(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

North Island Bantam Eagles ice Clippers, clinch Tier 2 league banner

“We will enjoy the moment for now, but… it’s back to work on Tuesday”

Upgrades to Port Hardy arena hinge on grant funding

The district is waiting on grant approval from the Investing in Canada Infrastructure program.

Scarlett Point lighthouse keeper wins a million bucks playing the lottery

“I usually just get a quick pick, so I didn’t expect to win a big prize”

Bradshaw’s Photo Highlight: North Island beauty

“don’t forget to look up and observe the beauty of the whole North Island”

LETTER: Miles put on the car causes North Island driver to reflect

“Up here in Port McNeill we are so blessed with nature’s tranquillity all around us”

VIDEO: Soldiers trade rifles for snow shovels to help dig out St. John’s

A state of emergency is set to extend into a fifth day

Warm ‘blob’ could be behind mass starvation of North Pacific seabirds: study

Unprecedented death toll raises red flag for North American marine ecosystems

ICBC to bring in ranking system for collision, glass repair shops

Change comes after the much-maligned auto insurer has faced criticism for sky-high premiums

VIDEO: Comox Valley Chiefs smash North Island Eagles, clinch Peewee Tier 3 league banner

The Eagles got off to a slow start in the first period while the Chiefs were skating hard.

‘It was just so fast’: B.C. teen recalls 150-metre fall down Oregon mountain

Surrey’s Gurbaz Singh broke his leg on Mount Hood on Dec. 30

Vancouver Island Pride weekend returns to Mount Washington Alpine Resort

Building on the success of last year’s family-friendly pride festival on Vancouver… Continue reading

B.C. woman crowned the fastest female marathon runner in Canadian history

Malindi Elmore ran an incredible 2:24:50 at the Houston Marathon

Alberta bulldog breeder ordered to refund B.C. buyer over puppy’s behaviour

Tribunal ruled a verbal agreement to send a new dog superseded the written contract

Most Read