Canadian history.
And “cancelling” Sir John A. MacDonald, the single most important, though flawed, figure in the founding of our country, is equally misguided.
We Must Accept Our Historical Past, Good and Bad
As we approached Canada Day (July 1st) this year, municipal politicians and city administrators across Canada announced the cancellation of our annual national celebrations, citing the “fact” that indigenous and First Nations people would be mourning their loved ones on Canada Day, and that as such celebrations should be terminated due to their offensive nature.
Uncharacteristically incensed Canadians objected loudly, and each such municipality backtracked quickly and reinstated our national celebration.
It helped that many First Nations leaders pointed out that the path to reconciliation with their people did not include cancelling Canada, and that, in fact, none of their leadership had ever made such requests.
History is history. Learn from it. Embrace it. Accept responsibility for it and repeat it, not when it shows the errors of our ways. For me, I love incorporating history into my writing. There are great stories to be told, both in historical writing and historical fiction, and both are educational in their own way.