Lord Frederick Arthur Stanley, for whom Stanley Park in Vancouver is named. (Library and Archives Canada photo)

T.W. Paterson column: Better than reality TV: reality history

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” —Rudyard Kipling.

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” —Rudyard Kipling.

Thank you, Mr. Kipling; I couldn’t have said it better myself.

I’ve written before how I didn’t encounter Canadian history (other than a cursory look at the arrival of the French in Quebec) until Grade 8.

How I’d satisfied my natural love for history through observation (tumbled-down bridges and buildings were a turn-on even then), American movies, magazines and TV. That’s because there was no Canadian history (by which I mean local or regional history, something with which I could identify) apparent or available to me.

And how it was an American television program that belatedly introduced me to B.C.’s colourful past and sent me off to the provincial archives.

The rest, as they say is history; I’ve been writing about it ever since. And, for the benefit of those who are always asking, there’s no end of subject matter in sight.

I was reminded of this recently from a conversation with a retired teacher who, years ago, had me speak to her class. I’d played it safe by taking along visual aids in the form of some great artifacts that I’d unearthed over the years and the rest, as it proved, was easy. The kids lapped it up. And the memory of that afternoon in her classroom had stuck with her over the years as it had with me.

I’m not bragging about my ability as a public speaker but making the point that many young people who find history to be “dull and boring” just aren’t having it presented to them in a form that captures and engages their interest.

That said, I should think that teachers have a trump card these days, the current re-evaluation of our colonial past with all its errors and omissions coming to light as never before. Pioneers and politicians whose names have been part of our bedrock culture going back to the 1700s are now being re-examined and, in some cases, failed for what we belatedly see to have been their true and sometimes less than honourable roles in the making of Canada.

Even our first prime minister, the so-called father of our nation, is on the carpet for his contributory role in the establishment of residential schools.

This rebooting of our history is a fascinating exercise; one that I hope that the schools are taking advantage of to incite students’ interest. In the age of so-called reality TV, what better than reality history, warts and all?

Speaking of which, retro-fits are springing up like mushrooms in the fall rain. The latest is Vancouver Parks Board’s “colonial audit,” a re-look at the actions of the city’s forefathers since 1888 — those forefathers who created Stanley Park by evicting its original Indigenous owners and occupants.

The board has voted to apologize to the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations for “taking away ancestral lands, digging up burial grounds to build roads and playgrounds, and other damaging actions,” according to the news report. Park board chairman Stuart Mackinnon likens the reconciliation process to “truthtelling” about our colonial past.

But the board is willing to go beyond an apology by working with local First Nations to avoid future similar actions. Even the park’s name is up for scrutiny. It honours Lord Frederick Arthur Stanley, KG, GCB, GCVO, PC, 1841-1908, the 16th Earl of Derby, a British Conservative politician who’d served as colonial secretary before being appointed our sixth Governor General. An avid sportsman, he’s also remembered for having presented Canada with the Stanley Cup. In this case, he’s not being faulted for anything he did just for the fact that his name was given to the park at a time when little if any consideration was given to perhaps more worthy provenance.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out…

And speaking of Stanley Park, one of its most famous landmarks came under the gun last year when parks commissioners voted unanimously to work towards righting “acts of dispossession and disrespect”. Siwash Rock takes its name from the Chinook trade jargon term for a First Nations person; unfortunately, Siwash is considered to be derogatory as it’s derived from the French word sauvage, or savage.

“Once you know, the innocence is lost,” said Commissioner Catherine Evans. “You can’t go on pretending that it’s not derogatory, just because you are not using it in a derogatory way.”

There’s been a change of another kind in Lytton where belated recognition is being paid to the region’s Chinese pioneers with a commemorative plaque unveiled a week ago. According to George Chow, the provincial minister of state for trade, the plaque “recognizes the courage Chinese settlers maintained in the face of institutionalized racism when they arrived in the area more than 150 years ago”. The plaque is meant to remind British Columbians of the province’s discriminatory practices, he said.

Lytton was chosen as the site for the plaque because many Chinese pioneers settled there after completion of the transcontinental railway to become miners. The plaque is part of a $1 million program celebrating the historical contributions of Chinese-Canadians in B.C.

(Come to think of it: I certainly wasn’t taught anything about institutionalized racism when I was in school. Or about residential schools or—.)

In Victoria, the peak of Mount Douglas is considered by Coast Salish people to “represent the beginning of time,” the place of their creation, and they want it restored to its original name, PKOLS (pronounced p’casls) which translates as White Rock. Its anglicized name, of course, honours Sir James Douglas, the founder of Fort Victoria then a chief factor for the Hudson’s Bay Co., then the colonial governor of Vancouver Island.

Make no mistake: Douglas, whatever his personal failings, is one of our greatest pioneers, a statesman who should be recognized as one of Canada’s Fathers of Confederation for having done more than anyone else to keep British Columbia from falling into American hands.

But that’s not the real issue when it comes to Mount Douglas where, by the way, he met with local chieftains to sign a treaty with local First Nations.

In May, there was a march to the summit and a re-enactment of the treaty signing so as to, in the words of Tsawout elder Eric Pelkey, “really bring this out to the public. We would like to make people more aware of the history of the Saanich people.” A PKOLS signboard was also erected at the mountain peak although it officially remains Mount Douglas.

Some proposed name changes have no hope of succeeding. A Halifax city councillor claims that the word “marijuana” is racist, that the word was originally used to demonize Mexicans. His tweets reportedly prompted a social media firestorm, one respondent summing it up this way: “Only in Canada could you smoke it but not say it.”

According to the U.S. National Hispanic Caucus, during the 1920s and ’30s, racist American politicians who’d outlawed the use of cannabis “used the term ‘marijuana’…precisely because they wanted to underscore that it was a Latino, particularly Mexican, ‘vice.’”

Derogatory or no, Coun. Shawn Clearly has as much chance of expunging marijuana from the English language as all governments have had to date in suppressing the drug’s usage.


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