Governor General’s History Awards

November 22, 2023

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Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people.

It is common to hear land acknowledgements like these, which recognize a more complete history of Canada, one that includes more voices, particularly those of Indigenous peoples, who have been here since time immemorial.

Welcome to Rideau Hall and congratulations to those being recognized today with the Governor General’s History Awards.

Canada’s history is complex. We are constantly learning about unheard or unshared stories, which add to a more complete picture of our past. History is taught … it is written… it is oral history … it evolves … and it shapes our national identity.

There is no one version of history. We continue to build on what we already know. This is not about rewriting our past … it’s about adding layers and stories to our history.

For the longest time, Canadian history neglected the history and experiences of Indigenous peoples. We did not hear or learn about residential schools or the Sixties Scoop. We did not hear about the forced relocation of Indigenous peoples, or the many other challenges they have faced. We didn’t hear about the positive contributions that Indigenous peoples have made either—in fact, that’s still an issue, even today. Canada’s history didn’t just start with colonization. The history of this land, and that of Indigenous peoples, reaches much further back.

History was framed from a certain point of view. An important layer—from the point of view of Indigenous peoples—was absent.

Today, that is changing. Indigenous peoples are telling their own stories, in their own voices, and these stories are being recorded—by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and by Indigenous authors, artists and knowledge keepers.

It’s our responsibility to listen and to learn.

I’ve had the great opportunity to discover so much during my mandate about the history of different cultures.

So many cultures in Canada have their own stories to tell, their own celebrations and community milestones that largely go unnoticed by the rest of the country.

Last June, for example, I attended a commemoration ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act. This act restricted Chinese immigration, impeded family reunification, and forced all Chinese people living in Canada to register with the government. It was a culmination of anti-Chinese racism and policies.

At the event, I heard from Chinese-Canadians and their stories of struggle, joy, assimilation and rejection. These stories have been passed down through generations, through art and through oral traditions.

During my visit to Winnipeg, Manitoba, last June, I met with refugees and with those working on preserving Ukrainian culture, tradition and history. I learned about
pysanky, which are decorative eggs that tell a story. And each egg, each story, is rooted in cultural, personal or historical knowledge.

I’ve learned throughout my life that history isn’t static. It’s not simply about memorizing dates and key moments. It’s about making history feel relevant today, and using all of our modern tools to connect people with the different ways that we share our history and stories. After all, people learn in different ways.

This is something all of you know very well.  

The Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan once stated that the “medium is the message.” In other words, how we tell these stories is sometimes just as important as the story itself.

And how we tell our stories is changing, in new and innovative ways.

For example, in honour of the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019, and the 80th anniversary of the Dieppe raid in 2022, the Juno Beach Centre Association launched a postcard project to help preserve the memory of soldiers who died that day.

They sent postcards to the homes where the soldiers once lived, allowing the people living there today the opportunity to know about the person who used to live there.

Leading up to this year’s Remembrance Day, the Poppy Stories initiative allowed Canadians to scan a poppy with their smartphones to learn more about the lives and deeds of veterans.

And at the Canadian War Museum right now, there is an exhibition featuring works by civilian artists who were deployed with the Canadian Armed Forces during 2018 and 2019. This is an extraordinary perspective of Canada’s military, its stories and history.

All of these examples connect Canadians with our past, with our veterans, with our serving members in uniform, and with the stories of sacrifice made by those who served so long ago. And it does so in unique ways.

And there are so many other examples we’ve seen. There are creative projects that tell our stories, such as the successful Broadway show Come From Away, which tells the story of Gander, Newfoundland, and how the community welcomed passengers from across the world in the aftermath of 9/11.

Or Filumena, an opera that tells the stories of Italian immigrants and the only woman to be hanged in Alberta. The creator, John Estacio, was just invested in the Order of Canada less than a month ago.

And who here doesn’t remember at least one of the iconic Heritage Minutes that played before our favourite television shows?

History—and the diverse stories that make up a more complete and complex history of Canada—should be part of our education. It should be available in schools and for anyone who wants to know and learn about Canada’s history.

And that is what you, the recipients of the Governor General’s History Awards, do.

You have used different media to educate others on our past. In fact, I was delighted to see the diverse ways you are sharing knowledge with students and with all Canadians. I gave some examples of innovative historical storytelling earlier. Perhaps you were inspired by some of those approaches in your own works, just as others will take inspiration from you.

You are making sure that the context is known, that you are adding the layers I mentioned earlier, whether you are talking about Indigenous history, military history, the history of our veterans or any number of other topics.

You see the blind spots in our understanding of history, and you are highlighting them in engaging ways, so that long after the class is finished, the book is read, the project is complete, the visit is concluded, the impact will still be felt. You are doing so by being innovative in your approaches, by connecting different generations using the tools and media that are popular today.

You are not only inspiring future historians, at a young age, to keep their minds open to all points of view, but you are also inspiring all Canadians to take an interest and an active role in learning our history.

You are creating history lovers.

History is made every day. You are the preservers, promoters and innovators of our history—encompassing all our diverse stories. In everything you do, you are displaying excellence.

And, today, you become part of the history of these awards.

Congratulations, once again, to all of you.

Thank you.