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WAYNE YOUNG: ‘Let us not be sheep’

Margaret MacMillan
Margaret MacMillan - Terrence McEachern

UPEI professor offers timely history lesson; premier warns of dangers of populism

When a UPEI history professor stepped to the podium to acknowledge “a world class talk by a world class scholar,” he offered a short lesson of his own.

Ed MacDonald praised internationally acclaimed historian and author Margaret MacMillan for her wisdom and knowledge in a lecture she delivered after accepting the Symons Medal at Confederation Centre. He said her lecture combined a sweeping grasp of both Canada’s history and world history, examining events happening outside and inside Canada before, during and after the First World War.

I thoroughly enjoyed MacMillan’s lecture, which was well-covered in The Guardian (Canada’s coming of age, Nov. 23). But I also appreciated two short but insightful talks that bookended her presentation – an introduction by Premier Wade MacLauchlan and MacDonald’s thank you.

In recent times, MacDonald said, there seems to be a common attitude that history is simply the past and that it really doesn’t matter. “It has become to society what it has become in many of our high schools, which is an elective, and very often it’s not elected.”

In a world consumed by the present, he said history is becoming irrelevant, but MacMillan’s lecture was a reminder that history really should be a necessity.

“For the past is a road, a road of cause and effect and it leads inexorably to the present. And if we’re going to understand how we got to here, we need to find that road, to travel it.”

MacDonald said history is the key to understanding, understanding is the beginning of wisdom, and wisdom should be the impetus of action. History, then, should be our teacher, but too often it’s our servant, he said.

“When we’re not ignoring history, there are people who use it to rationalize or justify a decision they’ve already made, or an action they’ve taken.”

In his remarks, Premier MacLauchlan said there seems to be a rise in populism in Canadian politics. While there’s nothing wrong with ‘making a country great again’ or being engaged with people and encouraging them to have confidence in their future, he said populism does have a downside.

“The downside is the extent to which populism trades in fear, in division, in over-simplification and isolation as opposed to the harder work of inclusion, engagement, shared prosperity, evidence-based governance and national and global citizenship.”

In a book she authored in 2010, MacLauchlan said MacMillan warned against manipulation of history to justify religious movements or political campaigns. At the time, her remarks were focused on wars in other countries but today, he said that critical lens could be focused much closer to home. To varying degrees, he said, three recent provincial elections in Canada have turned on elements of populism of fear of the other, or of an entitlement or opportunity unfairly denied.

“It is easier to take a step towards populism than it is to step back,” he said.

In thanking MacMillan, MacDonald warned against ignoring history and failing to take what he said can be a difficult journey from the past to the present in order to gain understanding and experience.

If we fail to do that, he said, “then we will be too easily led, like the sheep on my tie.”

“Let us not be sheep.”

- Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.

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