I’ve done my first few practice sessions, and now I’m rolling out my first two tours: one on the building of the Rideau Canal and the other about the history of protest in Ottawa.
While preparing for the launch, which happens during the Peoples Social Forum this week, I’ve been thinking about Orwell’s comment on the relationship between history and politics. He was right; interpreting the past is closely linked to contesting the present in order to shape the future.
Through the media, and the school system, Canada’s elite ensure we get a sanitized version of history, all about the wise decisions and actions of politicians and businessmen. That greatly limits the range of options for present day decision-making. When common people make it into the official story, as we have in recent media discussion about World War I, it is invariably because we loyally followed the directions of the elite, even when it resulted in many thousands of deaths.
Dig a little deeper into a major historical event like World War I and the story gets more complicated. Recent media coverage about the centenary of World War I has not discussed complications that are uncomfortable for Canada’s elite: the imperialist rivalries that ‘caused’ the war, the business profiteering that undermined the troops, the racist internment of ethnic groups deemed to be disloyal, and the mutinies that occurred, including the 1918 mutiny by German sailors that triggered a revolution and ended the war.
Peoples’ History Walking Tours will contest the official story about aspects of Ottawa and Canada’s past to encourage critical thought. I take my inspiration from the efforts of a growing number of political activist/tour guides around the world who rely on history-from-below. Like Orwell, they understand that history and activism are necessarily related to building a better future.