Harry Sanders is our Historian Laureate
Scott Jolliffe, Chair CHA, Harry Sanders, Alderman Druh Farrell
Photo courtesy Judith Umbach
I was delighted to be able to attend the crowning of Calgary’s first Historian Laureate. Being a long-time Calgary native, I have watched the attitudes of administration toward the preservation and celebration of heritage develop over the years from an almost personal animosity toward old buildings (think Rod Sykes being attacked by the Burns Building) to today’s understanding of the value of preserving the past. Our new laureate is a person who has spent his entire adult life bringing heritage to the people and interpreting it for them through his own, passionate view. Harry Sanders makes history meaningful. In his hands, heritage is a living thing, a story of everyday people – the people who make this city great.
Part of the investiture ceremony was a poetry slam. Our other laureate, Kris Demeanor, Calgary’s first Poet Laureate (and believe me, when I was growing up, studying literature at university, the idea that the city of Calgary, Capitalist Calgary, would ever have a poet laureate would have provoked gales of laughter in all of the cement and steel towers that line our streets) wrote and delivered a challenge – one that Calgarians have long been debating – what use is history?
With his permission, here is Kris’s throw down:
Okay, I know it’s not in the Calgary tradition of niceness and politeness, but I cannot hold my peace!
I don’t care about Guy Weadick’s rope and release any more than I do the fathers of Greece
It’s old news and we all know that’s only fit for wrapping fish and chips
Look, nothing against Harry, I’m sure he’s a wealth of facts colourful, sublime, astounding and scary,
But let me save you all two years of talk of beaver pelt hats and ‘That used to be a nunnery!’
And give you a quick and easy summary of all you need to know about history
PERSONAL: You are the genetic union of a mother and father, they gave you food and water, you grew, learnt a bunch of stuff, most of it useless, you got a job and barbecue.
THE WORLD: Big Bang, plants, fish, caveman, hominid, ice age, Egypt, Rome, Aztecs, war war war war war, Bible, Genghis Khan, Da Vinci, Queen Victoria, war, war, war, Einstein, guy in Hummer with a baseball cap and GI Joe facial hair, there, DONE.
History teaches us nothing, we have always just been bluffing our way from one grand embarrassment to another- we don’t look at letters from our last lover, or replay the video reel of us throwing up at the school dance or failing math.
Let our collective insecurity and shame over the past lead the way to a brighter tomorrow full of wisdom we don’t need to borrow. All I could learn from my forefathers and foremothers is how to stoke a coal stove and churn my own butter, and I don’t want to do that.
I don’t want to imagine a world without frozen pizza, omnipresent technology and direct flights to Cuban all-inclusives for five hundred dollars.
Look, Harry will claim that history is interesting, but when I look back I see buffalo carcasses stacked, endless trains rolling down endless track, dust, snowstorms, scarlet fever and clothing with colour choices ranging from beige to brown, look around, we’re surrounded by concrete, glass, GPS, pubs with seven beers from Belgium and full of people looking forward, ahead, and into the future, why go back or even stay in neutral, sure maybe the Marx Brothers played here, but I can get the latest and greatest sent straight from a satellite and into my ear.
History? Two weeks of the retro kitsch of Stampede is all I need to feel connected to folk of old who found themselves stuck in this cold, harsh land, I’m burning my brand into the hide of this city with a laser.
I’ve been here since birth, and trust me, we’ve long since paved over anything worth unearthing. Harry, good luck putting flesh on the past, but you’re going to run out of fodder fast!
So, though tongue-in-cheek, this does raise the question – What value is there in the past? Harry’s job as historian laureate will be to answer this question, which he did, in verse, no less:
Poetry may be the more universal art
Some things are best said in verse
But a forgotten poem is never repeated
So forgetting our history is worse
Those we follow inform who we are
Crowfoot, Macleod, Weadick, Edworthy
They’re with us still, for good or ill
Daily, we’re shaped by our history
So, it is a great honour to have a small part
In celebrating this 100th anniversary
I pledge to remind you all of our shared past
As Historian Laureate of Calgary
I know that Harry will continue to answer the question in his own inimitable style. Way to go, Harry!
Poet Laureate Kris Demeanor asks the Question "What's so great about history?"
Photo courtesy Judith Umbach