History is not the past.
Many people have the sense that capital H History equals the past. There are even professional historians who go through life on this assumption. The new-ish way to think about the nature of History, though, is that it’s not an archaeological site where we go in and discover long-lost, intact artifacts that allow us to recreate the past in every way; rather, it’s a construction site, where we take the historical bricks, mortar, and lumber we find from the past and erect our own scaffolding with our best blueprints. But another historian could take the same materials and have a slightly different result. The door might be on a different side of the house, for example, or the hinges could be on the opposite side of the frame.
When I say ‘new way of thinking’, I mean in historical terms. In the hallowed halls of universities, historians started wrestling with these ideas decades ago as they popped up in critical literary theory and philosophy. One book in particular was (and remains) a go-to text about this – Keith Jenkins’ Re-thinking History, and that was publishing in the 1990s.
In this book, Jenkins puts a good twist on the famous line from British novelist and short story writer, L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The line is a great reminder of the cultural gap we have when we look back at the behaviour of our ancestors, and historians like to toss it around to twig students to the fact that we shouldn’t impose our current values on, say, missionaries in New France or mill workers during the industrial revolution in Great Britain. But Jenkins wants to tells us something else too. In Re-thinking History, he writes that the past is a “building site, not a foreign land to be explored.”
I know I was pretty gobsmacked when I encountered some of these ideas in my historiography class as a third year undergrad. My twenty-some years on the planet had taught me that History was somehow more empirical, more objective. Some of my classmates just blocked it (actually, a lot were really resistant and even hostile to it). They wanted to get on with doing ‘real history’. But as I explored how the writing of history has changed and developed over time, and engaged with theories around how to approach the past and write about it, a bunch of light bulbs went off. Suddenly I was faced with the idea that there was was no way I could gather together remnants of the past to recreate it in a full sense. That I was human and brought all my baggage with me into the archives, the interview room, and to my keyboard. That we were the ones imbuing facts with meaning and creating a narrative.
We were, in short, building the past as we went along.
These ideas resonated with me, maybe because I’d explored other languages and cultures and knew first-hand how different the world could look through other lenses. As I kept going in my courses, I realized that we can have giant cultural or professional blind spots – even if we approach the past with the best of intentions. We often try to read back from the present, for example. In my work on exploring the French fact outside of Quebec, the stories have often been hidden because nothing prompted the questions in places where there is very little French presence today.
Another challenge to getting the “whole story,” I realized, had to do with what remnants of the past we recognize as having historical value. Western historians have typically had a document fetish – it has to be written down to “count”. By the middle of the last century, though, with the rise of social history, a lot of people recognized that left out a whole swath of humanity, like peasants and other people maybe without the skills or opportunities to write stuff down and keep it. Then more recently, interest in other ways of knowing and being, from indigenous or “subaltern” groups, for example, helped displace the centrality of European ideas of narrative structure, remembering, and transmitting knowledge. Maybe oral history and wampum belts could tell us different versions of treaty negotiations. Maybe the context of written treaties – and oral promises made around them or cultural understandings of them – was as important as the pieces of paper in the government archives.
Then, of course, sometimes stories are told or hidden deliberately. If you’ve read George Orwell’s 1984, or listened to Rage Against the Machine’s “Testify”– you’ll recognize this line: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” History has power. It can and is used as a political tool – on the perhaps more benign side, recent examples of Canadian war commemoration activities show that. On the more nefarious, you have some pretty hateful propaganda from “Nipsters” (Neo-Nazi Hipsters) and Holocaust deniers.
This is one of the reasons why I refuse to slide into absolute relativism. I don’t think we should treat every version equally. We can try really hard to approach and understand the past even if we can’t recreate it exactly. To tie in with the metaphor I used earlier: we may not have the exact blueprints for what the building is supposed to look like, but we know it’s not supposed to be a boat.
So how do we navigate competing versions of the past to create narratives for the future? Can we create narratives we all agree on? Probably not. Some of the controversial heritage questions in Edmonton right now – the Indigenous Experience at Fort Edmonton Park, the Rossdale site, the Papaschase reserve, etc — are probably never going to be 100% resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. As an intellectual exercise or debate, it’s relatively easy to be okay with this uncertainty. But of course there are people who have to implement policies, build bridges and housing, and whose material realities are affected by whose version of the past is accepted, legitimized, and canonized. And there are school kids who need textbooks and teachers who would like to know what to teach.
Sometimes it’s true that there are no right answers, but there are certainly “righter” and “wronger” ones, in my opinion. History can be used as a tool to create community – or destroy it. It can be used to challenge the status quo or to buttress it; it can be a tool for social justice or oppression. History is anything but neutral and we need to look at our kids’ textbooks and school curricula, at the media we all engage with daily (or even produce if we’re working in heritage, arts, advertizing, etc), and at the decisions our governments make. We need to decide what and how we remember, and what we want to be remembered for. We need to decide what kind of society we want to build.
© Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail 2014
Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail is Edmonton’s Historian Laureate as well as a freelance writer and speaker. Her books include FOR THE LOVE OF FLYING and the recently released POLAR WINDS: A CENTURY OF FLYING THE NORTH. She is currently editing an anthology about native-newcomer relations called UNSETTLED (Brindle & Glass, 2016). www.daniellemc.com