(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

Just Posted

Pat McKenna, Habitat VIN's executive director and Alli Epp, Comox Valley Community engagement manager in front of Design Therapy, one of almost 200 businesses contributing to Bid to Build. Karen McKinnon Photo.
‘#BidToBuild’ auction launching to support affordable housing

Auction builds on last year’s successful effort, with new twists

Hope Rocks at the Campbell River Art Gallery highlighting local linguistic diversity.
Paint a rock to celebrate diversity

Hope Rocks highlighting linguistic diversity in Campbell River

Reflective number or design on hoodie. Police are seeking help in identifying three youth involved in an incident on Soderholm Road early June 12. Photo courtesy Campbell River RCMP
Do you know where your kids were at 1:24 a.m.?

Campbell River RCMP seeking help identifying three youths

John Hart Dam near Campbell River, B.C. BC Hydro photo
Campbell River watershed forecasts improve with rainfall

BC Hydro projects slightly higher resevoir levels and river flows after rainy May and June

North Island MLA Michele Babchuk. Photo contributed
COMMENTARY: MLA Michele Babchuk talks the future of forestry

‘These forests are important to every single one of us, myself included’

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Gabriola Island artist Sheila Norgate is promoting the Digital Innovation Group’s art impact survey. (File photo)
Vancouver Island artists get behind regional arts impact study

Artists urged to use their stature to help put arts and culture super-region on the map

The BC Ferries website went down for a short while Monday morning following a provincial announcement that recreational travel between health authorities can resume Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Ferries’ website crashes in wake of provincial reopening announcement

Websit back up now, recreational travel between health regions to resume as of Tuesday

Neighbours fight a small late-night bush fire with garden hoses and shovels in Cinnabar Valley on June 5. They couldn’t get help from local fire services because the fire was located in an area under B.C. Wildfire Services jurisdiction. (Photo courtesy Muriel Wells)
Neighbourhood on edge of Nanaimo city limits left to put out bush fire themselves

Cinnabar Valley residents tackle fire with hoses and buckets for two and a half hours

Darren Campbell’s truck (pictured) was stolen when he stopped to check on a car in a ditch on Cowichan Bay Road on Monday morning. (Facebook photo)
Vancouver Island Good Samaritan’s truck stolen in nasty trick

‘Try to be a Good Samaritan and my $20,000 truck gets stolen right under my nose’

The Kamloops Indian Residential School is photographed using a drone in Kamloops, B.C., Monday, June, 14, 2021. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former school earlier this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Communities grapple with what to do with former residential and day schools

Some tear them down as a tool to help healing, others repurpose them as tools for moving forward

Creative handmade signs abound at the June 13 Tofino rally for old growth trees. (Nora O’Malley photo)
VIDEO: Tofino stands in solidarity for Fairy Creek Blockades

Over 150 supporters attend rally hosted by Friends of Clayoquot Sound

FILE – Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. officials watching U.K.’s Delta variant struggles, ‘may need to slow’ restart plan

Studies show that one dose of vaccine is only 33 per cent effective in preventing B.1.617.2 spread

RCMP Const. Shelby Patton is shown in this undated handout photo. RCMP say that Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over on Saturday morning in Wolseley, east of Regina. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, RCMP
Pair charged in Saskatchewan Mountie’s death make first court appearance

Const. Shelby Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over Saturday morning

Most Read