It is human nature to look toward the future. We worry about progress, sustainability, and growth. In fact, most municipalities are obsessed with sustainable growth, and our area is no different. It almost feels as though local governments see the number of people choosing to live here as a report card – growth means A+, but people moving away must surely mean an F. This mentality is so strong that many area municipalities have slogans which emphasize the value of moving to them.
This week – the third week of February – is unique in that it is not dedicated to progress and moving forward. It’s Heritage Week, as designated by the Government of Ontario since 1985. This means that we take this week to look back on our local history, which can be just as important for progress as new ideas. Why? Because learning and growing is based on comparison. Think of a spider that builds a small, simple web, but then next time, builds on previous skills and builds a larger, more intricate web. The skills needed to build the simpler web are not abandoned, but rather built upon.
It is fascinating to think of human history as a spider web, growing and adapting. Each obstacle we have overcome as a species has been built on improving how we do things. An easy example is the environment. We don’t suddenly want to worry about air pollution “just because”, we worry about it because we look back on decades of global temperature trends and realize that we can’t keep up the same habits forever and maintain our terrestrial home. Another example is justice reform. Policymakers don’t suddenly wake up with brain reboots that direct them to be more sensitive to the causes of crime and the need to reform rather than punish. Instead, we look back on years of degrading, inhumane treatment of criminals and realize that while justice must certainly be served, we also must never lose our humanity in how we treat offenders. Take a tour of an old jail to see what I mean.
These two admittedly random examples would be only two of thousands in a list that would be impossible to make exhaustive. They illustrate a simple concept – we change and grow as a society because we learn from the past. This is one of the very important reasons for schoolchildren to study history. Past events such as the Holocaust help remind us of what can happen when we let hate and division warp our sound judgement. It is not just for “interest”; we study history because in studying our past, the path to a better future becomes clearer.
Studying and honouring heritage at the local level can have a different but equally important purpose. Particularly in small communities, it can aid in a sense of belonging and connectedness to the community. We are “locals”, and with that comes a comforting sense of belonging, but countless people were locals before us. They too had stories, just like many of the buildings that we use for one purpose today had far different uses decades ago.
One of the reasons I enjoy small town living is the small stuff. Sure, I have never known any other type of living, being a lifelong resident of this area, but there are many facets of small town life that I could never give up. Old adages usually ring true, and in this case, “it’s the small things in life” is a perfect expression. It is exemplified in the simple wave to the dozen people you know in the grocery store, and in the familiarity of the same streets and the same quaint businesses day after day, and maybe even in sitting in a quiet home on a quiet street and reading a wholesome community newspaper (shameless plug!).
This week, we get to enjoy something else. During Heritage Week, it’s the old things in life that give us peace and joy. We reflect on our past and how far we’ve come, and reminisce about the fact that life decades ago in our quaint little community could have somehow been even more simple than it is today. I love it! There is a reason we read history books, have entire television channels and movies dedicated to historical events, and have tourist attractions like Upper Canada Village to visit and explore. It’s because our past is interesting and provides an amazing opportunity for learning and growth.
How can one go about learning the history of their own community? Historical societies are a great place to start. Area societies include the North Grenville Historical Society, the Chesterville and District Historical Society, and the Historical Society of South Dundas. These organizations are not-for-profit, volunteer run, and are vital in preserving local history. Crossing borders is to be encouraged when it comes to digging into local history, since our entire area, and not just our own municipality, is rich in history. Take the flooding of the St. Lawrence Seaway, for example. The Seaway is a short drive of 20 minutes or less away for most of us, and its story is so remarkable that it is almost unbelievable. Not just the fact that such a gigantic project was successfully undertaken, but also the personal impacts it had on many people whose homes and entire histories were submerged in water.
Whatever interests you – roads and infrastructure, old railways, historical local businesses and government buildings, former “famous” residents, etc. – don’t be afraid to get out and learn about the history of your own backyard. It doesn’t even need to be Heritage Week. You don’t need an excuse to let your curiosity travel back in time!