In her remarkable memoir Obasan, Joy Kogawa, a Canadian child of Japanese descent, interned during the Second World War in Slocan, B. C., revisits the site of her internment. She is seeking stones that speak through the silences of history. She reminds us that “unless the stone bursts with telling. . . there is in my life no living word”.
It is truly astonishing how viewing a physical marker, plaque, monument or site can evoke memories, insights and truths about formerly obscured pages in our history, and how it can expand the viewers’ consciousness and understanding of an event or personality. In certain cases, it can lead to action in our own day in the spirit of the message received.
According to the Ontario Government’s 1989 Guide to Provincial Plaques in Ontario, “the objective of the plaqueing program is to commemorate people, places, events, sites and structures of importance to the history of Ontario”. Yet many notable events and personalities are curiously absent; existing plaques have often been distorted by Establishment historians or self-styled heritage experts. Current generations seeking an understanding of their past to respond to today’s realities are often ill-served, and even misguided.
Who selects the markers to be erected or determines their relative importance? Do working people, labourers and farmers get an even break in the selection? Do champions of social justice get their due? Often covering trivia, non-events and bland personages, many plaques and monuments show wild departures from an objective portrayal of our hidden history. The bias in selection reflects the dominant class views of the historical establishment that rules in governments and institutions of learning, where such decisions are taken.
Increasingly this bias is being challenged. Gord Wilson, a former president the Ontario Federation of Labour, pointed out that in every major city throughout this land there are buildings and monuments to wealth and power. We are right to ask “where are the workers who built the railways, piloted the boats, farmed the land and forged the iron? Where are their monuments?”
While not in Ontario, the example of Batoche, Saskatchewan is instructive in showing the early bias of the Establishment and has been aptly recorded by George Galt (“Making History”, Saturday Night, January 1987):
People with British loyalties wanted to believe in Batoche as a civilizing event, a continuation of the imperial march westward, a historic victory of right over wrong. That interpretation did not stick and Batoche remained a sore point among the Metis and their sympathizers in Quebec for generations . . . .The first plaque mounted on a cairn in 1924 celebrated the militia units that had under Major General Middleton “ended the Rebellion”. The inscription was denounced locally and in Quebec as an insult. In 1947 an altered text dropped the word “rebellion”, but the message of defeat remained. Two years ago [in 1985] a third revised plaque was mounted to mollify a century of Metis resentment. The last line of the script now reads: “The resistance failed but the battle did not mean the end of the community of Batoche”. The historic event itself, originally celebrated as one of the great battles of nation-making, is now interpreted as an eastern land-grab.
Galt reminds us that
in the 1920s and 1930s, the board [Historic Sites and Monuments Board] rejected proposals to commemorate sites associated with the rebellions of 1837. Most board members still regarded people such as William Lyon Mackenzie as criminals while Quebec members who suggested recognition of events in their province were often snubbed.
The stones, monuments and plaques selected for this website tell the story of the struggle for social justice and beyond, revealing some of our hidden history. They include those from citizen groups, the labour movement and the black community for example, who have broken out from the restrictive and prescriptive government appointed boards and initiated memorials and plaques, thereby immensely enriching our understanding of what has gone before.