Exploring Hard Histories

Online event shares strategies for tackling difficult histories.

Written by Joanna Dawson

Posted May 8, 2023

From heated debates about statues to government apologies for historical injustices, it seems that the past has never been more present. But how can we nurture respectful and productive conversations about history in our classrooms, homes, and communities?

Recently, Canada’s History Society hosted the fifteenth annual Canada’s History Forum, titled “Hard Histories: Engaging with Difficult Topics in Canadian History.” The three-hour online event delved into several contentious and emotional topics, such as the legacies of colonialism, the Holocaust, and Canada’s relationship with the African slave trade. Beyond simply examining these difficult subjects, the forum aimed to provide a road map for how educators can approach them with empathy, respect, and a commitment to diverse perspectives.

Presenter James Miles, a professor of social studies education at Columbia University, said difficult histories often involve contested or traumatic events that elicit feelings of shame, guilt, or pain. “Difficult histories can make us uncomfortable,” Miles said. “They can challenge how we think about ourselves, our relationships to others, and our relationship to the nation.”

Presenter Afua Cooper, a Canadian historian who studies the enslavement of Black people, cautioned against glossing over difficult histories. Sharing historic newspaper ads that provide evidence of an active and violent slave trade in what is now Canada, she said, “We have to acknowledge that it happened.”

While these topics can be challenging in educational spaces, they are also opportunities for rich conversations and complex inquiries.

But how can educators best prepare themselves — and their learners — for approaching difficult history?

“Before we educate anyone else, we need to educate ourselves, so that we can answer hard questions and have a dialogue,” said award-winning writer and graphic novelist David A. Robertson, who presented on the history and legacy of residential schools in Canada.

Anne Marguet, the education coordinator at the Montreal Holocaust Museum, emphasized the importance of centring stories of lived experience. She shared a moving oral history of Edgar Lion, an Austrian-Jewish refugee who was interned in Canada as an enemy alien.

“These primary sources allow us not only to understand the context but also to rehumanize the victims, understand the diversity of experiences, and develop historical empathy,” Marguet said.

The presenters encouraged participants to continue to learn, to teach, and to share difficult histories with a goal of fostering empathy and understanding in the present.

To view videos of the Canada’s History Forum and to access recommended educational resources, visit CanadasHistory.ca/HardHistories.

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This article originally appeared in the June-July 2023 issue of Canada’s History.

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