HSMBC100 Talk

Future of Commemoration

Remembering (for) the Future

Talk given at the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada's 100 anniversary in Ottawa. June 20, 2019

Hello and thank you.

Like my fellow panelists, I’ve been asked to make some remarks as to the future of commemoration. Or to ruminate on the question of what national commemoration could look like over the next 100 years.

This question is very interesting to me because while my work has looked to the past, I have a keen focus on the future. My interest for the past two decades have been on teaching, learning, and commemorating history for youth. And so in many ways when I speak to the past, I always have one eye to the future because I’m trying to advocate for what a 15 year old or 10 year old or 6 year old needs from their history education in order to bring them to the future. And so I am interested in commemoration as a future endeavour, because we are marking, and remarking, spaces not just for those who experienced the past, but for those who need to experience the past in the future as well.

But to start my remarks I will look to the past and to the origins of the word “commemoration.”

The word “commemoration” comes from Latin “to bring to remembrance.” The structure of this definition is interesting. “To bring” is an infinitive, without a subject or tense. “Remembrance” is further defined as “to bring to mind.” So, with the roots of this word, commemoration means “To bring being brought to mind.”

Another way we could think about this is that commemoration is intended to be the spark of people’s memories – whether they have that memory or this commemorative moment is trying to make that a memory for them. In national commemoration, these memories are intended to put a stake in the ground, literally, about the people, places, and moments that define and defined Canada. To bring to peoples’ minds, who we are and what we have done and where, so that we remember – linking with Quebec’s motto.

To lead us into the future, however – to think not just about what has come but what can be to come – this stake in the ground for defining Canada is not enough.

To think about the future, commemoration for the next 100 years has to be democratic, it has to be participatory, it should be restorative, and, if you’re brave enough, commemoration for the next 100 years be radical.


And so what do I mean when I say democratic and participatory? Well, I mean when you think I mean, and what other speakers today have demonstrated: we need to ensure we are representing the histories of many people in Canada and that the determination of what and who is commemorated should be an activity that many people can participate in. Because of you look around the room and everyone looks like you in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, then you need to develop some new criteria for inclusion.

However, I also mean more than that.

There is no reason in today’s highly connected extraordinarily digital world that we shouldn’t be using commemorative tools to engender greater conversations about what and who should be remembered and how.

There is no reason we shouldn’t be asking people to share the memories they want brought to remembrance so that we crowdsource, for lack of a better term, a network, a matrix of stories, experiences, and memories that better demonstrate the past, present, and future of the diverse lives in Canada.

Why can’t our plaques invite us into the past present and future of that space? Why can’t our exhibits?

In driving up to see family in northern Ontario, I often pass a plaque for the Oro-Medonte Township. A place I am familiar with from my research on Black History in Canada. What if rather than pass the plaque, I was able to stop and scan an image that led me to a website with a reconstructed 19th century community and artifacts and records from those community members. What if I could see whose traditional land the settlement was on, and which treaty covers this site? What if I could read about contemporary fundraising campaigns and community groups, or if the website invited me to share artwork or memories that linked to this site and other sites in the Black diaspora in Canada? What if I could post and share research that demonstrated the transnational nature of these histories. Where in America or Britain many of the first Black settlers came from, and, stepping back, where in Africa their ancestors may have been taken from.

With this as a commemorative portal, what would then be brought to remembrance is not just a place in the past, but a participatory experience of past, present, and future as well. An experience that could better situate who I am in that place and connect me with a longer legacy of community across and beyond place and space.

That moment of being brought to remembrance is now not just a stake in the ground, but a layered conversation. A layered democratic participatory conversation not just about the past, but about our present and futures as well.

Thinking about the multiple ways we can spark and engender memories, means that we can start thinking about how more memories can rise to the surface and be shared with each other as part of the stories of this place.

My grandfather, for example, grew up in Toronto. A long told family story was when his father caught him gambling (again) and my grandfather hurriedly ran out of the house and away from home. My grandfather’s youngest brother threw my grandfather shoes out the second story window so at least he wouldn’t be barefoot (as well as potentially homeless).

This was always a funny story in our family but also never had a clear a location. Even though I knew the street where they lived, memories shift, place names change, I really have no idea where, or even if, this place currently existed.

And then, I shared a Toronto Public Library archives photograph posted on Facebook by Vintage Toronto, and my great aunt, my grandfather’s sister said, “Wherever did you find this photo. I remember those large windows.” This photo was of the building where my grandfather’s family lived and worked, although this photo was taken a decade or two before they moved in.

And, because it’s the 21st century, I was able to do a Google Street View search of this building and found the location. In the present. I could look at the window, or even just the location of the windows, of where my great uncle threw my grandfather’s shoes down to him before he escaped to my grandmother’s house in Cabbagetown. (I also found the building in the 1980s!)

This is a silly little family story with no national, provincial, or municipal significance, but it’s fun and foundational for my family nonetheless, and could be mapped onto this site as a way to demonstrate the layers of stories we make and bring with us to places.

And so when I say democratic and participatory, I mean that (1) we should have a greater diversity of people and say into our commemorative spaces, I also mean that (2) we should encourage the interaction with these moments with the public, and I also mean (3) making space for stories like this to be able to live somewhere, to map onto something, as a form and function of commemoration.

This is what fully democratic and participatory remembrance is about: the ability to have your memories be seen and respected as an integrated part of a larger story. Because it is not just my stories I want to share, but the stories I have yet to know. The stories that can colour these places with a greater variety of experiences that expand my understanding of place beyond myself. And this is what it means to be both democratic and participatory.


So future commemoration should be democratic, participatory, and restorative.

What do I mean when I say restorative?

Reconciliation can be a term that I feel can quickly empty out if non-Indigenous Canadians, such as myself, don’t constantly check as to what we really mean and do when we say that we are interested in reconciliation.

A key element of the TRC report is underlying that it’s not teaching about residential schools that is desired but the development of ongoing relationships of dignity, peace, and prosperity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Part of this is Call to Action number 79.ii, which says that a key element for the heritage community is in revising the policies, criteria, and practices of national historic commemoration in order to integrate Indigenous history, heritage values, and memory practices into Canada’s national heritage and history.

This is not just adding history and stirring. Adding heritage values and memory practices that align with Indigenous epistemologies also means bringing in and integrating knowledges that colonialism attempted to erase from this land.

And by doing this, by seeing this as a fundamental part of our commitment to developing and maintaining ongoing reconciliatory relationships, we can better bring into alignment, into harmony a relationship with the earth, with the land, with the water, with the air, in ways that can lead to greater climate justice.

This is so important. So very important in today’s world. Because we are out of alignment. And the knowledges that developed from the land are the lessons that can bring us into greater alignment. We can’t forget them. We can’t forget that they were there. We can’t forget that our colonial system of government actively tried to erase this knowledge.

This, to me, is what is meant by heritage values and memory practices: to ensure that there is space to restore what was lost and to act on this restoration as a key element of what we bring to remembrance.

I visited a small park that opened in Toronto that was identified as a part of the provincial project of reconciliation. Yes, there were engravings of moccasins and trees bent as traditional marker trees and they brought in stone from the Canadian shield, but what I found missing was this concept of restoration. Identification of the plants around us. Identifying if they are native or not. Identifying stories related to these plants and their interaction with other species of plants and animals. I wanted to know them, know their names because as Robin Wall Kimmerer, professor and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation has written, “Naming is the beginning of justice.”

For me, if this space was a space of reconciliation, it would a space for restoring the knowledge popularly lost due to colonialism in ways that restore memories to the land and water that makes us greater stewards of this place.

In other words, we need our commemoration to restore what was, or had been, or could be lost so that we are able to restore it, and move into the future with this knowledge.


Finally radical. Commemoration should be democratic, participatory, restorative, and radical.

If you’re brave enough.

All these activities I’ve talked about can be engaged with in ways that doesn’t fundamentally challenge the status quo. But they can also be engaged with in ways that are underlain with a desire for change. For greater equity. For greater democracy. For great justice.

You can always go a step further out of your comfort zone to make space for others. Because this is what radical really means. Radical is defined as “relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something,” but to change the fundamental nature of something requires a shift in seeing, doing, and experiencing. And these shifts come from allowing Others to take space.

Thus, for commemoration to be radical what needs to be brought to mind are the stories and experiences we don’t, yet, have memories for. By being radical about our commemoration we can shift the narrative, change the narrative, to one directed toward justice. To make space for commemorating, to make space for what needs to be brought to mind: the future we want, the future we need, and the future that we have to make space for if it is to bring greater justice.

Thus, to sum, commemoration for the next 100 years can’t just be about the past. We need to commemorate – to bring into remembrance – the future. Our future populations, our future relationship with land and environment, a future with greater moments of justice for all peoples.

For example, Toronto is my home. Situated next to a river and a valley that has been in use for centuries. Beyond and around this river is one of the globally influential cities in the world and the capital of commerce and trade in Canada. If I look down and around to the people who make this their home, I would see people representing 230 different nationalities and I could hear upwards of 200 languages.

How can the past, present, and future experiences of this place, this moment, these people, be brought to mind?

How can we remember what has been, so we are clearer about what could be?

Commemorative practices in the next 100 years can be a key part of this conversation.

If you’re brave enough.

Thank you