Arts in Review

Prying at Canada’s dark history

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There are some things we can probably all agree are distinctly Canadian: Tim Hortons, even if we don’t drink it; hockey, even if we don’t watch it; and highlighting the fact that we’re not American, even if we sound like it. One of the ways that we as Canadians love to prove how not American we are, is our history. Oh, you guys had a war that killed upwards of a hundred thousand people to become a country? Yeah, we just waited a bit longer, and signed some documents. Also, we burned down the White House. But, even as we brag about our “duller” history, or take pride in Canada’s post-World War II identity as a peacekeeper, we all know that Canadian history has a far darker side. The thing is, for those of us with no personal connection to it, our knowledge often stops at that simple, surface-level acknowledgement.

Enter The Secret Life of Canada, a new podcast that “looks at all the people, places, and events regularly left out of Canadian history,” and certainly doesn’t shy away from that darker side as it does so. Launched at the end of August, the series only has two full (half hour) episodes so far, as well as two short “Shout Outs” discussing notable Canadian women, but don’t let the low episode count deter you. Each one is packed with thoroughly-researched, well presented history.

Hosts Leah-Simone Bowen and Falen Johnson tackle tough subjects, and they discuss them head-on. But, while they touch on some truly heart-wrenching topics, they do so with genuine history-nerd interest, and great chemistry. They also share their sense of humour, which skillfully walks the miniscule line of preventing the podcast from becoming unbearably grim, while always remaining respectful of the subject at hand.

The two main episodes currently available deal with two popular Canadian vacation spots: Banff, Alberta, and Ipperwash, Ontario. Without delving into the details too much, Bowen and Johnson discuss the history of these places in comprehensive detail, making the most of the roughly 30-minute-long episodes with conversations that touch on multiple points throughout history, and include interviews with both locals and experts.

The Secret Life of Canada should be essential listening for any Canadian, especially those who have been to and enjoyed these places, or plan to in the future. Bowen and Johnson emphasize that they’re not trying to ruin your fun, either — their goal is simply to shine a light on a relatively unknown history, and it’s almost guaranteed that if you listen to either of these episodes, you’ll gain a new awareness of parts of Canadian history — which extend well beyond Banff and Ipperwash — that you never knew.

It’s not only the information contained within the podcast that is invaluable if Canada hopes to right its historical wrongs, either. It’s the emotional connection that the hosts of The Secret Life of Canada are able to inject into our country’s past, and the enthusiasm they bring to the table. At the end of the second episode, they encourage listeners to research the history of their own family or town, and if more Canadians did just that, they would have a far better understanding of why we as a nation have so many of the lingering issues that we do.

Take, for example, Mission. I’ve lived in Mission my entire life, and even as a bit of a history (or, at least trivia) nerd myself, I’ve looked into its past before. There’s a lot of fun tidbits to be found, like how the city’s founders envisioned it as a future metropolis, and named it “Mission City.” So for a time, it was “the Village of Mission City,” and then “the Town of Mission City.” History is fun! But, what I didn’t know growing up, was that every time I spent a summer day in Heritage Park thinking about how cool it was to see actual ruins in person, what I was really looking at was the foundations of a residential school. It was one of many across Canada where Indigenous children were sent after being forcibly taken from their families, to be stripped of their culture and assimilated to white, Christian ways of life, often suffering terrible abuse all the while. This school, St. Mary’s, was in operation until 1985, less than a decade before I was born.

This isn’t the distant past, but I never even considered it. I knew the foundations were from a school, but when I was showing my fiancée around town for the first time, and she asked if it was a residential school, I said “No, I don’t think so.” Because surely I’d have known if there had been something like that here in Mission, right? I sincerely doubt I’m alone, either. Do the people gathering in Heritage Park for the Mission Folk Festival every year know about the atrocities committed in that same field? Do they realize that the face of Mission’s population was drastically altered when its then-sizable community of Japanese-Canadians was sent to internment camps during World War II, and had their land seized by the government? These parts of history are real, and happened to people in our communities relatively recently.

So, I encourage everyone to listen to The Secret Life of Canada, and to let Bowen and Johnson share a little bit of our country’s history with them, then to think critically about the country they live in. You’re still allowed to be a proud Canadian, and to love your hometown or your favourite vacation spot. Just please also make an effort to understand what made that town or spot into the place it is today.

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