One of the things we’re doing on the honeymoon is hitting various museums in the Ottawa area. We’re history buffs, so this is actually something we want to do: some people relax on tropical beaches, some people take cruises, we wander around hushed museums. Yesterday was the Canadian War Museum, which might sound like an odd choice for a honeymoon.
In fact, it was an odd choice for a honeymoon. But it was recommended to us by several people, including my sister, it’s not far from our hotel, and it wouldn’t be too busy on a Monday afternoon. So we figured “why not?”
I’m not sure what I was expecting: maybe some kind of jingoistic rah-rah monument to the glories of Canadian military triumphs, which would have been unfortunate. What we found was very, very different from that. It was solemn. It was dignified. And above all, it wasn’t about Canada at war, it was about Canadians at war. Is that a clear enough distinction? The focus was very, very heavily on the experience of individuals in the context of war; every effort was made to emphasize the human cost and impact. Yes, there were displays of medals and uniforms… and in almost every instance there were plaques explaining who wore that equipment, who won those medals, usually by name and (sometimes) the circumstances in which they died. There were displays of war materiel, captured trophies of war (like one of Hitler’s staff cars seized by Canadian troops as unabashed war loot); displays of guns and vehicles. There were stories of heroic sacrifices, yes, but there were also displays on conscientious objectors and pacifists. There were displays on veterans and memorials… and unflinching acknowledgements of Canadian failures to respect aboriginal veterans.
The information provided was refreshingly apolitical and balanced, especially considering that this is a relatively new museum and the Harper government has made every effort to portray themselves as a “pro-military, pro-veteran” government (which is deeply hypocritical when you actually look at the numbers, but that’s an entirely different post.) The permanent exhibits were fascinating, but the one which really effected me was the special exhibit “Peace“.
Peace is about Canada’s efforts to prevent war. It examines Canada’s history as UN peacekeeping troops; Canada’s diplomatic efforts to preserve peace, and Canadians’ long history of contributing to disaster-relief around the world… and it also examined the contributions of Canadian anti-war and social justice activists. And some of those examples were from campaigns and demonstrations that I was personally involved with.
That hit me unexpectedly hard.
At one point I found myself fighting back tears in front of a display of an anti-war protest sign from an out-of-Afghanistan march that I personally attended. There were displays of anti-war buttons and pins; there was an audio-media presentation of a collection of a century of anti-war music. There was (and this was a genuine thrill for me) the original, hand-sewn Greenpeace flag from the voyage of the Phyllis Cormack. And all of the supporting information provided was evenhanded and fair, and treated the efforts of activists with the same respect and dignity as those of soldiers… and with the same humanizing approach that the War Museum takes throughout.
I’m having a hard time figuring out how I feel about that exhibit. I can’t boil it down to just a single word. Proud, I think, and vindicated both apply. But also sorrowful. I spent so many years and sacrificed so much… and I had got used to the idea that my efforts weren’t respected outside the activist community, that “ordinary” Canadians regarded me as at best a nuisance and at worst as a traitor to my nation. That was one of the sacrifices that I made: to know people who would look at my background and tell me I had no right to even set foot in the Canadian War Museum, that my hippy, war-opposing presence would somehow taint it; To ignore that there are people who regard me as less than Canadian for having the gall to question whether we should sacrifice soldiers’ lives to occupy a foreign land just because George W. Bush told us to post-9/11; To be perceived — falsely — as someone who hates his own country.
So I suppose there was a faint thread of defiance in my decision to go to the War Museum yesterday, in the same way that there’s a thread of defiance in me when I attend Remembrance Day ceremonies… or wear the white poppy instead of the red one because I regard the red poppy as having been co-opted by unscrupulous politicians who use it as a cheap billboard to sham patriotism instead of the solemn symbol of grief and remembrance it’s supposed to be.
Going to the War Museum and seeing that exhibit, seeing my efforts and experience as an activist placed in context alongside the efforts and experiences of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan or disaster relief workers in Haiti… and seeing them being given the same even-handed treatment and respect, well, that hit me very hard. I suspect that it’s going to be something I’m need to work through for a while. It stirred some stuff up that I haven’t been dealing with. But it was a very powerful experience for me, and I was very… grateful? Is that the word I’m looking for? To know that my efforts and sacrifices are, in the end, valued by my countrymen? To know that I didn’t spend seven years of my life for nothing?
I’m going to have to work through a lot of stuff. But I recommend the Canadian War Museum to all Canadians, right or left. And if you can make it there before the exhibit Peace ends on January 5th, do so… especially if you’re an activist.