As a school student, history classes rarely resonated with me. Ancient wars and civilizations seemed alien to me and the significance of important documents and declarations paled in comparison to my appreciation of sports results or newly discovered music. And though I had family who were directly involved in both World Wars, the nuances of those terrible events were lost on me and the lessons gleaned from them could be generally distilled into a few simple understandings. That Canadians were brave, the Holocaust was bad and that Hitler was the greatest villain of all time.
But something happens when you get older. As my lifetime has begun to encompass more and more history, the eras that preceded my understanding have somehow become more accessible and therefore more meaningful to me. And over the last decade or two I’ve come to realize that history never stops unfolding, though sometimes it’s easy to think so if we’re lucky enough to experience an extended period of peace. And just in this week’s news, it is easy to recognize three quarters of a century of historical events in the hourly headlines and online updates.
In the United States, migrant children are being deliberately separated from their parents, who have international legal standing as refugees. It’s an inhumane, amoral, and likely illegal policy. But it’s not new. Canadians and Americans systematically tore children away from their homes and cultures. Kill the Indian in the Child, it was called. It was still happening in my lifetime. I heard the stories first hand.
Japanese Canadians were interned based on their race and perceived threat to society. My father-in-law’s best friend was one of them. He wasn’t old enough to drive.
Tomorrow, June 6th, 1944 is the anniversary of D-Day. A proud day for the Allies in the effort to defeat the authoritarian fascism that threatened the world during the Second World War.
The President of the United States, if he takes part in a commemorative ceremony, will do so while being the most authoritarian and fascistic leader in the western world since the day so many Allied soldiers died on those beaches.
On June 6th in 1966, Robert Kennedy gave his most famous speech, disavowing the Apartheid policies in South Africa. It was an inspiring moment for the international civil rights movement. Today, the government of his nation and the government of Canada give unwavering support to the apartheid policies of the Israeli government in the Middle East.
Two years later, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and two months after that, again on June 6th, RFK was also assassinated. And blood filled the streets in major cities across America as social unrest hit a crescendo.
A few months later, at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, American black athletes stood in silent protest during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner in recognition of the racial inequalities that continued to exist at home.
In June of 1973, White House Counsel John Dean spilled the beans on the Watergate cover-up. In June of 1974, Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men was published.
On June 6th, 1977 the US Secretary of States assured critics that the Carter administration would hold the Soviet Union accountable for human rights abuses.
On June 6th, 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to end clashes with Syrian troops based there.
It all seems so very familiar.
Forty years ago, I thought fascism had been defeated. I was wrong.
Thirty years ago, I thought the Cold War was over. I was wrong.
Twenty years ago, I thought apartheid was a thing of the past. I was wrong.
Ten years ago, I was told the election of Barack Obama made America a post-racial society. Nope.
I thought the Korean War was over but it never really ended, and it was only on television that the soldiers came home.
There’s an election in Ontario in a few days. Who knows what the consequences of that will be?
History is happening this week. History is happening every week, even when we choose not to participate in it. Even if we don’t even notice it. Maybe forty years from now, today’s young children will look back on these days and wonder how their grandparents lived through them. Maybe they’ll ask their parents what they did to resist the most shameful policies. Or maybe they’ll shake their heads as they try to understand why they didn’t do anything at all.