JAMES MILES: Okay great, well good morning and good afternoon, everyone, and thank you again, Carla, for the introduction and thank you to Canada's History for inviting
me to speak today. And thank you all for being here.
It's really an honour, and I'm looking forward to learning from the other presenters and taking any questions you might have. So as we said in the introduction, my name is James Miles and I am currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education at Teachers College here at Columbia University. But formerly I was a secondary school social studies and history teacher primarily in West Vancouver, British Columbia for about ten years.
And while my research — while I live in the United States right now — my research is very much focused on how teachers and young people in Canada are making sense of historical injustice and how history learning might be oriented towards reconciliation and justice.
So I've approached — I've entitled my talk today "Approaching Difficult Histories in Canada" and I begin this talk with this image from the protests that emerged in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020. And in this case, the photograph from Montreal and the statue of John A. Macdonald that eventually was torn down by protesters.
And this movement, among many others, has sort of brought important attention and questions to the role difficult histories play in Canada and globally. And it raises these questions that I want us to keep in mind today about, sort of, why has this difficult past returned with such force in recent years, and what are educators and learners to do, and how should we respond to these difficult histories?
Before I give, sort of, my more formal talk I do want to acknowledge that I'm speaking to you today from the traditional ancestral homelands of the Munsee Lenape people here in what is now New York City. As a settler on this land, I'm aware of the legacies of settler colonialism and how they continue to impact Indigenous peoples and Nations across settler States, and I really ordered my work towards thinking about the ways education might be directed towards justice and reconciliation.
My talk this morning is primarily going to be about thinking how we might define what makes a difficult history, difficult. So the key questions my talk is thinking about is: what makes some history difficult? And as Carla mentioned a few minutes ago, difficult for whom, right? We may think about difficult histories as impacting different peoples and identities differently, and how does that matter in different places and through different moments in time.
And third, what challenges and opportunities do difficult histories present educators and learners in Canada? My research is very much thinking about what does this mean for the classroom? What do we do in social studies classrooms at all ages, and thinking about difficult histories and responding in part to the protests and movements towards historical justice, right?
And there's there's so much for discussion in recent years; the image on the screen is the statue of Macdonald that was taken down and removed in Kingston, Ontario. And how might we engage students, and others in museums and other settings, about these sort of
commemoration controversies. Before defining what difficult history is I think it's important to note that there's a lot of overlapping concepts here, and I'm going to be using many of these sort of interchangeably, but I do want to note that we have this term "hard history" which is the, sort of, title of this session today.
And "hard history" is the term that primarily is, I think, used from the Southern Poverty Law Society in the U.S. to talk about slavery, but it has sort of entered other contexts as well. I primarily will use this term "difficult history" and historical injustice interchangeably, but there's also these other terms out there, such as "controversial
history" or "difficult knowledge" which sometimes has more of a psychoanalytic bent, which we're not going to go into today, and also this idea of "sensitive pasts."
So I just want to acknowledge that there are these differences, but I'm going to be mainly focusing on "difficult history." So the question then is: what is difficult history? And here I draw from the work of Terrie Epstein and Carla Peck, one of our emcees, who write that "difficult histories are historical narratives that incorporate contested, painful, and/or violent events in regional, national or global accounts of the past."
And I think a couple things to point out with this definition: historical narratives here could be referring to historians' monographs, it could be referring to what gets told in classrooms, it could be textbooks, curricula, narratives that circulate in collective memory, and in museum spaces. So how are these narratives at play in the public, and what makes them difficult is this idea that they're contested, painful and/or violent, right? And so thinking through how these histories emerge in these different spaces and how we might think about them.
Turning to another definition, I look to the work of Magda Gross and Luke Terra who set at least five criteria for what makes a difficult history, difficult. And they argue that difficult histories are ones central to a nation's history, so in some ways that is in contradiction to the previous definition, right?
So we're seeing there's already different ways to think about difficult histories. But they're saying that difficult histories usually revolve around the nation. Secondly, difficult histories tend to refute broadly accepted versions of the past or stated national values, right? So we might think about, sort of, dominant narratives or national values of what it means to be Canadian and think about some of these debates that have been going on about, you know, how we should remember figures like John A. Macdonald or Egerton Ryerson, and in what ways are difficult histories refuting accepted versions or stated values.
Third, difficult histories connect with questions or problems facing us in the present. I think this is a really important aspect of difficult histories: that it's not just about the past, it's always about this relationship between past and present, and thinking about what these histories mean for us today and going into the future.
Fourth, difficult histories often involve violence, usually collective or state sanctioned, right? So when we talk about difficult histories it doesn't necessarily need to be violent, but it usually is, and it's usually something at, sort of, at the more state-sanctioned or governmental level.
And finally, difficult histories create disequilibria that challenge existing historical understandings. And that criterion is a bit, sort of, vague to me but I think what it's trying to get at, which I want to talk about next, is this idea of: difficult histories can make us uncomfortable, right?
They can challenge how we think about ourselves, and our relationships to others, and our relationship to the nation, and that's sort of part of why this concept, I think, is really powerful to think about. What is this disequilibria that difficult histories are presenting to us?
So my final definition slide before I sort of talk about what this means, perhaps for the classroom, is to think about how difficult histories are both then and now, right? In many ways, difficult histories are blurring this boundary between past and present. To use Saidiya Hartman's words, we might think of issues having different afterlives, right? What are the legacies and the ways they continue to ripple out.
Difficult histories are also deeply felt, right? They implicate us in the suffering, trauma, and pain of others. And in educational spaces this might often provoke emotions such as guilt, shame, and anger among others. So the question then becomes: what do we do with these emotions in educational spaces, right? Can they be transformed into something more productive rather than sort of reifying or confirming existing beliefs?
And so how do we think about what they might be doing in classrooms, and that's something I want to think about with you today.
So for the next part of my talk I'm going to turn my attention to what this means for teaching and learning about difficult histories, right? What are the challenges and opportunities for engaging difficult histories in classrooms, in museums, and other educational spaces — could be historic sites, and so on.
And I'm framing these challenges and opportunities around some of these ongoing conversations about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its final report in 2015, and the Calls to Action, right? Recent protests in relation to histories of racism and colonialism in Canada, right?
So the bottom right is protests around Egerton Ryerson; and what was formerly Ryerson University now is Toronto Metropolitan University. Protests for Black Lives Matter; this picture on the top right is from Queen's Park in Ontario.
But also I want to think about what this means for curriculum and teaching, and the top left is this image about the Historical Thinking Concepts. And these concepts have found their way into classrooms and curricula and, I think, are one way to think about difficult histories.
And so I'm going to be bringing these into conversation for engaging difficult histories and thinking about which parts of these concepts might be useful for educators and others thinking about the difficult past. So I've articulated three major challenges facing history education in Canada related to difficult histories, right? And the first one revolves around narratives, the stories we tell. How might Canadian historical narratives be re-imagined with truth, reconciliation, and justice in mind? What does it mean to tell these stories in classrooms?
How do we think about including difficult histories, including histories of settler colonialism, of violence, what does it mean to do that, and how do we challenge dominant narratives?
The second major challenge is about time. How can we think about avoiding turning difficult histories into what is sometimes called "sad chapters" in our history, right? So this is a question of temporality and thinking about how we organize and also how we talk about time, right? So thinking about injustices, not just being about in the past but also of course having legacies into the present.
And third, identity, right? What does this mean for each of us? How might educators and learners ethically reflect on their individual and collective identities and how are they implicated in historical injustices. And how might they be implicated differently in historical injustices depending on who they are, and the histories, and the groups they identify with.
So these are sort of the three big challenges I'm framing this discussion around, and now I'm going to talk about each one of these in a little bit more depth and raising questions, but also some opportunities, for what this might mean for teaching and learning.
So the first challenge and opportunity I want to explore is this one around narratives and I'm going to use the concept of historical significance as one way to think about this, right? So historical significance is a concept that asks us how do we decide what and whose stories to tell, right?
Whose stories we tell in classrooms, in museums, and public sites of history. At the same time we have to keep in mind, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot does, that history is always about power. And the stories that get told really are about the ways power operates in history and the silences of the past, right? And Trouillot's work tells us that history is silenced in multiple ways, it's silenced in the archives, it's silenced by governments, and it's silenced by historians, right?
So how might we bring silenced histories to the forefront, to light, to tell the truth of the past? And how might we include those histories within the stories that get told in sort of these formal history education sites in schools.
So I see this as kind of a tension between, well, part of it's about inclusion and representation, right? Including these stories into curricula, into textbooks, ensuring they're taught, ensuring the histories of marginalized, racialized, and Indigenous peoples is included in these formal sites of learning.
But I would also argue that that's not enough — that inclusion is not simply the end of this discussion. We need to think about if that inclusion actually is challenging or changing the dominant-narrative nation building that is often that play in these sites of history learning.
Otherwise we risk reaffirming this narrative and sort of side-barring these histories of non-dominant groups to, sort of, the sides of history textbooks, as places that are not part of the dominant narrative. So we need to think about how we do this in classrooms, and how we engage students in this as well about what stories do we tell, whose stories do we tell, and on what basis.
The second challenge and opportunity I want to explore today is about this idea of time, and I want to use this concept of continuity and change, right? And thinking about what continues from the past, what changes are there, and how do we use difficult history to make sense of this progress and decline over time.
Difficult histories must not be left in the past. As the historian Elazar Barkan says, "Historical injustices are continuous injustices," right? They are things that continue, they're ongoing. I also look to the work here of some scholars who have been thinking about what is settler colonialism?
People like Patrick Wolfe, Rita Dhamoon who argue that settler colonialism must be understood as both a structure and an ongoing process, not a discrete or resolved event, something that has passed, something that could be fixed in the past.
And just to give you one example, thinking about how politicians' apologies sometimes use this rhetorical device of calling things a "sad chapter," right? And what does it do when we call things a sad chapter, right? Does it suggest that they have come to an end, that they're fixed in the past?
And it's not to say that these things should be ongoing forever, but we need to consider who gets to decide how and what redress reconciliation might look like, and on whose terms.
And the final challenge I want to explore is this question of identity and the ethical dimension of history, right? And the ethical dimension of history is asking us questions like: what do historical injustices and sacrifices mean for us today, right?
The image on the screen is an image from Japanese Canadian Internment, and thinking about what does this mean for today what is this interment era — what are its legacies and what might we, how might we respond today.
And I'm arguing that we need to grapple with the complex, and often unequal, ways we are implicated in difficult history, right? Including how we might benefit from, perpetuate, or continue to be victimized by the structures of domination that have roots in difficult histories.
And those are some really challenging conversations to have, and especially to have in classrooms, right? Thinking about who benefits from settler colonialism, right, who benefits from internment or continues to benefit from these historical injustices, right?
And I'm arguing that the goal in these conversations in classrooms should be to develop a collective historical responsibility for difficult histories — so thinking about how we are all implicated in the past, we all have a responsibility, but also thinking about what that might mean in taking action towards Truth and Reconciliation, towards historical justice.
And then finally, I think it's important to note as well that, while I think there's a collective responsibility going on, it's also working towards a differentiated solidarity, right? And by that I mean that we're all coming to this from different places with different histories and different identities, and we are implicated in different ways.
And while solidarity should be a goal, we have to recognize that we're not coming to this from equal footing, and how might we have a differentiated solidarity for working towards some of these goals. And recognizing, perhaps, who should be leading these conversations, who should be directing this movement.
So those are sort of the three big areas I wanted to address, sort of these conceptual challenges, but also these opportunities for teachers to think about, and these concepts we might use to engage them. And before I finish my talk I do want to point to a few resources that I think could be really useful for teachers, especially in K-12 classrooms.
And these are some resources and organizations I'm lucky to be part of, and so the three big resources on the screen: one's about Ukrainian Internment on the far left, but this actually engages other historical injustices, including Residential Schools, the Chinese Head Tax, Japanese Canadian Internment, and the Komagata Maru.
In the middle there's a free resource that has five lessons that engages thinking about historical commemorations, and in particular, what might we do with these problematic commemorations and these discussions, and how might we involve students in those those conversations and invite them to take social action towards potentially a problematic commemoration in their community.
And then the third resource is one about teaching and learning about Residential Schools and inviting students to think about what they might contribute to meaningful reconciliation. These are all free resources and are available on the TC2 website, which is on the bottom there.
And then finally I wanted to point attention to the Thinking Historically for Canada's Future organization that is led by Carla Peck, and some of the work they're doing, and I think is really powerful and is going to be continuing to emerge in particular around how we might think about this tension between historical thinking and Indigenous knowledges, and where do they align, and where do they depart from each other, and how do we work with these two different ways of thinking and ways of being in the world in the classroom.
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