Learning to Write for Everyone

Recently our class was asked to produce 400 word Op Eds and then evaluate them as a group. It was fun – and also challenging. I personally found that writing history for an audience who may not care about history, very strange. When writing exhibit text for a museum – you can at least make the assumption that your audience has some interest in history – as they are visiting a museum – but not so for the broader arena of public history. Those reading a newspaper or listening to the radio, may be interested in hearing  a few historical facts but they aren’t actually turning to your work to learn history!

Well since I wrote the article I thought I would share it along with some of the comments I received – feel free to comment on it as well. I suppose as a public historian it is about time that I learn to write for the public!!

A Stain on Our History We Must all Remember

Canada’s history has a stain. The government’s attempt to “civilize” Aboriginal children through the Canadian residential school system tore apart communities and left a generation of people without a clear identity. It also lead to the deaths of hundreds of children, whose tragic stories remain unheard. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reorganizes, and prepares to look into this issue, we must all ask ourselves: How will these children and their horrific stories be remembered?

The groundwork for Canada’s residential school system was laid out in 1857 with the Gradual Civilization Act. Which sought to civilize Aboriginal people by encouraging them to adopt a sedentary farming lifestyle, imitate European culture and dress, and most importantly educate their children to become civilized Europeans.

By 1931 there were 80 residential schools operating across Canada. Children were taken from their homes and placed in an alien word. Their hair was cut short; they were given a new name, and European clothing, and speaking their own language was strictly forbidden and harshly punished. The schools were chronically underfunded. The buildings were cheaply constructed and faced many heating and plumbing problems. Children lacked the proper nutrition that their growing bodies needed. All this paints a grim picture but the true stain on this history was the appalling number deaths – the majority from tuberculosis.

School records reveal that the milk the children drank came in many instances, from cows infected with bovine tuberculosis. Sick children were forced to attend classes, thereby exposing others. Few schools were lucky enough to have a trained nurse on staff, and most relied on doctors from neighbouring towns. The families of children were often notified of their child’s illness only after their death, and in most cases the bodies were buried in unmarked graves on the school grounds.

The last residential school closed in 1996, but the bodies of the children who died in these schools still remain lost, their stories forgotten. Today historians, and Aboriginal communities are working together to uncover the truth, but for the most part it remains an unheard history. Regardless of the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, Canadians must find a way to remember this history, and stop hiding the stain. We are accountable for our past, Canadians can no longer look on this as an “Indian problem” it is our history too and we cannot ignore it.

As for the comments I received, on the up side it passed the “so what” test – meaning that it is a subject worth writing about, and that I managed to explain to the reader why they should care about a particular historical issue. Also I had a strong intro and conclusion. On the down side my punctuation isn’t great (a  problem I struggle with); and I am too objective – this is clearly a dark historical topic – and could be written about with more passion and conviction!


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