Any history is a choice. The events and incidents that make up the story are not selected by accident, but by a complex intersection of structural and personal biases – what is known is known because it props up one story or another, because it reinforces a popular, comforting, or culturally important belief. The story of Canadian colonization that most of us learn in our schools and museums, for example, goes something like this:
– The First Nations peoples of Canada lived in complex societies well-adapted to their environment.
– European settlers arrived, traded with, fought with, and learned from the First Nations peoples.
– Pioneers pioneer.
– All of the sudden it’s 1951 and there’s the Indian Act.
Absent from the curriculum is several hundred years of attempted and, sadly, frequently successful genocide. No one wants to talk about the poisoned blankets or the massacres or the disenfranchisement or residential schools, because the mostly white people who write the textbooks and set up the exhibits at the ROM don’t want to remind themselves about how their noble pioneer ancestors either actively participated in or passively benefited from the wholesale destruction of a lot of people and cultures.
So it gets glossed over, and we get another parade of redcoats and dudes with fantastic beards to represent our history.
Last week I had the opportunity to experience another way of imagining Canadian history. I had the privilege of taking part in a day of “Women Speak Out”, a leadership and empowerment program for Toronto women run by Working for Change. On the newsprint taped to the wall was a barebones timeline of Canadian history – but the history of the marginalized, of women, First Nations, people of colour, LGBT+ people. In place of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Family Compact were the Gradual Civilization Act, the residential schools, the Famous Five. All of us were encouraged to write a significant event from our lives on a post-it and fit it into the timeline.
The group of women in that room was very diverse – women from South America, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Europe; white women, women of colour, First Nations women. The post-its that were added to the timeline were little snippets of complicated emotional tales, from unplanned pregnancies to surviving wars and natural disasters to one extremely awkward family dinner. What they all had in common was this: we were not alone.
Where our stories sat in the timeline showed how the challenges and difficulties we had faced didn’t come from our poor choices or bad characters (certainly not solely); they were part of a nexus of historical forces. Some people I know would look at that statement and go on a rant about how ‘we’ liberals lack responsibility and self-reliance, but that’s not really the point.
There’s a kind of destructive perfectionism – stay with me here, this isn’t really a tangent – which I see often in those kids who, while really talented, don’t do their homework. They seem to feel that if they’re not perfect there’s no point in trying to be better. They protect themselves against failure by not trying. Similarly, a woman who is convinced that her problems are her own fault – a message traditionally marginalized people like First Nations women and women of colour hear a lot – can have a hard time struggling on her own behalf. If she can’t even prevent an unwanted pregnancy, if she can’t even get a job, if she can’t protect herself from an abuser or from having to go onto the street, why bother speaking up for herself? Why is she worth it?
But a woman who sees her life and actions in historical context, as part of a larger story, can say maybe that story is something I can do something about, something I can affect and change.
And that is one of the many reasons that Women Speak Out is so, so awesome.