Presentation of the Governor General’s History Awards
Rideau Hall, Monday, December 12, 2011
Good morning and welcome to Rideau Hall.
It is a pleasure to be here to celebrate the men and women of all ages who bring Canadian history alive.
At last year’s presentation, I said: “As a law professor, I would always ask my students to consider the historical perspective behind any event. The past can provide clues to the present; it helps us make sense of events.”
So what can we make of the fact that at this year’s ceremony, we are presenting new awards at the Governor General’s History Awards?
In this case, the clues lie in the collaboration. For years, Canada’s National History Society, which administers both the teaching history award and the Pierre Berton Award, has worked in partnership with such organizations as the Canadian Museums Association, the Canadian Historical Association, The Historica-Dominion Institute and the Begbie History Society to promote the understanding of Canada’s history.
That we are here to honour academic research, museums, community programming, classroom teaching and popular history is a happy culmination of this collaboration, a key element to embedding the past in the minds of Canadians.
These organizations have supported the important task of understanding our storied history, and for years have celebrated those who have become its advocates.
Each recipient has taken a difficult road. Sharing Canadian history is not an easy task. How do we make history relevant?
Part of the answer is innovative thinking.
We don’t often consider how much work goes into ensuring that our history is not lost, nor the extent to which innovation plays in imparting these lessons.
In this context, however, innovation is not exclusively about using new technologies, although that certainly is one aspect, but rather it is about using a new approach to teach history or even reviving an old one.
Using a variety of techniques—such as role playing, multimedia and interactive presentations, and filmmaking—the recipients have proven that history can be taught in a way that attracts and retains the attention of Canadians.
After all, at its heart, history is about stories. The story of Aboriginal people in Canada and how they lived off the land for generations; the story of how LaFontaine and Baldwin came together to build a nation; the story of our sacrifice at Vimy Ridge and the birth of a Canadian military; the stories of Michaëlle Jean and Adrienne Clarkson, both of whom came to this country at a young age with big dreams and went on to become inimitable governors general of Canada. And the stories of every single Canadian, some who were born here, others who have chosen this country as home.
In his book A Short History of Canada, Desmond Morton, the recipient of the Pierre Berton Award last year, wrote: “A nation, said the French philosopher Ernest Renan, is a people that has done great things together in the past. It is not bound by language or by a common culture, but by a shared experience.”
Millions of stories differentiate us. But it is our shared experience that unites us. In today’s multicultural society, Canadians come from all walks of life and from every country in the world. We speak different languages and follow our own unique traditions, yet our country is one of inclusiveness; we strive for consensus and harmony.
Of course, with a multicultural society come many interpretations of history, but each account adds another dimension to the whole. Finding common ground is what we all attempt to do, and today’s recipients have all done their part not only in teaching history, but also in helping people rediscover the events they already know from different perspectives. And in so doing, discover who they are and where they are—what place they are in.
It is hard to be an advocate for the past when so many eyes are cast towards the future. But those who have studied history, who know our stories, understand that we build better when we have learned the lessons of the past.
In his book From Then to Now: A Short History of the World, historian Christopher Moore, one of this year’s recipients of the Governor General’s Literary Awards, wrote that “My country, Canada, is a child of world history . . . .”
We are still a young nation. But we find our origins in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, South America and Africa, and in all the corners of the world.
All of the recipients of the Governor General’s History Awards, from academics to students, are now part of the grand tradition of historical study that has been passed down through the generations.
We are a nation of history; we are a nation of stories. Let us continue to share and record our tales and strive for understanding so that many years from now, we can learn from our actions of today.