Tag: history

Who Are We?

Sidney Wharf

There is a debate developing in my town, actually, it’s an old debate but with a new focus. The perennial question of development vs conservation is now centred on our iconic wharf. It has stood at the end of the main street for about one hundred years and is now nearing the end of its life. On one side of the argument are those who want to preserve an iconic landmark, along with the businesses that sit on it. On the other side are those who argue repair is too costly so want to tear it down or replace it with a private enterprise.

line up for ferry at Sidney Wharf circa 1945

Not a new debate but one that plays out differently in different parts of the world. Here, in Canada, preservation is usually left up to individuals. While the provincial government in B.C. has some beautiful historic sites, some years ago their operation was turned over to private contractors. The result is that places like Fort Steele and Barkerville, which used to be living museums are now tourist attractions. The archives that used to be accessible on line through those sites have shut down. Now the websites list hours and fees. I guess I’m showing my bias here, but I really miss the museum approach to these historic places. Of course, the privatization was done in the name of reduced government expense.

When I visited Europe several years ago, our days were filled with tours of restored castles and cathedrals. They were stunningly beautiful. Tourists poured in to these edifices, cameras at the ready, mouths hanging open in wonder. The thing is, much of the “history” we were gawping at wasn’t original. Two world wars had decimated much of the architecture along the Rhine river. Yet, when the war ended, and Germany and its neighbours began rebuilding they poured billions of dollars into restoring their empty castles. If ever a government could say they couldn’t afford such “luxuries” surely Germany in 1945 was that government. Yet, the people of those towns and cities opted to spend scarce money restoring their built history, despite necessary infrastructure and even food supplies being in dire need.

At the other end of the scale are regimes like the Taliban in Afghanistan who deliberately destroy antiquities in the name of ideology. In North America much Indigenous culture was plundered or destroyed as new settlers sought to eradicate some aboriginal customs they considered evil.

“History” is a slippery topic. What is worth preserving and what is just old and worn out? In my country, we are undergoing a great reckoning with our relationship between Indigenous culture and settler culture. Both sides are grappling with a re-interpretation of past events. 

Our First Nations citizens say their identity is tied to the land. Trees and waterways, salmon and shellfish harvesting are not only environmental concerns but they define the people. Judging by my experience in Europe, it would seem the centuries of built history — from Roman roads to Art Nouveau hotels — express the character and dreams of that society.

I don’t know what the decision will be over our wharf, I suspect $$ will speak loudly. Perhaps settler society in Canada is too young to have a deeply ingrained view of itself, unlike the First Nations or 20th century Europeans. We “like” old things and the nostalgia they stir, but we’re not really prepared to put a lot of money into them. In some ways, we are still immigrants, rootless in this land.

Perhaps that is why there are so few entries under “historical fiction, Canada” in Amazon’s Kindle store: 8000 results compared to 50,000 in British historical fiction, 30,000 in French. Australia shows 4000 results under the same category. 

I hope we can keep the wharf at Sidney as a public space. Looking at the First Nations experience it is clear that knowing and preserving our history is vital to our well-being as a people.  In the scheme of human history, 100 years barely registers on the scale, but we won’t get to 1000 if we don’t pay attention to the 100’s.

Sidney Wharf and Fish Market in 2021

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Notre Dame

courtesy cnn

Along with most of the world, I had a heavy heart on Monday morning. The film showing Notre Dame de Paris burning seems so impossible. This icon of France, monumental architecture of the medieval world, symbol of the Christian church, guardian of the city for over 1000 years is so etched on the public conscience it seems impossible that it can be lost. When I saw the spire topple I couldn’t help but sob.

Today, there are vows to rebuild and pledges of millions of dollars, to help with that effort. There is comfort in know all the world cares about this piece of history. I wonder though, will it ever be the same? Can a reproduction take the place of the original?

A few years ago, my husband and I took a trip through Europe where we visited castle after castle and cathedral upon cathedral. Nearly all had been severely damaged during WWII. They had been rebuilt using materials and techniques true to the original structure. The results were truly amazing.

One structure in particular, the Residenze at Würzburg, had been nearly 87% destroyed, yet many of the treasures had already been removed from the building — much as many of the art works had already been removed from Notre Dame. Between 1945 and 1987 the Residenze was restored at a cost of approximately €20m.

For me, the most spectacular room was the mirror cabinet . The walls were formed of glass and paintings were etched on them from behind! i.e. the artist had to build up the image backward. So in a face, the dot of light at the centre of the eye went on first, then the pupil, then the iris, then the white of the eye, then the lids, etc. The last touch put on the painting was the background. My mind boggled at the skill and knowledge required to achieve such an effect. 

Much as I appreciated seeing the treasures of Medieval Europe I couldn’t help but ask why a war-ravished country was willing to spend so much on old buildings. The population needed food, shelter, transport, schools, hospitals . . .  How did they justify the expenditure of millions and millions of dollars on historic buildings. The citizen I asked replied that their history was what they had to show to the world. In North America, she said, or Australia or New Zealand, we have landscape. In Europe, they have history.

While I love the vistas and open spaces of my country, Canada, I’m not sure we have a good sense of history. I’m glad that Europe does. Today Notre Dame de Paris is a shell, but it holds the heart of a people. I rejoice that it will rise from the ashes.                                                                                                                                                            




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Where Do Ideas Come From?

At some point in her career, every writer is asked “where do you get your ideas?” There are many answers, but I found a source for new story ideas at a concert at the Butchart Gardens last week.  One of the blessings of living in my part of the world is the live music hosted at the Gardens every night in the summer, or as one entertainer put it, “the best smelling concert venue in all of Canada.”  On this particular night, I heard Tiller’s Folly.  They are a B.C trio that now bills itself as “acoustic roots music.”

I went to hear them because I like Celtic music and that is part of their repertoire, but I heard much more than that. I got a lesson on Canadian and, more specifically, British Columbian history.  Tales of rum runners, and ghosts and explorers, and whales and miners and lumberjacks.

This group has done its research and brought history alive through story and song. I’m pleased to report they visit schools in our province so children are learning the history behind the names on streets, and mountain tops and waterways.

As a writer of historical romance, I was inspired. They told no tales of women on the pirate ships, but what if there were?  What if a woman joined a river exploration?  What if a woman tended a lighthouse?

If you are a writer, stuck for an idea, I’d suggest you listen to, or read the lyrics, of folk singers, or country and western singers, or opera singers. The music is full of tales of derring-do, of battles won and lost, of mighty men and inspiring women.  Sometimes they tell of small things, of a man and a woman and how they find love, of a family that loses its way, of a dream lost and found.

So, next time I’m stuck for a story idea, I’ll look up some songs by Tiller’s Folly. I’m sure I’ll be inspired.

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We’re All Immigrants

I spent Sunday afternoon attending a fund-raising concert for Syrian immigrants.  Lovely concert, but the cause was most important.  The plight of refugees from the Middle East, especially Syria, has been well-documented in the media and Canada has opened its heart and its homes to those fleeing war.

This is not new in my country.  From 1979 to 1980, Canada accepted 50,000 Boat People, so desperate to escape Viet Nam they took to flimsy boats, paying outrageous fees to exploiters who promised them passage to the West.   Then, as now, refugees were sponsored by church groups, community groups, clubs, office groups and government.  As a nation, we were proud of our compassion.

It was not always so.  There are black marks in our history, like when we turned away German Jews in 1939.  They were forced to return to Europe, where most ended in  concentration camps.

But, by and large, Canada, and all of North America for that matter, is the story of immigration.  My own Irish ancestors arrived here in the wake of the potato famine of the 1840’s.   On my German side, there is a tale of a wicked stepmother.  The story is that she managed to disinherit the oldest son of her husband by his first wife so that their land would go to her son.  The disinherited man, my forebear, emigrated rather than be a tenant on what he considered his own land.  They came to Canada and the promise of free land.

Each wave of immigrants has been met with a mixed welcome.  Irish, Polish, Hungarians, Chinese have all experienced discrimination.  Remember the pictures of “Irish Need Not Apply” in our history books?  At the same time, prairie women set up welcoming centres to help the flood of European immigrants pouring into Canada’s west in the late nineteenth century.

I tend to think of North America as the destination for immigrants, but history shows that people have migrated all over the world since earliest times.  Our own First Nations probably came to this part of the world from Asia at the time when it was possible to walk across the Bering Sea from Asia to present-day Alaska.  Pre-historic migration out of Africa populated continental Europe and the British Isles.

While it is common for an established population to fear immigrants, “the other,” those others bring huge benefits.  Migrants to Ireland and Cornwall brought their knowledge of tin and copper, signalling the beginning of the Bronze Age in Britain. Modern migrants in Canada  settled the Prairies, joined the army, contributed to our universities, ran for parliament, raised families, paid taxes, trained as doctors and nurses and teachers and cooks.  Those Boat People?  They are in the forefront of sponsorship drives for Syrian refugees.

There will be clashes as Canadian society tries to absorb 25,000 refugees in a short time, refugees from a  different culture, a different religion and a different clime.  But the goodwill exemplified by S.P.R.I.G. and thousands of similar groups across the country is reason for hope.

My immigrant ancestors helped make this country.  Today’s immigrants will do likewise.

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