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History is an excellent teaching aide

Lorraine Graves   Mar-01-2018

Kwantlen Polytechnic University History professor Eryk Martin teaches his students that historical attitudes often have their roots in the past and that history continues to echo in today’s problems.

Photo by Chung Chow

"Everything has a past," says Kwantlen Polytechnic University historian Eryk Martin.

"Many people think history is just the recounting of boring history and fact. I try to get my students to look beyond that."



He asks students to engage in history with assignments like a photo project where they make up a fictional character, write a series of letters and use historical photos.

He encourages students to use "the amazing collection at Richmond city archives," adding the "archives hold the voice of these people for history to read in the future."

He also speaks of the B.C. Packers collection of photos that connects Richmond to Alert Bay, Prince Rupert and all the other communities along the coast.

"Archives are not just an important place for historians to research history, they are also, places to find the voices of peoples left out of the historical record," he says.

One student's assignment featured photos of confiscated fishing boats in Steveston during the Second World War.

In the archives, his students also found letters of defence.

People were writing protest letters to speak against confiscation of their neighbours' or their own property.

"It’s very important for students and historians to listen to and read these documents," says Martin.

When teaching his students, Martin says he tries to "get them to have a historical consciousness. It helps to explain, and gives us critical tools to see, where these things come from."

He offers the example of racist fliers recently distributed through Richmond accusing a specific immigrant group of making our city unaffordable.

"This sentiment hasn't emerged out of nowhere," says Martin. "There is a long history, stretching back, of anti-Chinese, anti-Indian sentiment. Look at the Exclusion Act, the race riots of 1907, the Vancouver race riots, in which people from white communities gathered under banners that B.C. and Canada are to be a white person’s."

He says all Canadians need to know more about our history such as the fact that Shaughnessy had Ku Klux Klan (KKK) clubhouses and many connections in the city.

Martin cites the recent Canada 150 celebrations: "Here we have a history largely shaped by the political prerogative of the government that attempts to tell a story of the Canadian past as largely one of a history of tolerance."

In echoes of Kristallnacht, when Germans smashed the shop window of German citizens of Jewish ancestry on Nov. 9, 1938, Martin speaks of our local past.

"There was a time when people went into Chinatown and Japan town to smash businesses. In 1905, these acts were pushed by the Asiatic Exclusion League that was putting pressure on politicians to exclude Asian immigrants from B.C."

Martin then shows his studentanti-Asian posters from 2016, two years ago, that say Chinese immigrants are going to take over, are going to make white people a minority.

It is part of a lingering pattern, he says, of racism in B.C.

According to Martin, we can use history to explain the barriers in our communities today especially when we look at historical realities like the head tax and the systemic racism that has pushed segregation.

"The history of Canada is one of deep segregation."

In his course, Martin says he looks at "the barriers between people, a community's policies of the past that kept people separate from one another.""

Martin cites the Indian act, the Canadian government’s reserve system and residential schools.

"Those things were all done to foster a very clear policy of racial segregation," he says.

At the end of the course, Martin asks his students about the recent racist posters: now knowing about the background and the history behind the sentiment.

"How are you going to speak back against this poster?" he asks them.

Through his course, he hopes his students learn how history, even the history we aren't aware of, affects us today. He also hopes they develop a love of archives.

"Archives hold the voice of these people for history to read in the future. We would never hear these voices if we just opened up a text or watched Canadian TV," he says.

Our rosy view of Canadians as historically tolerant, he says is "done with a series of silences, so that we forget."

Whether we recognize it or not, he says: "The past is still with us. Its echoes, its legacies are still with us today."

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