As the bells toll on the 11th hour we must remember the forgotten

By Abdul Nakua, Director of Institutions and Fundraising at MAC.

Societies have long developed rituals and dedicated times of remembrance of significant historical events in an attempt to reflect on the past as well as shape the future. Memorials, monuments, and landmarks tend to impose a selective memory on history that deliberately suppresses certain memories while amplifying others.

Canada built more than 8,200 monuments and 999 national historic sites, many during the 1920s and 1930s, to construct a narrative of sacrifice and nation-building. These rituals expanded over time. What emerged as “the collective imperative to grieve and to remember — not to forget” has shifted from commemorating the fallen and toward glorifying the standing, while the voices of the war victims remain silent.

No question, we as Canadians must honour the memory of those who sacrificed and lost their lives while fighting for our nation. Equally important is to reimagine remembrance to include those left out of it and whose memory has been erased from the public discourse.

There is optimism that we are nearing a tipping point toward more inclusive remembrance rituals that recognize a more honest narrative of our history that includes its tumultuous moments as well.

Two forces are driving this change. One is the quest for truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and the other is the transformation of Canadian society over the last half-century from a dualistic French-English culture to a vibrant multicultural nation.

Unfortunately, the federal government has done little to address these new realities. In 2020, Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay introduced a 10-year proposal for commemoration. While acknowledging the changing nature of Canadian society and the necessity for a “forward-looking approach to commemoration in the 21st century,” little substance was given to the idea of rethinking Remembrance.

The defacing of statues of historical leaders like Sir John A. Macdonald, or Edward Cornwallis, or the proposed removal of names like Ryerson and Dundas from buildings and streets indicates a concerted push to re-examine parts of our nation’s past.

As Richard Alway, head of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, argued for revising history as a way forward, rather than erasing it, suggesting that the right balance can be attained by “adding layers of forgotten history.” Accordingly, memorialization should include victims of the cultural genocide against the seven generations of Indigenous children, and Canadians whose identities do not fit the dominant narrative, notably the children of victims of colonial wars.

Only then shall we remember the wisdom of John Donne that “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” and when we hear the bells toll on the 11th hour, of that day, we shall “never send to know for whom the bells tolls”; it tolls for all of us, one and whole, the sons and daughters of the fallen and the standing, of the colonizer and the colonized, and of the victimizer and the victimized.

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