(Victoria Tronina/Unsplash)

(Victoria Tronina/Unsplash)

The importance of personal memory on Remembrance Day

‘Our interdisciplinary research leads us to explore how memory can provide a powerful tool’

In our digital age, we have increasingly outsourced memory to electronic devices. Without technology, many of us no longer remember where we need to be most of the time, and find it hard to keep track of phone numbers or birthdays. We are living through a profound shift in the practice of memory.

Nonetheless, there remains something significant about what and how humans remember. On Nov. 11, an annual international day of remembrance, it is worth reflecting on the changing nature of memory.

Our interdisciplinary research leads us to explore how memory can provide a powerful tool as we seek to address humanity’s most intractable political, sociological and environmental problems.

On Turtle Island (North America), memory runs deep. For thousands of years before the notion of Canada, Indigenous Peoples lived on this land, passing memories across generations through oral traditions. This chain of knowledge, robust and vibrant, was stretched to a near breaking point by colonial oppression enacted through systems like Indian Residential Schools.

In the face of such inter-generational trauma, memory serves as a heavy reminder of the past, a burden to be carried by those who survived. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was a process of collective remembering, bringing intensely personal memories into the public arena; it was remembrance as a form of accountability for settler society.

Memory as a call to action

Memory works against colonialism in other ways. In northern British Columbia, for example, the potlatch system, a gift-giving ceremonial feast, once banned under colonial rule, was re-established by Indigenous communities after a century in which its memory had been kept alive in private places. Through the memories of Indigenous elders, a new generation was able to rekindle long-held practices, and re-establish a connection to ancestors and territory.

The long arc of traditional knowledge contrasts with modern notions of living in the moment, where yesterday offers little guidance about what today may bring, let alone tomorrow. We have forgotten Earth as it was not so long ago — when the skies darkened with flocks of passenger pigeons, the Grand Banks choked thick with cod and the prairies ran with buffalo.

The new normal, forged from forgetfulness, masks the environmental devastation of the last century. Oblivious, we fail to hear the call to action already issued by climate change. Here, too, the memory of what has been lost may help overcome our collective environmental inertia.

We do not face the task of critical remembering alone. Earth itself provides a repository of climate history, engraved in glacial ice and in deep ocean sediment. So important is this bank of memories that a group of international scientists, faced with the rapidly disappearing glaciers, has launched the Ice Memory project, creating a global ice sanctuary in Antarctica.

In the future, one may be able to visit a climate museum, where ice cores are preserved as memory objects of the glaciers, and the environments, that once were.

Whose memories are remembered?

There are other ways in which broader memory guides us to necessary change for the future. Yet, too often, our monuments of remembrance and the objects we preserve in museums tell partial stories.

Increasingly, scholars are learning to ask who and what is missing and what goes unacknowledged. For example, in remembering those who served in the First World War, what of the stories of the non-western combatants who fought and fell in the trenches? Western official historical accounts need to open up their searches and recollections to include marginalized communities whose experiences have been excluded from official western histories. The democratization of memory promises a more equal future.

The (hashtag)MeToo movement similarly asks for radical change in the memories that count, and in our ability to listen to complex personal recollection. But equally, it requires us to ask what difference such painful remembering serves. What has been the (hashtag)MeToo movement’s impact on gendered power? Do we really need to hear more to know what is wrong?

Retelling can weigh heavily on the survivor, particularly if nothing shifts in the structures of power. This raises the question of not whether these memories matter — they do — but rather of our obligation to be galvanized into change by what they tell us.

Aspirations for tomorrow

Memory must inform our present for us to imagine a better future.

Neurological research shows that regions of the brain that store and reconstruct memory are also involved in our ability to imagine what tomorrow might bring. This was illustrated dramatically by the case of Kent Cochrane, a Canadian who lost his short-term memory after a traumatic brain injury he sustained in a motorcycle accident.

Cochrane used notes left on the refrigerator by his caregivers to recall the day-to-day events of his life. When asked to imagine the future, he couldn’t. He described it as the “blankness” of an empty room. Such blankness sounds terrifying, but it also has one redeeming quality; unfettered possibility.

However, we should resist being beguiled by the lure of the future to the point of amnesia about our past. Our aspirations for tomorrow — a future of carbon neutrality, gender equality, justice for Indigenous peoples — must be informed by our experience and the histories we inherit.

The act of remembering doesn’t consign us to the past. By understanding both the insights and the limits of memory, we reach for a world that is more inclusive and healthier than the one we currently inhabit.

– Philippe Tortell, Professor and Head, Dept. of Earth, Ocean & Atmospheric Sciences, University of British Columbia; Margot Young, Professor of Law, University of British Columbia, and Mark Turin, Associate professor, Department of Anthropology, University , The Canadian Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Two teens were sent to hospital after being stabbed Saturday evening. (Shane MacKichan photo)
Two teens stabbed in Abbotsford

20-year-old man has been detained

The annual Make a Difference Sale in Abbotsford is moving online for 2021. (File photo)
Make a Difference Sale in Abbotsford goes virtual for 2021

Annual auction raises money for world hunger through Canadian Foodgrains Bank

The Bug Girl, written by seven-year-old Sophia Spencer, is being given to 500 B.C. classrooms as part of Canadian Agriculture Literacy Month. (Submitted photos)
Reading challenges part of Canadian Agriculture Literacy Month

Abbotsford-based BC Agriculture in the Classroom participates in 10th annual event

B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver on Tuesday December 11, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C.’s compromise on in-person worship at three churches called ‘absolutely unacceptable’

Would allow outdoor services of 25 or less by Langley, Abbotsford and Chilliwack churches

Police tape is shown in Toronto Tuesday, May 2, 2017. (Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press)
CRIME STOPPERS: ‘Most wanted’ for the week of Feb. 28

Crime Stoppers’ weekly list based on information provided by police investigators

A health worker holds a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine to be administered to members of the police at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Mainz, Germany, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. The federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate, start with the vaccination of police officers in internal police vaccination centers. (Andreas Arnold/dpa via AP)
B.C. officials to unveil new details of COVID vaccination plan Monday

Seniors and health-care workers who haven’t gotten their shot are next on the list

An investigation is underway after a man was shot and killed by Tofino RCMP in Opitsaht. (Black Press Media file photo)
Man shot and killed by RCMP near Tofino, police watchdog investigating

Investigation underway by Independent Investigations Office of British Columbia.

Baldy Mountain Resort was shut down on Saturday after a fatal workplace accident. (Baldy Mountain picture)
Jasmine and Gwen Donaldson are part of the CAT team working to reduce stigma for marginalized groups in Campbell River. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror
Jasmine’s story: Stigma can be the hardest hurdle for those overcoming addiction

Recovering B.C. addict says welcome, connection and community key for rebuilding after drug habit

A Vancouver restaurant owner was found guilty of violating B.C.’s Human Rights Code by discriminating against customers on the basis of their race. (Pixabay)
Vancouver restaurant owner ordered to pay $4,000 to customers after racist remark

Referring to patrons as ‘you Arabs’ constitutes discrimination under B.C.’s Human Rights Code, ruling deems

Approximate location of the vehicle incident. (Google Maps)
Vehicle incident blocking Coquihalla traffic in both directions

Both directions of traffic stopped due to vehicle incident

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Judith Uwamahoro is Black, approximately 4’7″ tall, 80 pounds and has short black hair and brown eyes. (Surrey RCMP handout)
UPDATED: Lower Mainland 9-year-old located after police make public plea

Judith Uwamahoro went missing Friday at around 4 p.m. in Surrey

Most Read