History

BRIDGES TO OUR PAST

A heritage fair spins fresh views of Canada's history

KEN MACQUEEN July 30 2001
History

BRIDGES TO OUR PAST

A heritage fair spins fresh views of Canada's history

KEN MACQUEEN July 30 2001

BRIDGES TO OUR PAST

A heritage fair spins fresh views of Canada's history

History

KEN MACQUEEN

For 15-year-old Yellowknife student Louise Tumchewics, it was a fascination with the nursing sisters—who tended Canada’s wounded soldiers as far back as 1899 in the Boer War—that brought her to the Historica Foundation of Canada’s national heritage fair in distant Kamloops, B.C. For 11-year-old Amanda Goller of Wakaw, Sask., dressed in a beautiful blue

period costume, it was an opportunity to commemorate a participant in the Riel Rebellion, her great-great-great grandmother, Christine Pilon.

Eric Fath-Kolmes, 13, of Edmonton brought a daunting stack of statutes and legislative debates, which he and fellow student Zahid Padamsey, 13, had transformed into a smdy of of human rights legislation in Alberta, enlivened with videotaped interviews with those who designed and enforce the 1972 Individual

Rights Protection Act. Molly Rankin, 13, who attends school just outside Mabou, the Celtic-music heart of Cape Breton Island, carried in a black case one of her most precious possessions: an heirloom fiddle given to her after the death in a car accident last year of John Morris Rankin, her famous father.

It’s no exaggeration to say that for one July week in this sun-blasted city in central British Columbia, these students—165 of them—made history. They gathered from across the country, selected from 135,000 participants in local and regional heritage fairs, to display their projects at the sixth annual national event. If that conjures images of a bookish gaggle of geeks, blame your teachers, not theirs. By the time these kids headed home last week, they’d cheerfully trashed the notion that history is the study of the dusty deceased by the distinctly dull.

Historica, says billionaire businessman Charles Bronfman, one of its founders, is “committed to bringing our history out of the shadows and into the mainstream.”

Bronfman’s CRB Foundation started the fairs and has produced dozens of Heritage Minutes, the popular film vignettes of Canada’s past. Historica, established in 1999, expanded the campaign with the financial backing of such business leaders as Lynton (Red) Wilson, former chairman of BCE Inc., and John Cleghorn, chairman of the Royal Bank, along with former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed. Among its goals is restoring history as a mandatory subject in school curricula beyond Grade 9. “History is our bridge from the past to the present,” Historica executive director Tom Axworthy told the students. “Here in Kamloops we see our future.”

It happens every July 1, and it drives Laurier LaPierre to distraction.

It is the Canada Day history quiz conducted for another historical advocacy group, The Dominion Institute.

The institute’s national poll inevitably shows the sad state of the national memory. This year, 46 per cent couldn’t identify Sir John A.

Macdonald as Canada’s first prime minister; just 13 per cent knew that Canadian women got the vote in the 191 Os. Great were the lamentations in editorial pages across the nation.

“Fools,” says LaPierre, 71, the legendary broadcaster, author and former professor of history, appointed in June to the Senate. He’s not condemning Canadians for their ignorance, but the institute for the kind of “stupid trivia” it expects students to memorize and carry to their graves: historic dates, key battles, dead prime ministers.

LaPierre, who serves as spokesman for the Historica heritage fairs, shared his heretical thoughts with an audience of middle-school history teachers during a banquet in a lovingly restored former Kamloops church. Don’t be limited by the curriculum or “stymied by facts,” he said. Instead of shock, there was riotous applause. Most of the teachers attending a summer institute, also sponsored by Historica, share LaPierre’s view that, “There

must be another way of accessing our memory bank.”

Later, LaPierre says he fears the institute’s twice-yearly historical quiz will inspire a “fundamentalist” return to rote learning. “If a kid in Grade 9 or 10 can sit down and name the prime ministers of Canada from 1867 to 2001, it would be a sort of accomplishment, no doubt. But would it be of any value?”

Plenty, the Dominion Institute’s executive director Rudyard Griffiths replies from his Toronto office. Griffiths says the

institute’s survey reveals a troubling “culture of amnesia” that must be corrected by a common national curriculum, one based on historical fact. “I like to think of it as a children’s mobile,” he says. “It’s what you hang the story of Canada on.”

Most projects on display in Kamloops celebrated events and people not recorded in history books. Instead, there are stories like that of Amanda Goller’s relative, Christine Pilon, a Louis Riel ally who later pressed Ottawa for damages suffered by the Métis. “This is more important to me,” she says. “Dead prime ministers are part of everybody’s life.” Louise Tumchewics, about to enter Grade 10, persuaded the Canadian War Museum to lend her a traditional blue dress and white veil of the military nursing sisters. Their bravery and innovation stretched the role of women and of nursing, Tumchewics says, “and they weren’t doing it as a feminist statement, they were

doing it as a duty to their country.” History isn’t dead, she adds, “and it isn’t a bunch of museums and boring things, or military campaigns and pieces of paper with writing on them. It’s about people. It’s about places. It’s about life, really.”

Molly Rankin’s project is called “The Music Follows the Blood.” It concerns her family’s musical roots and includes, of course, music, lyrics and photographs of her father and the other members of the Rankins, arguably Cape Breton’s most famous musical group. But in her carefully charted family tree, she was pleased and surprised to find her parents’ musical ability reached back generations.

It was, Molly concedes, a difficult project. Her father, a brilliant musician and composer, died in January, 2000, in a freak car accident. But the music endures —often, it seems the only thing sustaining an island long scarred by the rough economics of mining and fishing. Molly flips through a photo album filled with other musical greats— MacMasters, Camerons, Beatons, MacDonalds —their roots intertwined.

Beside her, at the Historica display in a Kamloops sportsplex, is her friend Stephanie MacDonald. A 15-year-old also from the Mabou area, Stephanie offers her business card, which reads: “The Dancing Fiddler.” Her project recounts the history of the 28-year-old Cape Breton Fiddlers’ Association. When her ancestors came from Scodand generations ago, Stephanie says, “they didn’t have many possessions, so they took what was their greatest treasure, their culture, and, more importantly, their music.”

Stephanie and Molly pick up their fiddles, and a reel pours out, played with unself-conscious grace. A crowd gathers in the stifling arena, as it has for centuries in distant Cape Breton whenever bow touches string. A girl playing her father’s fiddle, the music blending with that of her friend. Their story. Her story. History.

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