Those were the days

Op-Ed

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There’s a lot of confusion about what, exactly “heritage” is. How is it different from “history”? What is it then, that we’re celebrating in Heritage Week? The Cambridge Dictionary defines heritage in two ways. One is: “features belonging to the culture of a particular society, such as traditions, languages, or buildings, that were created in the past and still have historical importance”, while the other defines it as “a person’s racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural background”. Given those two approaches, heritage can be something shared with the wider community, or it can be personal to the individual within that community.

I think that it can be seen this way: history is the story of what has happened in the past, heritage refers to the culture and traditions produced by that story. It used to be said that Canadians tended to define themselves as “not being Americans”, rather than having a clear idea of what being Canadian meant in and of itself. That sense of heritage was the result of history, of the need to maintain a separate identity, politically and culturally, from the big and often threatening neighbour next door.

I’ve even seen it stated by some historians that Canada “became a nation” because of Vimy Ridge, or Passchendaele, or other World War I battles. This does such a disservice to those who formed the country, to the pioneers who settled it, to the immigrants who chose it as their home. The case of the Indigenous peoples is different and they perhaps have a very different idea of what it is to be Canadian. When we see a building, or an artifact, a book or a song as heritage, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the item in itself is valuable or culturally significant. It says that it has meaning, that it stands for something. This building housed certain events, or was the home of an important person or group in the making of this country or this local community. This battered old book is heritage because of who owned it, or wrote it, or how it was quoted in a particularly important historical moment.

Heritage is all those things, events, stories, or people who give meaning to our shared story, our history. That may seem a very vague and broad definition, but it simply means that heritage is all those things that make our community, local, provincial, and national, what it is today. Heritage is what we have inherited from those who came before, and by celebrating heritage, we celebrate them also.

Then there is the second definition of heritage: “a person’s racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural background”. A country like Canada was built on a wide variety of peoples, from the original inhabitants, to the most recent refugees and immigrants from all over the world. This has created conflict at times, where older immigrants demand that newer immigrants adopt the culture and traditions of the older immigrants, who themselves resisted adopting the traditions of the original immigrants! Complicated.

The earliest European settlers learned to survive and thrive in this strange country because of the lessons learned from the Indigenous peoples they met here. Canada was then settled in the early days by French settlers, followed by Irish, Scots, and Welsh, with a fair sprinkling of English too. Then came a fantastic wave of other “racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural” peoples bringing their own contributions. This was a problem at first, but, over time, something different emerged, something distinctly Canadian.

It has taken a long time for this new identity to emerge clearly and permanently, and perhaps it is still not a completed process. Multiculturalism, as it is officially termed, is only fifty years old in Canada; not a long time in the context of history. It is a fact that still raises disagreements and argument, but it is one of the defining characteristics of Canada, a central part of our shared heritage. Making differences the foundation of common unity and identity is an amazing idea, and one that has, once again, been the product of our history.

This hasn’t meant that we, as individuals, have had to turn our backs on our cultural identity. I am still very much an Irish man, but that has only added to my identity as a Canadian citizen, neither has been diminished in the transaction: quite the opposite. And that can be true for each of us.

History is the story of how we came to be here together on this land at this time. Heritage is the meaning we give to that story, the value we place on it, the acknowledgment of the role played by all those who came before us on this land, with all of their different languages, traditions, religions, and cultural traits of every description. Being Canadian is our heritage. That is worth celebrating, I think. Those were the days, and these are the days to remember.

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