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Kingston's History: Challenging Ourselves to Think Differently

An interesting project we’re currently working on within the Cultural Services department is Your Stories, Our Histories that launched last September.  Kingston is often recognized as a city steeped in history and the Kingston Culture Plan approved back in 2010 made the case that Kingston’s powerful historical narrative was perhaps its most compelling cultural asset.  History is indeed central to how people perceive and experience our city but it has also become increasingly important to recognize that Kingston has been shaped by a multiplicity of histories, not all of which are well known and represented.

History is complex and ever-changing and that means our relationship to places, people and events evolves over time as new information comes to light and as attitudes and thinking change.  In Kingston, people tend to know that Fort Frontenac was settled by the French in 1673 and that the city was established as the First Capital of a United Canada in 1841. But we are perhaps less well versed in what went before and what came after that has shaped where we are today.  And, of course, Kingston is also closely associated with the life and legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald who has become a focus of much debate in recent years and that is something the City of Kingston is committed to addressing as part of Your Stories, Our Histories.

Starting in September 2018, the Cultural Services department began actively collecting feedback regarding how the City of Kingston should approach the challenge of interpreting the history of Sir John A. Macdonald in the 21st century, with a particular focus on his relationship to Kingston that became his adopted hometown. What we’ve discovered over the past year is that there are many differing ideas, perspectives and opinions that exist and it has been especially interesting to track conversations that are taking place across the country and at all levels of government. 

Pamphlet and paper

My colleague Jennifer Campbell who works as the manager of cultural heritage for the City of Kingston recently attended a conference in Ottawa organized by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada titled “Commemorating Canada”.  The need to make space for more voices to be heard was a major topic of discussion at the conference as was the need to provide increased opportunities for Canadians to reflect on and contribute to how our histories are being told and to ensuring that the stories we share are more broadly inclusive and represent a greater diversity of experiences.

As part of this conference, the Board shared its most recent Systems Plan that acknowledges in a very direct way the many factors at play when it comes to commemorating the past.  The Systems Plan also includes an exploration of what it refers to as ‘Key Practices for Public History’ that are worth thinking about in relation to local history and heritage and especially when considering a topic that has become a focus of debate like  Sir John A. Macdonald.  In discussion, Jennifer and I agreed these Key Practices work well as challenge questions for all of us as a community to consider as we delve into the Sir John A. Macdonald debate and consider how best to formulate a Cultural Heritage Strategy for the City of Kingston.

  1. Craft Big Stories – How do we value Kingston history and the history of this region prior to the arrival of European settlers while also connecting Kingston to the larger history of Canada and the world?
  2. Address Conflict and Controversy – How can we directly address conflict and controversy, understanding how and why people disagree and how our values can shift through time?
  3. Seek opportunities for Indigenous Peoples to share and communicate their own history on their own terms – How do we make space in Kingston for this to happen and how do we ensure a diversity of Indigenous perspectives is also included?
  4. Realize that history is written from a worldview – How can we acknowledge and find strength in our increasingly diverse community while also acknowledging that many of our assumptions and values have been shaped by a history of colonization and its legacies?
  5. Share Authority – How do we work together, capturing a diversity of viewpoints, to build our relationship to our history? How can we create space for traditional knowledge and other world views?
  6. Emphasize a full range of voices, perspectives and experiences – How do we bring new and divergent voices to the table to understand more fully whose histories have and have not been adequately recognized and celebrated?
  7. Acknowledge that humans have touched all heritage places, including parks and natural areas – How do we appropriately consider that this land has been home to people for centuries, people who lived and whose descendants continue to live in close connection to the land and the natural world?
  8. Recognize that power dynamics affect understandings of heritage places – Decisions made in the past may or may not reflect current values and attitudes. How do we understand, acknowledge and interpret how we got to where we are today based on decisions made in the past?
  9. Explore the spectrum of powerful memories and meanings attached to heritage places – How do we interpret and share with residents and visitors that the meaning of specific sites, monuments, commemorations and spaces has shifted and that they now mean different things to different people?
  10. Appreciate that interpretations of the past are constantly evolving – As the System Plan says “[h]istory can always be interrogated and no one ever has the last word”. How can we work together to ensure we are being vigilant in terms of our understanding of history and the fact that its meaning is continuously shifting?

Over time, it will be interesting to see how the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada actions its new Systems Plan.  It will also be interesting for us here in Kingston to consider these same ideas as we explore our own relationship to local historic sites, places, persons and events. How might we apply these ten Key Practices in our community in an effort to challenge ourselves to think differently?

As a next step, in connection with Your Stories, Our Histories, the City of Kingston will host a speakers’ panel to discuss how best to share the history and legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald.  The event takes place Sept. 17 from 7-9 p.m. at the Grand Theatre at 218 Princess St. Three speakers will consider how we, as a community, can interpret and share the life and legacy of John A. Macdonald in ways that reflect the multiplicity of ideas, concerns and perspectives that have emerged in recent years.  Our panelists are Lee Maracle, Charlotte Gray and Christopher Moore along with Bob Watts who will moderate both the panel and the Q&A to follow.

Sir John A. 360

The ideas shared at this event are meant to spark ideas and foster discussion and exploration.  Our intent is to look at how we can add to our understanding of history and heritage at a local level and develop a more inclusive take on history that avoids any erasure or removals. To capture those ideas, the City will host a series of community feedback workshops on Oct.16 and 17 that will provide opportunities to continue this community conversation.  

I’m glad we can come together in this moment to wrestle with these important topics in a meaningful way with the goal of building a Cultural Heritage Strategy for our city that reflects a diversity of histories, experiences and perspectives.

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Colin Wiginton
Colin Wiginton
Cultural director
Find out more about Colin.