Pondering the Past

Six great tips to start thinking historically. 

Written by Peter Seixas

Posted October 8, 2014

Things happen

John A. Macdonald demands another payoff of $10,000 in a secret telegram to railroad tycoon Sir Hugh Allan in 1872. Viola Desmond, an African-Canadian woman, refuses to give up her seat in a Nova Scotia theatre in 1946. You are born in ... whenever you were born. These events happen.

And then time moves on. They become part of the past, which includes everything that ever happened, from the static-filled broadcast on a radio in Norway House, Manitoba, in 1922 to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.

The first big problem with the past is that it is vast, mostly unknown, and potentially infinite. The second big problem with the past is that it is gone. Outside of make-believe and imagination, we can never again be in 1872, or 1946, or the year of your birth. But — and this is the third big problem with the past — the past has consequences for today and for tomorrow. The Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Japan and tens of thousands of people died, and the war ended — and the Cold War started, and miners dug for uranium in Canada, and the U.S. and Soviet Union spent millions of dollars on even more deadly weapons, whose technology then spread to other countries.

So the dropping of the atomic bomb was not simply a single event lost in a past that vanished. Its consequences bounced and rippled into the present, and will continue to do so into the future. The same goes with the moment of your birth. Its consequences continue to the present, and will carry forward until your death, and beyond that among the children you have, the things you produce, the ideas you promote.

So we have the key distinction that underlies the discipline of history. The past — infinite, meaningless, and gone — is one kind of thing. The stories we tell about the past, looking backward retrospectively, are another kind of thing altogether. They are limited (they have a beginning, a middle, and an end); they are about particular individuals and groups (we can’t tell everyone’s story); they are meaningful (otherwise why would we tell them); and they are located in the present — in today’s books, magazines, films, photographs, and museums.

Who tells the story, why the story is told, to whom it’s told, when it’s told — these and many other factors shape and influence the stories about the past. The fact that the past is an altogether different kind of thing from the stories that are told about it poses many challenges.

The Beaver (now known as Canada’s History) provides a key resource with which to confront these challenges. This article aims to show how you might do so, using six historical thinking concepts. By making the historical thinking concepts explicit, as we have done in the Benchmarks of Historical Thinking project, rich historical investigations, in the classroom and elsewhere, become possible.

1. Using primary source evidence

Primary source evidence provides the crucial link between civilized eyes — appearing to predominate.” the past and our stories about the past. There are many different types of primary evidence, including written records, oral testimony, relics, letters, government documents, maps, and radio broadcasts. What defines sources as primary is that they were created at the time that you are studying. They can thus be used as evidence for what people were thinking, how they lived, and what was happening around them. Primary sources are a part of the past you are studying.

Is The Beaver a primary source? It depends on what questions you are asking. Starting as a publication of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1920, back issues of The Beaver can be read in order to understand how a certain segment of Canadian writers thought, and, by extension, what kinds of thinking were broadly acceptable in the culture at the time.

Consider the following passage, written by George Anderson in June 1943. It was part of an article about aboriginal people, whom he called “Pagan Eskimos,” based on his experiences on the western shores of Hudson Bay:

“I suppose everyone who has been in contact with primitive races has, sooner or later, come up against some kind of taboo. The Eskimos are particularly taboo ridden. These bans run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous, with the latter — at least in civilized eyes — appearing to predominate.” 

Beaver readers in 1943 might have read this article to learn fascinating information about “the Eskimos.” In 2009, we read it quite differently, as a primary source, to find out about the culture of English Canada and its confrontation with the Inuit in the 1940s. In order to do so, we need to read closely, pay attention to the language, and use it to make inferences about the beliefs and world view of the author. To us, the striking distinction in this passage is between “primitive races” and “civilized eyes.”

The former (i.e., the “Eskimos”) are “ridiculous” in the eyes of the latter (i.e., the author). This short passage gives a clear sense, borne out in the rest of the article, of how George Anderson in 1943 considered his culture to be superior to the supposedly ignorant and magic-ridden culture of the Inuit.

In order to turn a source into evidence, it is necessary to know something about the time and place of its creation — to contextualize the source. Good questions are also necessary. A few include: What is it? (An article from a 1943 Beaver.) What was the position of the author or creator? (An English-Canadian who lived in the North, an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company.) What does the material reveal about the (conscious) purposes of its creator and their (unconscious) values and world view? (He sees the Inuit as an ignorant people, in need of his help, but at the same time he is contemptuous of them.)

2. Establishing historical significance

The past includes everything that ever happened to anyone anywhere. You cannot remember or learn it all. Choices must be made. Historians make choices about what is worth studying. The editor of The Beaver makes choices about what to publish. So do teachers and textbook writers about what is worth students’ time to learn.

An article entitled “The Legacy of Viola Desmond” appeared in the April-May 2009 issue of The Beaver.

“Viola Desmond’s refusal to give up her seat in a Nova Scotia theatre back in 1946 sent out a shock wave that continues to be felt more than six decades later. The event galvanized the local African-Canadian community in a way never before seen in Canada. It focused the newly formed Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured Peoples, which paid Desmond’s fine and supported her court fight. It inspired the creation of an independent black newspaper, The Clarion....”

The Beaver’s editor thought that Desmond’s actions were significant. How do you decide what is historically significant? There are two basic ways that historians argue for the historical significance of particular people or events. One is to point out serious consequences, for many people, over a long period of time. Significant events can also reveal or shed light on long-lasting or emerging issues in history and contemporary life. Viola Desmond’s story fits both of these criteria, to a certain degree. Her actions didn’t have consequences on the level of the dropping of the atomic bomb, but they certainly had local consequences and an impact on the black community. Her story also reveals the problems of the long-standing struggle against discrimination and for equal rights faced by African-Canadians, and, by extension, other minorities — concerns of ours today.

Historical significance can also change over time. Fifty years ago, textbooks did not include African-Canadians, because they were not seen to be historically significant. Historical significance thus reflects not just the past, but also our values, as a society, in the present: what is important to us.

Note that in the above discussion of “The Legacy of Viola Desmond” I have not asked the kinds of questions that I did about “Pagan Eskimos.” I have not used the article as a primary source. But I could go back to The Beaver of September 1945 and find an article entitled ““Nigger Dan” at Fort St. John” to provide excellent primary source evidence of the kind of discriminatory attitudes that Viola Desmond and Carrie Best faced in the Canada of the 1940s.

3. Taking a historical perspective

The past is so different that its people sometimes appear stupid, ignorant, weird, or all of the above. But for us to judge them like this simply because they didn’t live in our times is a mistake. Their whole way of experiencing the world, their whole way of thinking, and perhaps even feeling, were different in ways that are hard for us to imagine.

Taking a historical perspective is the process of “putting ourselves in their shoes,” using all of the evidence that we can find. Doing this means that we need to leave behind, temporarily, some of the values and categories that shape our thinking in the twenty-first century. Taking a historical perspective does not require that we agree with people of the past or identify with them, but that we attempt to understand them. Primary source documents can often help, but even here, caution is required to not impose our meanings on their words. Complicating this even further, people who share a particular historical moment or situation may still have very different world views. Understanding the diversity of perspectives in any one moment is a key to understanding the events of the time.

With all this in mind, let’s return to George Anderson and his “Pagan Eskimos.” Our initial response was that he was ignorant for thinking of the Inuit as ignorant. But taking a historical perspective requires us to suspend that judgment and try to understand him as thoroughly as possible, as part of his culture. Here is more of his article — the story of an accident involving an overturned canoe:

“One of the boys had managed to reach shore, but the other was still in the water. I managed to fish him out and found him apparently dead. Immediately there were loud lamentations and two Angakook commenced their ministrations. It was obvious that they knew nothing of resuscitation, so I pushed them aside.... Fortunately, after over an hour of artificial respiration, I was able to bring the lad round.... In the realm of ... medicine, the Eskimo is extremely crude. He believes that all sickness ... is caused by evil spirits.”

Here we have more of Anderson’s arrogance: We can picture him pushing the anxious relatives aside. But what did this feel like for him? How did he make sense of it all? More of a picture emerges, of a well-meaning, culturally insensitive man who may, despite it all, have had something to offer. Making the picture more complex, he introduces his final story saying, “We make it a point never to ridicule the beliefs of primitive people,” and then tells the story of an Angakook woman correctly predicting the future, to his bewilderment. Only by withholding our judgment, examining the sources, and taking a historical perspective can we begin to understand the full complexity of this distant intercultural exchange.

4. Understanding the ethical dimension in history

Even when we maintain our distance, there is still, necessarily, an ethical dimension to history. Most historians attempt to hold back on ethical judgments about actors in the midst of their histories. They need to, in part because our own ethical standards may be so different from those of the times we are studying: Concepts like racism, sexism, and homophobia, for example, are all products of very recent times.

But, when all is said and done, if the story is meaningful, then there is usually an ethical judgment involved. It would be hard to imagine a good history of aboriginal-European contact in the North, of the Holocaust, or of slavery in the southern United States that did not take an ethical stand.

Sometimes simply reading a history text helps us to honour a debt of memory (for example, to fallen soldiers from World War I). Sometimes a history helps to clarify when an apology is due for past events (such as the Japanese-Canadian internment during World War II). And sometimes it enforces a case for land claims or reparations to the victims of crimes (for example, to the abused children of aboriginal residential schools). Often, the ethical judgments of a historian lie somewhat under the surface, and it is an important piece of critical historical thinking to be able to see the judgments, even when they are not explicit.

Here is the introduction to Donald Creighton’s article on John A. Macdonald, published in The Beaver in 1956:

“They called him ‘Old Tomorrow.’ It was a not unkindly, even affectionate, and yet seriously misleading sobriquet. He did not live in the future. He lived intensely in the present. ... In less than a quarter century, he built a nation, extended it across a continent, and bound it together with the steel track of a railway. Even in the nineteenth century, that century of strenuous nation building, this was regarded as a considerable feat; and time, with all the tremendous changes it has brought in the last fifty years, has simply served to enhance the importance of the achievement.”

Creighton is clearly arguing here for Macdonald’s historical significance, by showing his place in a larger narrative of the nation — not a particularly difficult task. But beyond that, it is also easy for the reader in 2009 to detect Creighton’s ethical judgment: Macdonald is, and should be, remembered as a hero.

In contrast, here is a passage from Peter Black’s treatment of Macdonald, from an article in The Beaver’s October-November 2007 issue:

“In reflecting back, his mind weakened by fear, stress, and drink, a certain telegram he had dispatched the previous August would have haunted him: ‘I must have another ten thousand — will be the last time of calling. Do not fail me; answer to-day.’ That damning bit of extortion had now been exposed publicly, along with mountains of other evidence linking him to the Pacific Scandal. Macdonald was cornered, with scant hope of salvation. So, on that fine August day, the first prime minister of Canada fled, and for the next few days no one knew where on earth he was — or they weren’t telling. Thus began what might be called Sir John’s ‘lost weekend.’”

Macdonald managed to recover from this ignominious episode, but Black paints a picture, so different from Creighton’s, of a politician mired in drink and trapped by his own machinations. What Creighton admired as “the strenuous nation building” of the late-nineteenth century now seems tainted — from its corrupt alliances between politicians and an early crop of capitalist tycoons, to the land deals which were its payoff, to its devastating effects on aboriginal peoples.

These ethical interpretations of past actions, in turn, have consequences for how we think about ourselves today — and this is one way that past events ripple into the present. If muscular nation building was the act of a hero, as Creighton tells it, then its consequences for those who stood to lose were simply collateral damage. If, on the other hand, like Black, we recognize our earlier heroes’ feet of clay, we put ourselves in better positions to heal the wounds that nineteenth-century nation building wrought.

5. Identifying continuity and change

In February 1921, The Beaver ran a short piece identifying hockey as Canada’s national sport: “No other boys in the world could ever play hockey quite as Canadian youngsters do.... It is the spirit of Vimy Ridge and Festubert that crops out strongest in a fast rush down the ice with the puck. The vigour, stamina, fearlessness and self reliant manliness demanded by the game are natural, because the Canadian came first, and then hockey developed as his characteristic sport.”

This passage raises questions in respect to any of the historical thinking concepts discussed so far. First World War battles at Vimy Ridge and Festubert are treated in this passage as having equal historical significance. Why is it, then, that Vimy Ridge appears in every twentieth-century Canadian history textbook, while Festubert has disappeared, despite almost 2,500 Canadian casualties? Considering this passage as primary source evidence, we might conduct a close examination of its language, assumptions, and argument in the context of the immediate post-World War I years. It neatly bundles together “manliness,” military zeal, and a distinctively Canadian national spirit as the foundations of the sport of hockey. The question of continuity and change prompts us to investigate what has changed and what has remained the same since the writing of this Beaver article in 1921.

To what degree is hockey still bound up with masculinity? Has the introduction of women’s hockey made a significant change in this identification? If we are not so quick to identify hockey with military zeal in the early twenty-first century, the question of hockey’s relationship to male violence is still a continuing theme.

Certainly it’s difficult to make the claim today that “no other boys in the world could ever play hockey quite as Canadian youngsters do.” And yet, the idea of hockey as distinctively Canadian lingers in the national psyche. Issues of continuity and change prompt questions about the different periods into which we might divide hockey history, about the pace of change, about whether the changes have represented progress, and, if so, for whom.

6. Cause and consequence

Any time there is an event, the questions are open as to what caused it and what were its consequences. Questions of cause and consequence can range from the very small and particular (Who was responsible for the winning goal?) to the large and complex (What was responsible for the commercialization of hockey? What was the impact of television on the sport?). Both who (particular people and groups of people) and what (economic, political, social, and geographic conditions) need to be considered.

A final note

One danger in the classroom is that students experience history as a bunch of disconnected facts: “one damn thing after another.” But even when a teacher tells fascinating stories about the past, there is still the danger of students being merely passive recipients. For students to engage actively with the legacies of the past and to confront their meanings for us today, they need to do more than listen to and read other people’s accounts: They need to think historically. The six historical thinking concepts, along with archives like The Beaver’s, can help students do just that.

Peter Seixas is Professor Emeritus and former Canada Research Chair in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia. Learn more about the Historical Thinking Project.

This article originally appeared in Teaching Canada's History, a special issue of Canada's History magazine.

You can also browse through 90+ years of Canadian history at Canada’s History Archive featuring The Beaver

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