Thursday, 27 May 2010

Forgotten? Or remembered incorrectly? You decide!

Is it worse to be forgotten by history or to be remembered incorrectly (and perhaps unflatteringly) by history?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a few reasons.

First, I have been reading the biography of R.B. Bennett (Bennett: The rebel who challenged and changed a nation) and it got me thinking about this question. And as I was reading the book I had a question so I googled about Canadian Prime Ministers and came across an interesting web-site that lists how Canadians actually remember our various Prime Ministers. For many of the Prime Ministers, the response was “they don’t.” For the vast majority of Canadians many of the people who led our country have been completely forgotten. And for the ones that we do remember, the suggestion is that we remember them in less than accurate or even flattering terms – the guy who talked to his dead dog, the guy from the First World War on the $100 bill, etc.

As well, I have been leading quite a few school programs around the Great Depression and, of course, as part of the program we have a photograph of a Bennett Buggy. The Bennett Buggy was a vehicle people made in the Great Depression by pulling the engines out of their cars and then hooking their cars up to horses. The Bennett Buggies were used by farmers who were too poor to buy gas or repairs for their vehicles. They were, of course, named after Bennett who was Prime Minister from 1930 to 1935. If you had asked me about R.B. Bennett a few months ago all I would have remembered about him was the Bennett Buggy, that he was very unpopular to most Canadians during the Great Depression and that he had an unusual death. If I had thought about it some more, I probably would have concluded that he must not have been very good as a Prime Minister if this was the impression I had of him.

The biography (which I’m still reading) suggests otherwise – that Bennett was principled, hard-working and tried to bring in policies that would help during the Great Depression. (Yes, he could also be arrogant and condescending – but who’s perfect?) But his government was faced with an overwhelming problem with few options, no previous events to learn from and problems beyond his control and larger than he could manage. I am beginning to recognize that some of what I thought I knew about the man was incorrect. And it’s likely that during the years of teaching about the Great Depression I may have passed along some of my incorrect assumptions and understanding of him to students. If Bennett had a choice, would he rather I never talked about him or that I talked about him with students, even if there were a few errors in my presentation? What would be your choice?

As an aside, last year as I was researching I went through the guest book for the Chinook Club (Lethbridge’s premiere men’s club, especially in the early 20th century). Bennett was a guest at the club more than a few times and we know this because we have his signature in the guest book. Was he here for legal business or politicking? From what I’ve read of the man, it’s very unlikely he was in Lethbridge for pleasure.

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