(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

LEFT: Krista Macinnis, with a red handprint across her face that symbolizes the silencing of First Nations people, displays the homework assignment that her Grade 6 daughter received on Tuesday. (Submitted photo)
RIGHT: Abbotsford School District Kevin Godden says the district takes responsibility for the harm the assignment caused.
Abbotsford school district must make amends for harmful residential school assignment: superintendent

‘The first step is to unreservedly apologize for the harm … caused to our community’: Kevin Godden

Chilliwack School District school bus outside Sardis elementary on June 11, 2014. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
COVID-19 exposures on three school buses in Chilliwack

Exposure dates range from Nov. 13 to 19, according to letters sent out by Fraser Health

File photo
Outdoor recreation generates close to $1 billion annually in Fraser Valley: report

Camping, hiking and sportfishing generate the most spending, report finds

Chief Robert Gladstone of Shxwha:y Village at a federal flood funding announcement April 24, 2019. (Jenna Hauck/Chilliwack Progress file)
Consortium of Indigenous chiefs seeking a way to participate in cannabis economy

All Nations Chiefs from the Shxwha:y, Cheam, Soowahlie and Sq’ewlets holding online forum Dec. 2

The Santa Photos event will not continue at Highstreet Shopping Centre after Fraser Health asked organizers to suspend the event after new restrictions. (Highstreet photo)
Santa Photos at Abbotsford’s Highstreet Shopping Centre event suspended

Fraser Health Authority asked Highstreet to suspend event following new restrictions

Mary Cox and Jack Plant dance in their pyjamas and slippers at the morning pyjama dance during the Rhythm Reelers’ 25 Annual Rally in the Valley Square Dance Festival in Chilliwack on June 4, 2011. Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020 is Square Dancing Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Nov. 29 to Dec. 5

Square Dancing Day, Disability Day and International Ninja Day are all coming up this week

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Kevin Bieksa during his days playing with the Vancouver Canucks. (Photo: commons.wikimedia.org)
Bieksa to guest on free Canucks Alumni ‘Hot Stove’ on Zoom app

Former NHL player has become a game analyst on Sportsnet

Elissa McLaren broke her left elbow in the Sept. 20, 2020 collision. (Submitted)
Surviving victims of fatal crash in Fraser Valley asking for help leading up to Christmas

‘This accident has taken a larger toll financially, mentally and physically than originally intended’

Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld (left) and former BCTF president Glen Hansman (right).
BC Court of Appeal left to walk tightrope of freedom of expression in Neufeld-Hansman case

Is defamation lawsuit aimed at stifling free expression or does the defamation hinder free speech?

114 Canadians were appointed Nov. 27 to the Order of Canada. (Governor General of Canada photo)
Indigenous actor, author, elder, leaders appointed to Order of Canada

Outstanding achievement, community dedication and service recognized

Screenshot of Pastor James Butler giving a sermon at Free Grace Baptist Church in Chilliwack on Nov. 22, 2020. The church has decided to continue in-person services despite a public health order banning worship services that was issued on Nov. 19, 2020. (YouTube)
2 Lower Mainland churches continue in-person services despite public health orders

Pastors say faith groups are unfairly targeted and that charter rights protect their decisions

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

A big job: Former forests minister Doug Donaldson stands before a 500-year-old Douglas fir in Saanich to announce preservation of some of B.C.’s oldest trees, July 2019. (B.C. government)
B.C. returning to ‘stand-alone’ forests, rural development ministry

Horgan says Gordon Campbell’s super-ministry doesn’t work

Most Read