Category Archives: Thoughts and Musings

Read Whatever

Busy times just now, so a bit of a brief one. I saw several separate discussions on the internet recently about people being told that they ‘must’ read various authors, either to ‘properly understand’ SFF as a reader, or to be able to ‘properly write’ it. This is not, it’s true, unique to SFF or fiction in general; people will make the same argument about appreciating music Properly or film The Right Way or whatever. It’s not something that I’ve ever been told personally, but I sure have seen many suggestions along the lines of ‘you cannot truly understand SFF until you’ve read <Author>’. <Author> is usually a white dude from like the 1960s, although not exclusively.

I don’t care who the author is, though, this is bunk. There are lots of great stories out there, ones that will blow your mind, and you should read them. Seek them out. Hunt them down, feast upon them. The thing is, that even in a ‘niche’ genre like SF, or fantasy, or horror (or, or, or), there’s so many different kinds of story, too. For any individual reader, there’s some you’ll like and some you probably won’t, because of the writing style, the thematic approach, the characters, whatever. It’s very silly, to me, to think that there’s some imperative to read the stories we know or can guess that we won’t like very much, just because A Name wrote them.

A friend of mine noted (tangential to one of these discussions) that he’s never read any Heinlein. I’m not 100% certain, but knowing him as I do, I don’t think he’d enjoy Heinlein’s stuff very much. There’s like a billion things out there to read, why spend your limited time on something that doesn’t grab you by the throat and scream ‘READ ME’?

Likewise, as a writer, the most important thing (it seems to me) is to write the stories you feel passionate about. You can absolutely do that, because the story comes from you. There’s no background reading required (although yes, reading widely in general will improve your writing). This goes back to one of my very first blog entries and that advice from Stephen King (still some of the best writing advice I have yet seen) – you’re ready to write when you feel ready to write, and if someone tells you you’re not because you haven’t read X or Y books from whenever, tell them to get bent. Go ahead and smoke that shit.

Now, if your objective is to study the history of a field, the development of (say) SF fiction over time, then sure, you’d need to go and read particular influential and impactful writers and landmark books. But if you’re just reading to read? Read whatever tells you that it must be read. If you’re looking to write? Congratulations, you’re ready to sit down and try it out. Just write the story that you’re excited to tell everyone.

Gatekeeping, man. It’s extremely tiresome. Most creatives really don’t need anything additional feeding our impostor syndromes. Give these kinds of argument all the attention they deserve, which is none.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

Tagged , , , ,


Not much of an entry again this week; I’m still swamped at work and now also sick into the bargain, so this has been a far-from-productive last few days. I guess the only significant Writing Thing I did recently was taking the plunge on buying myself a copy of Scrivener. (Let no-one say that I don’t do retail therapy, at least a little)

At least in theory, I think it might be helpful for me. As I’ve mentioned before on the blog, I tend to write my stories out of order, doing whatever scenes I feel inspired to write or have clarity on as they come to me. Then eventually I stitch them all together. I am given to understand that Scrivener will make this a bit easier as you can have parts of your overall document defined as scenes and then easily shuffle them around. Sounds good, if I can teach myself how to use it.

A lot of emphasis is sometimes placed on tools, and sometimes we attach identity to them. I have seen various people say something along the lines of ‘if you’re a serious writer, you must get Scrivener’. I’m sure that’s not accurate – obviously lots of people thrived as writers before it existed, and many still do. I wrote King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures on nothing more complicated than Open Office, and although Heretic Blood is probably not in its final form, I’ve created it the exact same way.

More importantly, I’m not sure it’s *helpful* to suggest that in order to be taken seriously at any particular craft, you have to use a particular tool or set of tools. For writing, all you really need to do is write. It doesn’t matter how you do it, and you should probably look around at different options and try some different things to find what you’re most comfortable with, but as long as words are ending up on the page, nothing else matters. Getting a tool doesn’t get you anything if you don’t use it, and you can do a lot of work done with really basic stuff as long as you just keep at it. I suppose I’m just a little tired of seeing suggestions that people are Doing It Wrong.

I didn’t pick up Scrivener for any reason other than that I am at the start of a new project and now is the time to try it out. (Well, also that retail therapy thing) We’ll see how it goes. My guess is that at first it’s going to slow me down as I learn to operate it, but hopefully down the line it will make things go more smoothly. And if not, well, Open Office is still always there.

That’s it for this week; I hope to have a little more to talk about next time. Thanks for reading.

Tagged , , , ,


Once again keeping the blog firmly on the crest of things that happened a year ago, I recently had time to finish watching the fourth and final season of Star Wars Rebels. As long time readers will know, I am an enormous Star Wars dork, so I thought I’d write a little about that this week.

It really was a great deal of fun. The show tended to tell fairly simple stories, which they sort of needed to with half-hour episodes, and yet ended up providing an overall narrative that really did have meat on the bones. The central character of Ezra went from the kind of spunky kid character I usually can’t stand to being an honest-to-god Jedi, and it felt like that development was completely earned. By the end of the series, it really did make sense that the other characters would be taking their lead from someone who had been a goofy annoyance with a slingshot (seriously) not all that long ago.

I think they created a really solid cast of characters that were a lot of fun to follow around, overall. I have particular affection for the art-and-explosives loving Sabine Wren. I’m not really sure we’ve seen a Star Wars character with such a bright palette (it’s a terrible shame that we never saw her ‘masterpiece’ TIE Fighter from Season One again) and yet again, they made her a character with more than one story to tell.

They even successfully pulled off transforming a villain from the start of the series into one of our heroes by the final season, with (eventually former) ISB Agent Kallus. And again, they did it in a way that made sense and gave us enough that when Kallus decides to ditch the Empire, the audience is able to accept him as a character who deserves some redemption. If they were ever to continue the story of the Rebels characters, Kallus would fit right in with the remaining crew of the Ghost.

And yes, ‘remaining crew’. Season 4 did go a bit surprisingly dark for a show that is ostensibly a kid’s show. I had been wondering since the beginning of the show how they would come up with an ending to Kanan and Ezra’s story that explained how we were down to the status quo of Obi-Wan and Luke as ‘last of the Jedi’ by A New Hope – obviously that whole arc doesn’t work nearly as well if there’s a couple other Jedi kicking around as well as the Tatooine dirt-farmer. Kanan’s death and Ezra’s disappearance both a) made perfect sense in terms of the story Rebels was telling and b) tied up that narrative loose end neatly enough, even if it was tough to see.

The ‘it’s for kids’ question comes up a lot with different movies, TV shows, and books; some people are absolutely derisive of anything that isn’t ‘adult’ and immediately dismiss the quality of any stories created with younger audiences in mind. And look, there’s a lot of shallow stuff out there for sure, but that’s true of stories created for any audience. There are also real gems of storytelling in the world of YA fiction, and I think people are missing out if they won’t even give it a chance.

It comes down to my increasing conviction that if you’ve got a good story, almost nothing else matters. It will be entertaining and audiences will like it. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series were written for a young audience primarily, but they’ve got great characters and a neat setting and if you like fantasy at all, you’ll find them charming to read. Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper was marketed as YA but I figure it will entertain most any reader. And, if you did Star Wars even a little bit, I think you should give Rebels a shot. They really did have some great stories to tell with moments you won’t forget and characters you’ll come to care about.

I also think it’s pretty cool that the Star Wars fictional universe is elastic enough that it can accommodate a pretty dark and gritty story like Rogue One and a fun set of tales like Rebels and have them both work equally well and seem like they’re Star Wars. It’s a pretty awesome imaginary playground, which is probably why I keep coming back to it, and I’m very glad that it has Hera Syndulla and the crew of the Ghost in it from now on.

Thanks for reading.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Can*Con 2018

This past weekend was Can*Con 2018, the SFF convention in Ottawa that I help to organize. As ever, it was a great deal of fun, it was tremendously inspiring to be around so many passionate readers and writers of the stories I take joy in, and it left me absolutely exhausted. Still recharging the batteries, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Each year I feel as though I’m growing into my role as an organizer a little more and figuring out the best way to be of use to the convention, to make the convention useful to me, and then also have some fun. I enjoyed Can*Con 2018 the most out of any that I’ve been to so far, and aside from a few minor glitches, really had a great weekend. A lot of that is because we have such a great group of people who all pitch in and bust their butts to make the convention work. Marie Bilodeau, Derek Kunsken, Jaggy Sue, Kate Heartfield, Cortni Fernandez, Lisa Toohey, Tyler Goodier, Marco Cultera, Dario, MP, and a great crowd of other volunteers whose names I am shamefully forgetting all put their hearts into making the con work and it is truly inspirational to be a part of that. Most important of all for me is my programming wingman Brandon Crilly, who I maintain does most of the work and who I cannot imagine doing all this without. Can*Con is a great community that, in a lot of ways, keeps going all year long, and it has become tremendously special to me.

This year’s con was also special because it was the formal launch of my friend Derek Kunsken’s first novel, The Quantum Magician. It was Derek who drafted me on to the Can*Con team, and since then he has been a great encouragement about my writing at the same time as he has pushed me to try harder and to aim a little higher. He’s become a good friend and it was an absolute delight to see that he had a packed house for his launch. Derek is a great person, a wonderful writer, and he has given so much to the Ottawa SFF community. It’s tremendously satisfying to see all of that rewarded.

I also had a chance to make what I hope may be a valuable connection for the fate of Heretic Blood; I was able to have a talk about the book with our agent Guest of Honor, Kurestin Armada, and she was kind enough to make a partial request on it. I am now furiously polishing the first pages of the manuscript so that I can send them off to her. These things are super stressful and hard to do (for me, anyway) but I’m (usually) confident that if I can get someone to read my writing, they’ll like it. Even if Kurestin turns out not to be interested in the book, this was valuable practice for how to reach out to the person who will be.

As much as I always end Can*Con profoundly tired, I know that I am extremely fortunate to be part of the team that puts it together each year. I have met amazing people who have become good friends, I have grown as a writer, and I have made connections that I know I would not have made any other way. It’s a lot of work, but it’s absolutely worth it.

I’m almost ready to get started on 2019.

Just these 50 pages to edit first.

Thanks for reading.

Tagged , , , , ,


Couple of quick-fire topics tonight, as Can*Con approaches and I increasingly feel as though my head may be on fire.

This past weekend we saw the first episode of Doctor Who with the new actor portraying the Doctor, Jodie Whittaker. I’m not going to get too in-depth, partly because ‘spoilers’ and partly because ‘head on fire’ but in short: I thought it was really fun.

Whittaker was great and seemed very comfortable in the role. It will be interesting to see how much of her manic energy level will be a temporary artifact of the regeneration process and how much will be a permanent element of the character. Either way, it was a treat to watch, I thought the new cast looked like they will be fun and bring a variety of different perspectives on travelling around with an itinerant mad scientist.

I have seen some criticisms of the episode arguing that it was an overly simple plot and not grand enough for the introduction of a new Doctor. I agree that it was a pretty basic story, but I applaud the decision for a couple reasons. First, although I have enjoyed the last few seasons of the show, it is also true that I have found the increasingly labyrinthine and obscure season-long puzzle arcs to be less and less charming. A season that isn’t trying quite so hard to weave an intricate mystery out of a bunch of enigmatic hints and just has some straight-ahead tales will be very welcome.

I also think it was a wise move on the part of the writers, because it would have been reasonable to anticipate a bunch of new viewers tuning in for this one. You want something accessible, not something that requires exhaustive knowledge of years and years of Doctor Who lore to appreciate. You could tune into this with very little background at all, understand what was going on, and jump on the ride.

It looks like it’s going to be a good one.


Also, as Can*Con approaches, I achieved one wee little goal I had set for myself. I had planned to finish the third revision of Heretic Blood in time for the convention, in part so that it was ready to pitch to a couple people who I’m hoping to have a chance to talk to, and also because (as I’ve mentioned), I like a deadline. We are juuuuust under the wire, but I can say: Mission Accomplished.

All of the revisions so far have been fairly significant, and although that’s not always easy (what do you mean it wasn’t perfect the first time?), I think each rewrite has made the story significantly better. Right now, I have a story I’m quite proud of, that I will be pleased to share with a wider audience, and that I know not everyone is going to like.

That’s ok. There is probably some Platonic ideal story out there that will please every reader. I haven’t created it yet, and I haven’t read it yet. I think Heretic Blood has its strengths, and I feel confident that people will read it and like it. Some people will find it not their cup of tea, and I’m all right with that. I think the story needs to be the way it is. Pushing it to be something else might eventually work, but then it would be a different story than the one I wrote, and although it might then appeal to people it wouldn’t in its current form, we’d probably lose some of the people who might like it as it is currently written.

You can, I think, chase the broadest possible appeal forever. I think Heretic Blood is pretty darn close to being exactly the story that I want it to be. (It isn’t, by the way, the story I thought it would be when I set out to write, but that’s also more than fine.) At a certain point, a piece of art is what it is going to be, and you have to send it out into the world and let it try to find its audience.

I hope to do that soon.

Thanks for reading.

Tagged , , , , ,


Just a quick one this time to let you know that I haven’t stopped writing here – I did miss last week, and I didn’t want to miss another. Basically my schedule has shifted around and I need to re-figure out when I can block out some time to do my blog entries. The old plan doesn’t work right now, so I need a new one.

It’s sort of what I often need to do in life overall. Circumstances change around. Gotta figure out a new plan to make things work. I think these adjustment periods are pretty much inevitable. A lot of times there are big forces in motion that aren’t entirely (or even a little) under our control. Sometimes, I just have to admit that how I thought things were going to proceed just doesn’t work out in practice, and it doesn’t mean anything other than ‘time for a new plan’.

I’m in the process of figuring that new plan out.

There is a lot going on right now. We’re getting very close to Can*Con, which I help organize, so there’s lots to handle there. I’m very excited about what we have coming up and looking forward to seeing all our plans take shape. I’m still working on revising Heretic Blood; some of the Eager Volunteers have suggested relatively significant alterations that I think make the story a lot better, but aren’t the work of just a couple minutes. I have to keep plugging away at the day job.

I’m probably not going to be as productive in terms of my writing as I was through the summer. That’s ok, as long as I don’t ditch it entirely. I’ll keep everything ticking over, and readjust again when circumstances alter themselves.

Thanks for reading, and apologies for the missed week.

Tagged , , ,

Welsh Lessons

I need to get back doing my Welsh lessons. I mostly say this here because I’ve been in the sludge lately in terms of getting a lot of things done, and hopefully if I write some goals and commitments down it will be a bit of a push towards getting moving on them. Finish revising Heretic Blood. Decide which WIP should in fact be the WIP. Get back to learning Welsh.

Earlier this summer, I started trying to teach myself some Welsh online. Learning Welsh was an idea I had always sort of kicked around in the back of my head; I have some Welsh ancestry and so it seemed like the kind of thing I ‘should’ know at least a little of. I have always had a sense of the past, I guess, and I’ve always kind of liked the idea of forging some sort of connection to at least part of my own.

As I learned more history, I started to think of the idea as more important. Without going into excessive detail, medieval Wales had problems with their larger neighbour, England. Starting in the 13th century, Edward I decided it was a good idea to exert actual rule over Wales rather than just being their theoretical overlord, and started with a military invasion; the campaign would take nearly 20 years. (Invading Wales turned out to be hard.)

After which, Edward enacted a program to make his control permanent, building castles all through the territory from which to exert authority. He also built towns that were meant to be the centre of the new Welsh economy, and transplanted English people to live in them. The town residents had economic privileges and special rights, so these ‘planted towns’ were pretty attractive places to live. The trick was – you couldn’t be Welsh. To live in Edward’s new towns, you had to speak English and transact all your business in English; Welsh speakers were only allowed in town long enough to buy or sell, and had to be out of town by sundown. On pain of death.

Obviously what this did was to encourage people with an eye to profit or social advancement to stop using their own language, learn English, and move into an English planted town. Essentially, to stop being Welsh and start being English. Edward’s plan was not to rule the Welsh at all, in the long-term, it was to stop there being any Welsh to rule.

Usually at this point in the class at least some of my students are starting to look uncomfortable and someone will usually ask ‘isn’t this kind of like ethnic cleansing?’ Which of course it is. It’s not a recent invention.

Edward did all this along with abolishing the Welsh system of laws, rewriting Welsh history to try to remove the idea of an independent Wales, and a number of other symbolic gestures that were meant to eradicate the idea of Wales as anything other than an appendage of England. Turning the ‘Prince of Wales’ from an independent ruler into the presumptive heir to the English throne is one that has stuck around, and is a great example of how much of an asshole Edward could be – the story is that he promised the newly conquered Welsh that they would have their own Prince who couldn’t speak a word of English, with the obvious implication that it would be a Welshman. Instead, he installed his own infant son. What a dick.

Another gesture that stuck around is one we don’t think about much at all today – denigrating the character of the Welsh to the point that the name became a slur we still sometimes use. What do you say when someone makes a bet and refuses to pay up when they lose? They… welshed. This is all part of a construction of the Welsh as dishonest, dishonourable people that encouraged assimilation, denying Welsh ancestry and Welsh culture, along with abandoning the language.

This may and probably should be starting to sound like a somewhat familiar playbook, especially to those with some familiarity with Canadian history. Edward I would have understood very well the policies used here to try to wipe out another culture, and another ethnicity. As someone who works with language and stories, I have a certain amount of understanding of how powerful they can be, and what a deathblow to a people it can be to take those things away. Fortunately, it’s hard to do – it turns out that people are pretty attached to their language, and their stories.

Edward’s plan only kind of worked during the Middle Ages and fortunately in the years since there has been a real effort to restore the use of the Welsh language throughout Wales, to the point where you can get government services in it and the most recent surveys indicate that 11% of the population are fluent in the language Edward I tried to wipe out forever.

It’s to be hoped that the same can be done for other traditions and cultures that power has tried to crush and stamp out. For my own very small part, I do feel just a little bit of extra motivation to work on learning this reasonably tricky language that some powerful jerks thought was enough of a threat that they tried to make it disappear.

Get bent, Longshanks.

Tagged , , , , ,

New Scars

Over the summer I got a new coffee maker, and it has a special setting for when you’re going to make only a few cups rather than a full pot. Apparently, part of the deal here is that it heats up the water more so that you still get a nice strong brew. I learned this rather intensely well a little while ago when I spilled a cup of freshly-brewed, extra hot coffee on myself. I burned the everloving crap out of myself, and at least one of the burns was genuinely reasonably serious.

(Obviously part of the lesson here: always brew a large amount of coffee. I feel like I should have known that one already)

Perhaps obviously, it wasn’t exactly a great experience – healing takes work, and my energy level has been way down as my body has been working to fix itself. I (obviously?) don’t recommend getting injured, but it’s a pretty cool process to watch. Our bodies are pretty amazing at the damage they can repair if given a chance; of course there are some things they can’t handle but they can fix quite a lot. I remember a book I had growing up that tried to explain how the body worked by comparing it to a castle. Probably not a surprise that that one stuck with me. Right now my body is hard at work sealing up a breach in the curtain wall. It’s getting there.

We are durable creatures, all of us. We can survive and thrive through more than we think, given time and a chance to heal up. It’s often not easy, and it’s certainly not often very fun, but we can do it. Professional setbacks, personal disasters, injuries: we can come back from quite a lot. Give it time. Rebuild the battlements, get back on the parapet.

I am going to have some new scars after the healing is done. That’s ok; in part they’re going to be where people won’t see them, but mostly I try to maintain a positive attitude about all my various scars. Society generally tells us to look down on them, but a scar is an indicator of something you survived. It’s a marker of something that wasn’t strong enough to kill you. It’s easier said than done (and easier to think than to really believe) but a scar is something we should really take pride in. Yeah, I was stronger than that.

And we all have them. You can’t go through life without picking up at least a few scars, metaphorical or otherwise. All the places we go to leave their marks, one way or another. I try to value mine (it’s easier at some times than others) as indicators of storms I have weathered, trails I followed, missteps I failed to avoid. I’m not sure my history is terribly interesting (relatively speaking) but it’s mine and I wouldn’t be who I am without it. Most of the time I think I’ve turned out all right, so I’m grateful for the path that brought me here.

Old scars, new scars, and all.

Tagged , ,

Side Jobs

Short one again this week – I’m kind of running around with the start of the new semester, all the things that need looking after, and my consequently declining energy reserves. A new term is always exciting, but there’s so much to do!

And yes, as you will probably already have deduced from reading this blog or my social media, that does mean that I have a job besides that of being a writer. Writing is, in fact, very far from providing a significant part of my income, so though I love it and think of my writing as the most important thing that I do right now, it’s not paying the bills.

Many creatives are in similar situations, a fact that our society sometimes decides is a funny joke or something to sneer at. Recently (as you will no doubt have seen) a couple media outlets tried to shame an actor for having a job at a grocery store. Man, if you look the guy up you’ll see that he’s been working steady, he’s been getting jobs, it just doesn’t pay the bills. Fortunately the overwhelming response seems to have been that no-one should be made into a public spectacle or made to feel bad because they’re working a couple jobs. Just as fortunately, the actor himself seems to have a pretty good attitude about it all and may even have scored some extra work.

So that particular situation seems to have resolved itself decently well, but it is an uncomfortable reminder of the position creatives often find themselves in in society. People often assume that doing art is easy money (people have genuinely asked if I make all my money from my books), that the artists whose work they have enjoyed are set for life, and are doing nothing but work on their art all day every day. Would that it were true.

The odds are very good that your favourite writer has at least a side job or two. That singer you admire may be working a full-time job around practicing Russian pronunciation. This isn’t a cry for sympathy, not exactly – everyone has to work and lots of people work more than one job these days. In a lot of ways, creatives are exceedingly lucky to be able to make anything at all doing something they love.

On the other hand, since we (as a society) do like art so very much – and we do – perhaps we could at least not poke fun at whatever work artists find themselves needing to do to earn their bread and cheese. There’s nothing noble in not being able to pay the bills, and whatever work you gotta do, you gotta do. No job is shameful.

It also puts the complaints about artists not having their work be free or the next thing to free in a different perspective. We love art, on the whole. We shouldn’t try to wriggle out of paying the artists.

That’s it for this week – thanks for reading, as always.

Tagged , ,

Sir John A.

Because of a statue in Victoria, the controversy over John A. Macdonald, first Prime Minister of Canada, is back in the news again. Living in Ottawa, of course, Macdonald is unavoidable; I drive to work most days on a parkway bearing his name, and it has been somewhat of a tradition for me to eat my post-race breakfast in a pub named after him each fall. When I was in high school, my history teacher made a character out of Macdonald, told us funny stories about him, and I left for university thinking of him as an appropriate figure for the first Canadian Prime Minister: an ambitious politician, sure, but also a cantankerous Scot with rather too much fondness for the booze.

I hadn’t learned about the residential schools, then, and Louis Riel was simply framed as ‘traitor’; our strange little Canadian moment of rebellion, come and gone, shorn of wider meanings. I retold those funny stories, many times, to people who asked me about Canada. I got laughs in the pub, reinforced my own impression of Canadian history as a more or less whimsical tale about a basically harmless country. I would not tell those stories now, and I’m glad I went on learning.

Since then, Macdonald has been reassessed, in divergent ways. In relatively recent years (it seems to me, although I am not an expert on Canadian historiography) he’s been given a boost, from certain quarters, to promote his role as father of the nation and make him our equivalent to Washington (who, of course, also has a lot that lies beneath the national myth). The name everyone knows, the ubiquitous figure who we credit with bringing the place we call home into being. It was such efforts that got his name on that parkway I drive on, which was simply the Ottawa River Parkway until 2012. A certain kind of national pride, or nationalism, demands heroes, and so Macdonald was built up.

Gradually, I have learned more about the varied parts of his legacy (both in and out of classrooms), and I (like, I imagine, many Canadians) have come to see him as hitting quite wide of the mark of heroism. It’s fair to say that our first Prime Minister’s greatest flaw was not hitting the bottle a bit much, it was that he was a racist. I would never deny his influence and importance in the Canadian story (you’d have to be wilfully dishonest to do so), but he’s no hero of mine. As more and more voices have insisted on telling this part of the story, so has come the pressure to take those statues down.

It’s interesting (as I read on the CBC) that Scotland is also reconsidering Macdonald, removing references to him from government websites. Like the removal of the statues, no doubt this has raised at least a few cries of ‘erasure’, although quieter than here; Macdonald is far from as big a deal to the Scots as he is to Canada. As Nahlah Ayed reminded me in the article, there isn’t even a problematic statue of Macdonald in Edinburgh to worry about taking down. (And honestly, such is my national inferiority complex that when I was there this summer, it didn’t even occur to me that there would be.)

Erasure is something that I think any historian, or lover of history, must surely oppose. Pretending that things that happened, never did, or that people who existed, never did, is always harmful. That is how we come to believe in lies, and that is how we fail to learn anything useful from our history. We need to remember and study every part of it, even (and maybe especially) the parts we find distasteful. Failures, missteps, bad ideas, need to be examined so that we can understand how they came to pass, and we must reach those conclusions honestly. If you ask me, I will never be in favour of tearing out one single page from the book of our history. I might, however, be very much in favour of writing that page over again.

The Scottish government, as it happens, says the articles have been taken down to be rewritten, as Macdonald’s legacy is reassessed. It’s not a failure to reassess and reconsider what we think about our past and the people who came before us. That is probably the one thing that will never change about history: that we keep changing how we see it, how we tell that story. Heck, that’s part of why historians continue to work, because the stories have worn out, need patching, darning, and retelling.

I’m not a Canadian history expert – far from it – but it’s clear that Macdonald did and does need to be reassessed, his story rewritten. He was not just the (fairly nakedly ambitious) ‘Father of Confederation’, he was also among the architects of the brutal system of residential schools through which cultural genocide was practiced upon the First Nations people who came under Canadian authority. To tell his story otherwise, dishonest. A carefully upholstered national myth that presumably offers comfort to some even as it ignores the suffering of others, and the historian’s first duty: the truth. So, reassess Macdonald, tell the truth about him unapologetically and clearly.

But, what about those statues. Is removing a statue an act of erasure? Would renaming that parkway I drive on be one? This is a debate that widens out beyond Macdonald: the Canadian government recently took the name ‘Langevin’ off of one of our Parliamentary buildings, due to Hector Louis-Langevin’s own involvement with residential schools. And, of course, there is the ongoing controversy to the south about Confederate monuments, about which I wrote about on the blog a while back. To take these plaques and statues and titles away, is that erasure?

Of course it is not. We do not learn history, or should not learn history, based on what monuments are up in the world around us. Monuments are erected, most of the time, to figures who were in a particular moment considered ‘great’, but history must not be only the story of the great. It must be the story of the ordinary and the unregarded just as much if it is really to inform us about the people who lived before we did, and what that means for us. History will ever be the story of protagonists, surely, because it seems we cannot resist a good tale and most tales work best with a hero, or a heroine, but it must have its fools and villains just as much, and we need to hear about them just as clearly as we do the people who we decide to put up a statue for.

A statue, a monument, in the symbolism we operate under, says ‘this is a thing we take pride in. Yes, even war memorials, because we take pride in the courage and the sacrifice of those people in defense of country and ideology. So, to have a statue of Macdonald is not simply to say ‘there was a man named John A. Macdonald’, it is to say ‘this man, we admire’. (In a museum, where we might feasibly present a nuanced picture of a person, along with an image in bronze, the situation is rather different, and perhaps that is the compromise) It is surely not so great a leap of imagination to consider how that feels to people whose family suffered in a residential school, who do not know the language of their people because of policies that sought its eradication, who grew up in poverty and peril because that was all the government left them.

Macdonald cannot be erased from Canadian history, but we do not need to declare, publicly and loudly, that he is among our heroes. He should not be, if we mean any part of the ‘Canadian identity’ we are so bold to declare. Students of Canadian history, and Canadians in general, should of course still learn about John A. Macdonald. It would be lunacy not to. However, they should learn about who he really was and especially what he really did, not some imagined and carefully tailored figure we create because we want our own Washington (although, again) a benevolent or heroic ‘father’ to the nation.

It’s not a question of ‘feeling guilty’, either; no-one wants more empty gestures and I don’t think it’s fair to say that Canadians today are culpable for what Macdonald and people like him did. But. Recognizing the truth about the birth of the country in which we live, how those policies and decisions played out down the years for generations of people, and how they continue to affect the very real conditions that people live in and grapple with today, is very important. Canada, whatever else is true about it, was forged from great injustices done to the people who already lived here before Europeans rolled in. There is no chance of really reconciling with their descendants and creating a right and just solution to that central problem if we cannot even recognize that the problem exists.

Part of that recognition is, yes, admitting that John A. Macdonald was not a great guy. We need very much to have a conversation about that, about what it means and what we should probably do about it. Pretending Macdonald didn’t exist is not (or should not) be the aim. Coming to grips with what he really meant must be.

The statues should come down. We could find a better name for that parkway.

And we must remember, all of it.

Tagged , , , , , ,