Reflecting on Camping and the Parks System

Group of women carrying a canoe overhead

Unidentified group of women carrying a canoe, Winnipeg, 1940s. Library and Archives Canada. MIKAN 4328425

I’ve went camping twice this summer and stayed at three Provincial Parks in Ontario as part of that experience.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the complicated nature behind the parks system, the dispossession of Indigenous people from parks and the lack of acknowledgement of the traditional usage of the land by Parks.  None of the parks I visited this year had signage about the history of the park or about the park’s relationship to the local Indigenous communities.

Last year I visited Pukaskwa Nation Park.  It is the only Park I’ve visited to date that is actively working with the local First Nation community to reinterpret the site and to include a discussion of the community’s history on the land. Pukaskwa’s staff included an Indigenous Cultural Interpreter – who was from Pic River First Nation, the local First Nation community that was impacted by the creation of Pukaskwa.  The were also in the process of creating an Anishinaabe Camp for cultural programming and the “Bimose Kinoomagewanan” trail signage was created by local elders and youth from Pic River.

Pukaskwa serves as one example of parks addressing their problematic past.  I would be interested in knowing of any other examples out there.  As visitors what can settlers do to encourage more critical interpretation? As a first step speaking with the folks staffing the visitors centre and interpreters to ask them about what they know about the park’s history can help.  If they don’t mention the traditional Indigenous territory of the land ask why. Ask them why there is no discussion of the land prior to the park being established and if there is any plans to change that.  Talk with the people you are camping with – have those important conversations about land and history – even if it makes you or them uncomfortable.

For additional context I would suggest reading Anne Janhunen’s The Holiday Spirit Will Prevail’: Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Erasure in Ontario’s ‘Cottage Country‘ presentation and Robert Jago’s “Canada’s National Parks are Colonial Crime Scenes.”

Contested History and Multiple Chronologies

While  driving  being a passenger on the drive to London I finally finished reading through the August issue of The Public Historian.  A couple of the articles in this issue sparked some reflection on my historical practice, including Charles W. Romney‘s “New City Guides and Anachronic Public History” article.

Romney examined historical cities guides including the Cleveland Historical app, the Infinite City atlas, the book Map of Perceptions, and the Wildsam field guides. This examination looked at the ways in which each city guide uses multiple chronologies to tell the history of a place.  Romney makes a number of interesting points about contested chronologies that are applicable to many public history projects. His analysis is applicable to many historical narratives outside of city guides.

Most public history initiatives adhere to a single timeline or chronological framework.  This can commonly be seen in written narratives, museum exhibits, living museums, and preservation projects.  A single chronology often works well to deliver simplified narratives and can serve as an organizing idea.

However multiple chronologies have a place in some public history projects and can be beneficial to project looking to highlight a range of perspectives.  As Romney notes

multiple chronologies can enhance public that stress relationships between different developments and that connect events from different time periods.  Multiple chronologies also improve public projects showing uneven spatial and temporal shifts.

Fragmenting time and presenting multiple narratives that are intertwined can allow for a diversity of experience and voices to presented in a project.  When reading this article I was struck by how this approach would be particularly useful when discussing contested spaces and to bring forward the voices of marginalized groups.

The obvious example in my work is residential school buildings that are now used by mainstream organizations.  These spaces have multiple narratives to tell and many are still evolving as living history spaces.

In some cases collective memory is contested.  Presenting a timeline of  a contested space might involve imposing an unaccepted chronology on a project.  There may be better ways to display history for this type of project than using a chronological order.  Multiple chronologies, unstable and changing chronologies, and contested timelines all have a place in public history.  It’s up to public history professionals to think critically about the best ways to interpret and present historical narratives.

Fear of Losinig Our Past

A speaker I heard recently spoke about FLOP as a concept which shapes our lives, identifies, and conceptions of history.  The popularity of the FLOP acronym is debatable. But the concept behind the acronym is an interesting one and closely relates to constructions of the past.  Fear of Losing Our Past (FLOP) can impact what is saved, how things are remembered, commemoration, and history generally.

On a personal history level, fear and an overwhelming desire to preserve family history and personally important historical moments can contribute to nostalgia and myth making. I’m inclined to say that fear of losing the past can result in people acting like pack-rats or hoarders.  This hoarding might root from a fear that something important is going to be forgotten or that you can’t throw something out because it will result in the destruction of the past. Most archivists and heritage professionals will attest to the fact that it’s not practical to keep everything and not everything is worth keeping.

More importantly, the idea of FLOP brought to mind the idea of how historical narratives are created.  Our conception of history isn’t perfect.  Memory is fallible and often what we know of the past is limited by what has been saved and what sources are available.  National histories, heroic battles, and heart warming local history moments are all written, constructed, and created by somebody.  Good histories are balanced and look at the past from multiple vantage points. But, how history is presented can change and interpretations of the past are not enshrined in stone.  Just look at how the discipline of social history has developed and many narratives have moved away from the once standard history of great white men.

Does the average museum visitor or average consumer of popular history realize the process that goes into presenting the past for consumption?  I hope so, but I’m not so sure.  Even if the museum exhibit or book is factual and well rounded, it is impossible to present every historical detail in any work.  Historical narratives are made through selection and by selection’s very nature things are left out.  No matter how accurate record keeping and oral history accounts are, our conceptions of the past are often imperfect and how we view the past is constantly evolving.