July 2018

High Price of Forgetting our Past

Canada Day Parade on Granville Island.

Yesterday we celebrated the 151st birthday of Canada. OK, maybe not everybody, but I certainly did. In my personal or professional life, I do not feel as an immigrant to Canada, because I have been a part of Canada and Canada has been a part of me since the first moment I stepped onto the Canadian soil. For us, it was June 1st, 2004. In Canada, I started working right away and never felt that I was any different from the people who surrounded me – I raised my children, worked, volunteered, paid taxes, got involved in the community, made friends, built a home, became friends with amazing people, co-authored a physics textbook used by thousands of Canadian undergraduates, learned to use eh… and felt that Canada was my country. I especially felt proud in June of 2010 when we became Canadian citizens. This was a very big deal for us as we felt grateful to Canada for welcoming us and allowing us to become a part of the family. This was a moment we have been waiting for a long time. Having an opportunity to choose Canada as a place where I wanted to live and raise my family, I have always appreciated this country and looked at it as a place that was created by millions of brave men and women before me. I appreciate the freedom, the democracy, beauty and the history of this amazing land. I appreciate that I could express my political views, agree or disagree with colleagues, and neighbours, and not being afraid to be put in prison or losing my job for being out of line with the “correct, approved by the government, views” (like it is in many countries today where thousands of Canadian immigrants come from). I appreciate that I can vote, apply for any job I wish and not being afraid that my application would be rejected because I am Jewish, a woman, or an immigrant. I appreciate that I am not afraid to walk alone at night on Vancouver’s streets. I appreciate having neighbours who came from all over the world and getting to know the Canadians who were born and raised here. I especially value the peace in Canada, that the only kites I see in the sky are the kites of children enjoying the beautiful Vancouver summer and not of the terrorists trying to burn your land down. I appreciate that my kids do not need to risk their lives and serve in the army to protect their country from the people who want to eliminate it from the face of the Earth.

Yes, Canada (as any other country in the word) has its fair share of problems,including the times when the Canadian government didn’t allow Jewish refugees escaping concentration camps in Europe to come here. And we now love to criticize it, but not to celebrate what the Canadian people, natives, and the immigrants from all over the world, have accomplished in the short 151 years of our history is just alarming. We can all apologize for our wrongs, but not to celebrate our achievements is also a big mistake. And that mistake will have a very high price for the future of our country.

Yesterday, on July 1st (Canada Day), I got an email from a graduate student who asked me to read her work. She didn’t even mention the event or said Happy Canada Day. Canada Day was practically unnoticed by many of my other students, many of whom are Canadians and all of whom are, or will be, science and mathematics teachers. This makes me wonder. I have lived in other countries, Israel, USA, USSR, and in each one of them people felt proud of their history and of their country. They read the literature written by their compatriots, listened to the music, appreciated scientific achievements, appreciated the nature and knew the past of their people, and of course remembered the people who fought for their country. The role of the education system in raising people for whom patriotism is a meaningful concept cannot be overemphasized. Patriotism is the love for your homeland and it can be the country where you were born or where you live. You can have an adopted homeland (as I do), but you have to have a homeland. To me, it is the same as loving your family. I sometimes disagree with my parents, but I love them and appreciate what they have done for me. To me Canada is a homeland and I feel patriotic about it. I love this place even though I sometimes disagree with the political decisions made by its leaders, but this is why I go and vote in elections.

Unfortunately, many young people today (and some of them will become teachers) do not know and care much about the people who have contributed to the history of Canada. They are often indoctrinated with the sense of guilt for Canada’s past without any sense of accomplishments. This is a very unbalanced and dangerous approach. While in our history, there are dark moments, and some of them put our history in a negative light, we have to realize that we cannot judge the past using the current norms. Today many of us get a “hindsight 20/20 decease” and keep apologizing for everything that our ancestors have done wrong. This is how I felt 30 years ago in the former USSR, when as an 18-year old I blamed my grandparents, who lived through the pogroms, fought in the Great Patriotic War (WWII for the Westerners), lived through the depression and famine, and through endless prosecution of Jews,  for not resisting enough to communism or not doing more for ending the regime or even escaping it. I should not have judged their actions without having lived then and doing something myself. Then, as a young inexperienced “girl-woman”, I didn’t appreciate the times they lived in and had little understanding of the treacherous history of the country I happened to be born in. It took years of reading and studying history to realize the horrors of communism, the dictatorial regime and the consequences of the lack of the freedom of speech and freedom of thinking. Silencing the voices of “others” who you disagree with and not knowing history is a very volatile combination. I am very worried that this is happening in Canada today.

However, with all that, I did grow up to have an appreciation for the wealth and richness of the Russian science, engineering, music, art, language, and literature. These were the achievements of the people who came before me and I knew about them because I studied the history of the place I came from. I cared. With all the difficulty of finding the sources that were not influenced by politics in the Soviet Union, we were thirsty for them. We read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, as well as the works by Russian Classics such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and many others. And this was before the internet. We had to dig for this information. Unlike today, it was not openly available. While it is all available for free nowadays, why many of our students do not care to get informed?

While one can be against the current regime, appreciation of the history of your country and your people is very important. Of course, you can take it as an extreme and say that in the Soviet Union it was a communist propaganda (which it was) or Israeli patriotism is also a response to a continuing threat from its neighbours and thousands of years of exile, but it is not entirely true. I would like to ask: Why knowing and respecting the history of your own country and of the contributions of the many generations of people who came before you is not a good thing?

During the Canada Day parade on Granville Island, I saw many people representing different countries and cultures where Canadian immigrants came from – China, Japan, Latin American countries, and many others. However, I didn’t see much about the history of Canada itself (one Canada Post truck), about the poor immigrants of Europe who came to Canada and in 1867 founded the confederation. I also didn’t see much about thousands of Chinese immigrants who came here to build the railroads and who have been treated in the most inhumane way. This is also Canadian history. I didn’t see any mentioning of the achievement of Canadian scientists, engineers, astronauts, musicians, artists, writers, politicians, etc. Don’t we owe anything to them? Should they be remembered, or are we throwing away the history of our country in favor of multiculturalism? What are the consequences of not knowing and not appreciating the history of your own country? And this is happening at the times of an unprecedented access to information. There is no excuse for not reading and learning the history of your own country.

My Canada Day experiences made me reflect on the writing of our introductory university physics textbook. In it, we made a decision to include the scientific accomplishments of our compatriots. We wanted students to know that Canada has a story of contribution in science and technology and they can become a part of this story. We wrote about TRIUMF, about the harnessing of the power of water at Niagara Falls, about the Canadian Light Sourcethe Perimeter Institute, about many Canadian Nobel Prize winners, such as a UBC Professor Dr. Michael Smith, about Roberta Bondar and other Canadian astronauts, about the Signal Hill, the Bay of Fundy, and many other special places and people in Canada reflecting the scientific achievements of our compatriots and the beauty of our country. I think we have a lot to be proud of and it is important that our young generation knows about it.

The value of knowing where you come from also lies in the responsibility that it puts upon you. If you value the history of your country, you feel responsibility for contributing to it, for keeping the tradition, for leaving the country in a better place than you found it, for representing it with respect when you travel abroad or when you have guests over. I love my country and I am proud of its achievements. I appreciate them even more as some people who were born here, this is what it means to be an immigrant to Canada. I came to this country and my responsibility is to make it even better.

I think before one can be open to the world and other cultures, one needs to learn the history of their own country and the many contributions of the people who came before us and made our life here possible. I think it is our responsibility as educators to share it with our students. I know that I will be spending more time on learning about Canada and its history and helping my student-teachers to appreciate the country they will be teaching in. I think if you want to help the next generation to create a better future, we need to learn from the past. And I have a strong feeling that we often keep forgetting about it. And this amnesia will have a high price for our country. Happy Canada Day!

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