By Thomas Peace
“Not acknowledging the multiplicity of histories that we carry around with us can separate more than bring us together and fail to demonstrate how the congruence of narratives that make up the past are the very stories that tell who “we” are in the present.” – Samantha Cutrara, Transforming the Canadian History Classroom, 6.
“Community” is a tricky concept.
The word encourages us to conceptualize our place in the world through a singular sense of belonging. Put a bit differently: the idea forces us to think about groups that we find meaningful and supportive as entities somewhat isolated from each other. Our family is a sort of community, for example, but one that is distinct – often – from the communities we find in our neighbourhoods, at work, in prayer, or in recreation.
For many, though, our values and identities are bound up not in a single community but, rather, in multiple communities, anchored in specific sets of relationships that interlink us with diverse groups of people. We live in webs of communities rather than within one single collective unit. Each of these communities has value for us.
It is this difference, between a singular idea of community, and the reality that we live within many distinct communities, that the Hidden Histories of Southwestern Ontario project seeks to recognize.
Since the late eighteenth century, the plural reality of community and its mostly local and regional nature, has posed challenges for businesses, institutions, and politicians.
Leaving businesses and institutions aside – because they often have important ties to the local level – building the modern nation state involved a different type of community identity, one that has profoundly shaped the historian’s craft. Political scientist Benedict Anderson has called it an “imagined community.”
The idea here is that, unlike most of the communities with which we identify, an “imagined community” is one that exists without the direct and interpersonal relationships that underpin many of the tangible communities of which you and I are a part. Through a common press, symbols, invented traditions, institutions, histories – and an international consensus – a broad national community is imagined into existence.
The past plays an important role. In Canada’s history, we can look back and see moments of perceived importance: Partnership with First Peoples through the fur trade, distinction from the United States during the War of 1812, a land of liberty for enslaved peoples fleeing their forced captivity, a nation brought together by Sir John A. Macdonald, valiant mobilization for freedom in the First and Second World Wars, a turn away from war and towards peacekeeping and the common good after the Second World War, and lastly – at Expo 67 – we came together as a bilingual nation of immigrants.
There is, however, a problem with this storyline.
Not everyone sees themselves here. First Peoples are seldom framed as central actors within these narratives, or as peoples with agency to affect historical change and self determination. Ancestors of people fleeing their enslavement knew that Canada was seldom the bastion of freedom so often represented by stories of the Underground Railway; more importantly, the histories of Black Peoples in North America is much richer than narratives of slavery and freedom suggest. Children and grandchildren of veterans know the difficulties of wartime and its often multi-generational toll on families. This list could go on and on.
The point here is that – as Samantha Cutrara has recently pointed out in her book Transforming the Canadian History Classroom – history within the boundaries of the nation-state is much more complex and personal than often depicted and taught.
For many of us, a deeper understanding about the past is taught within our local communities and families, in our day-to-day relationships, and the shared documents and artifacts related to it.
For the past two decades, scholars have been asking important questions about how societies engage with the past. What study, after study, after study has shown, is that, rather than national heritage moments, what most of us value in the past relates to our families and to our local communities.
Traditional ways of thinking about history and heritage do not well address this reality. History in the school system continues to lean towards provincial and national topics, though curriculum changes that focus on historical thinking skills and the ideas Cutrara draws out in her book promise positive change. Provincial and federal heritage designations are similarly focused away from the local community. Even at the local level, the collecting policies of museums, archives, and libraries have often – but not always – been shaped by a narrow definition of the community, sometimes defined by classist, racist, religious, and gendered biases.
Though history in schools, on plaques, and designated heritage sites is important, many points of local and personal connection and contribution are lost. Their meaning and significance remains obscure.
The Hidden Histories project seeks to address this challenge by enabling anyone with a computer the opportunity to map the histories important to them and the communities of which they are a part.
By completing a simple online form, the Hidden Histories map is a digital tool through which we can share with each other – across diverse and distinct communities – the significant histories that shape our lives. The map then locates these sites (the little feet icons), meaningful heritage plaques (the question marks), local museums and archives (marked by books and buildings). It also allows users to filter these locations by category and time period.
The purpose of this project is not so much to uncover unknown histories as it is focused on better sharing the histories that have long existed in southwestern Ontario but – for whatever reason – have not been as accessible beyond smaller groups of people. It is a tool that we hope might help our region in Imagining a New “We.”
Thomas Peace is an associate professor of history at Huron University, co-director of Huron’s Community History Centre, and editor at ActiveHistory.ca. A longer version of this post was delivered to the London-Middlesex Branch of the Ontario Genealogy Society in February.