By Sean Graham
Being in Ottawa, there are unique opportunities for engaging with Canada’s past. One of my favourite is to head to Parliament Hill to explore how the federal government has decided to commemorate Canada’s history. The monuments that surround the parliament buildings offer a pretty clear sign of what those in the halls of federal power have determined is important for Canadians to learn. Statues of Prime Ministers, monarchs, and significant political figures are not surprising to find outside the seat of government, but that these figures enjoy an exclusivity at this site sends a not so subtle message to visitors about what, and who, those in power want Canada and Canadians to value from our history.
Canada’s history goes well beyond what is represented on Parliament Hill, of course, but visiting the site is a reminder of some of the narratives that have long dominated discussions of Canada’s past. From who is included to what stories are valued, for many students (myself included) learning Canadian history meant learning about those in power. That specific focus, however, fails to recognize the diversity and complexity of Canada nor does it provide space for the millions of stories that have shaped life for people from coast to coast to coast. Fortunately, historians, teachers, educators, and community groups are re-examining the ways in which Canadians engage with the past, allowing for deeper discussions and more nuanced debates in museums, classrooms, and public spaces across the country.
Front and centre in that transformation is Samantha Cutrara, author of Transforming the Canadian History Classroom: Imagining a New ‘We’. Powerfully using personal experience, interviews, and case studies, Cutrara explores ways in which we can more effectively engage people with history. By providing space for investigation of historical narratives that influence people’s lives, there is room for diverse identities where ideas of connection, complexity, and care engender meaningful learning. And while the book is geared towards educators, it provides space for all Canadians to reflect on the past and the ways in which we think about history.
In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Samantha Cutrara about the book. We discuss who constitutes the ‘we’ in Canadian history, the power of the nation state in historical narratives, and ensuring all people are reflected when telling stories of the past. We also talk about the book’s methodology, engaging people in classrooms and public spaces, and the principles of connection, complexity, and care when discussing history.
Sean Graham is a historian with Parks Canada, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor with Activehistory.ca