By: Tony Davis
Ed MacDonald was honoured to speak about the importance of history at the 2018 Symons Medal and Lecture. He is chair of the Faculty of Arts and an Associate Professor of history at UPEI.
“You’ve heard the saying, ‘I’m history.’ I’m finished is what they mean, done, I’m dismissed, the past.”
In recent times it seems the common attitude in history is it’s simply the past. MacDonald said it is more than that.
“It has become in our society what it has become in our high schools, which is an elective and very often it is not elected.”
The study of the past has been irrelevant in a word obsessed with the present, MacDonald said.
“Our lecture today, a vivid lecture, an erudite lecture is a reminder that history should instead be a necessity,” he said.
The recipient of the 2018 Symons Medal knows a thing or two about the necessity of history.
Doctor Margaret MacMillan is a world-renowned historian, professor at the University of Toronto, and a worldwide distinguished specialist of modern international history.
The Symons Medal recognizes a distinguished individual who has made an exceptional contribution to Canadian life, and MacMillan’s work on history has touched many Canadians.
Premier Wade MacLauchlan read MacMillan’s book, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History.
In the book MacMillan warned against the manipulation of history to justify religious movements or political campaigns. The Premier said and elections in Canada this past year have seen elements of populism using the fear of the other and historical context to manipulate.
“It hasn’t been to the same extent as the frenzy over the caravans or voter fraud in the U.S. mid- terms, but with sufficient volume we should be concerned about our ability to continue to build and enjoy a free democratic and inclusive society with shared prosperity.”
History continues to affect the world today, but MacMillan took the opportunity to speak about how history, namely the First World War contributed to the creation of Canada.
As a member of the British Empire we pushed for our own identity, coming up with our own ideals and criticizing British governance, kind of like how a teenager rejects their parents, McMillan said.
“By the end of the war we had a much greater sense not just of what we might want in the world but actually a much better capacity to do it.”
August 1914, Canada was automatically at war because of the relationship with Britain, she said.
“Canada was extremely important in the war effort partly because it produced soldiers.” MacMillan said the nature of the First World War was you needed the manpower.
Women showed themselves capable during the war and it is a major reason they gained the right to vote.
Some social advantages came from the First World War, but it also caused tensions at home. Francophone Quebecers were not happy with the war, McMillan said.
“They were feeling marginalized already before the war started, in 1912 Ontario cut back on French education in schools. I don’t think the present Premier of Ontario reads much history,” she said to applause from the crowd at the Confederation Centre.
Many resisted conscription, not just French speakers, but the county began to split along linguistic lines. French Canadian elites felt Borden broke his promise on never imposing conscription, McMillan said.
“We tended to remember the war as something that was the moment Canadians became Canadian,” McMillan said. “We remember the war with pride, but we also remember it perhaps as a time when Confederation was shaping, and this country very nearly came apart, but we are still here.”
That is the great strength of confederation, somehow, we agreed upon a system elastic enough to have disagreements, she said.
“If you had been taking bets on Canada in 1867 you would have said it won’t work, it’s too big, it’s too unworkable, its population is too small and as Canada grew enormously after the years of Confederation you would have been forgiven for being more pessimistic.”