On being ... a sad legacy

By Ingrid Sapona

I was watching a newscast this past week and just before they went to a commercial there was a “tease” of a story that they’d cover later in the broadcast. The tease was something like, “we’ll look back at a historic anniversary marked this week”.  I was sure that the historic event they were going to talk about was Nixon’s resignation, as August 9th was the 40th anniversary of that event.

Nixon’s resignation happened to be front-and-centre for me because I was reading a book about the impact that Watergate had on subsequent generations and on journalism in particular. Though I was only 12 when the Watergate break-in happened, and 14 when Nixon resigned, like many in the country, I was swept up by the story. I vividly remember coming home from school every day and watching the Senate Watergate hearings, chaired by bushy eyebrowed Senator Sam Ervin. To this day I can picture Maureen Dean sitting stoically behind John Dean as he testified.

I have no doubt that the criminal behaviour by those in the Oval Office helped fuel a distrust for government that started with the anti-war protests of the 1960s. Even for those of us who had no real, personal connection to the Vietnam war – for example, no one in my family served – nightly news coverage of things like protesting students being fired on (and killed) by National Guardsmen at Kent State couldn’t help but leave a mark on the national psyche.

Anyway, it turns out the historic event the newscast tease was referring to was the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One, I felt stupid because I should have guessed that that was the anniversary they were referring to, as the centenary’s been in the news for weeks here in Canada. The Toronto Star, for example, sent a couple of young reporters to walk the western front through Belgium and France. For two months they wrote articles as they traced the footsteps of Canadian soldiers through towns and key battlefields. As well, there have been many documentaries about the war – everything from the evolution of the fighting and weaponry over the four years to the Treaty of Versailles and the newly drawn maps of Europe and the Middle East that resulted.   

Before the recent spate of stories and documentaries about WWI, my knowledge of WWI came mainly from literature, movies, and theatre. And my only emotional connection to WWI came from the poem In Flanders Fields, which I hadn’t really even heard until I moved to Canada 25 years ago.

The more I’ve read and watched about WWI, the more I realize how woefully little I really I knew about it. I couldn’t help wonder if my lack of knowledge was just because I had tuned out when the topic came up in school, or whether it wasn’t as central to our curriculum in the U.S. as it seems to be here in Canada. When I mentioned to a few Canadian friends that I didn’t remember learning much about WWI, they suggested this was because – unlike Canada, which was in it from the start – the U.S. didn’t enter the war until the last year. While that difference might have something to do with it, I couldn’t help think there must be something more to the reason for the differences in historical perspective.

Then, a few weeks ago, in an article about WWI a Toronto historian said, “The world had been fairly peaceable since the War of 1812 and the Napoleonic wars, so no one was prepared psychologically for such devastation.”  Hold on, I thought. What about the 1860s and the Civil War, which left over 700,000 dead. Not exactly my definition of a peaceable period.

That’s when it dawned on me that it was the U.S. Civil War – Canadian soldiers weren’t involved. In other words, it wasn’t part of his history – much the way the early battles of WWI aren’t part of American history. Indeed, the fact that this Canadian historian had pretty much completely ignored the Civil War helped me understand why Canadians don’t really seem to appreciate the role race has historically played in the U.S., or the significance of an African American president, for example. The simple fact is: Canada didn’t fight a war over slavery.

Though these stories about differences in historic experiences I’ve observed between Canadians and Americans may seem trivial, I think they explain a lot. They also make me even more worried about the influence the conflicts and killing happening throughout the Middle East will have on the psyche of future generations. A frightening legacy indeed …

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


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