Playing With Perspective

The film Braveheart depicts events and personalities from Scotland’s Wars of Independence with England during the 13th century.  In the movie, English armies invade Scotland subduing and bringing the Scots under the control of imperial England.  The main Scottish character, William Wallace, declares that although England might “take our lives Scotland’s sons and daughters remain free.”

Moving from film to the real world, the English regarded Scottish leaders like Wallace as criminals (in the 21st century he would be labeled a “terrorist”).  This speaks volumes about the problem with perspective: they are anything but objective descriptions of the real world; on the contrary, they are filters we subject and see the world through; they are the product of our own specific beginning or starting point; they say more about us than about the people and thing we purport to be describing through them.

For example, historical accounts from England’s perspective depict the English as heroic and the Scots as savages; yet, Scottish accounts tell a different story: England’s King Edward I is the oppressor while the Scots are defenders of liberty.  Appreciating the role of perspective is important because it gives us a better understanding for how history is written, i.e. the guns of the victorious typically silence the voices of the conquered; and since official histories are written by victors the defeated sometimes have no voice at all.

Turning our attention to Canada we see history is not without irony, e.g. the English and the Scots were oppressors.  As was the case in Scotland, powerful men shaped Canada’s institutions writing our history.  In the process certain voices—Metis, Inuit, and First Nations—were lost or ignored. A pro-European narrative emerged presenting indigenous peoples as savage and backwards while whites were apparently civilized and progressive; this simplistic and distorted view shaped the attitudes of countless generations of Canadians; there is no doubt these attitudes contributed to intolerance and the eventual establishment of the residential school system (1840s) followed later by the morally questionable/scientifically dubious nutrition experiments conducted on First Nations children in the 1950s.

The situation changed, albeit slowly, once First Nations peoples began asserting themselves in the 1960s.  The 60s were known as the decade of protest in part because minorities became more vocal in their desire to be recognized and in their demands for legal protection.  In the United States people like Rosa Parks, and in Canada individuals like George Manuel of the Shuswap First Nation, successfully challenged the authority of the ruling elites.  The result was a dramatic expansion of democratic rights and legal recognition for minorities.