Robyn Benson, PSAC

Making history


Let’s hope that this website isn’t scrubbed as the Museum of Civilization morphs into the Museum of Canadian History. Perhaps, as meagre as it is, this survey of labour history will not fit with today’s official “narratives,” full of sound and fury as they are: War of 1812 chest-beating, heroic figures, leaders, and a chronology of “major themes and seminal events and people of our national experience.”

Authentic and artifact-rich, the Canadian Museum of History will bring individuals into direct contact with the touchstones of our history: Champlain’s Astrolabe, the Last Spike, historical portraits, artifacts of our nation’s founders, ‘relics’ of our national sports and athletic accomplishments.

No wonder voices of suspicion are being raised about this makeover of the Museum of Civilization, due to be completed in 2017, Canada’s 150th anniversary. “Whose history will it tell?” is indeed the question.

Labour history isn’t about “great men” (and a handful of carefully selected “great women”). It’s stories, as all histories are, about working people, most of them now nameless, “lost” in those official accounts. The inquisitive worker in Bertolt Brecht’s poem wonders aloud:

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years’ War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

The most authentic labour history is made and recorded by workers themselves. Much of it is passed down as oral history, as anecdotes and songs and legends, within families and communities. Here in Ottawa we have the full-meal deal—the Workers History Museum, a project in its third year that seeks to record in various ways the history of the community from a labour point of view. It’s staffed and run by volunteers from the local labour scene. And as you can see from the link, there are many, many stories to be told.

I wish every city and town in Canada had one of these going. But, more than that, I wish we in the organized labour movement were better at capturing our own union histories. Our members could readily recognize themselves in that wider context, one built by former members now retired or passed on.

Every day working people are busy in their various ways making history, shaping it, adding energy and skill and thought and imagination to the mix. We won’t get plaques and monuments and “so-and-so slept here” and niches in an official history museum. But we do have the satisfaction of knowing that “without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.” Isn’t that worth telling stories about?

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on July 4, 2013 8:29 AM.

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