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.
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.
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.
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.