Historic weapons demonstrations are popular; I get that. Big old guns are cool, and special events where visitors can not only hear them go boom but wear the uniforms and light the fuses sounds like a great time. But something has been bothering me about these programs for a while now, and the further I delve into the work of truth and reconciliation, the more uncomfortable I am with these programs. I think I’ve finally figured out why:
There’s a fine line between interpreting colonialism and endorsing it.
Indicators you’re on the wrong side of the line:
- You dress kids up as colonial soldiers and use them for fun photo ops.
- Your branding involves attractive, evocative images of colonial firepower—without critical comment or context.
- You pay lip service to reconciliation but your non-verbal themes are firing loud, clear, and often.
- Your white rich visitors tell you that they love hearing the cannons go off.
One of the premises of public communications (including interpretation) is that everything is a message, and in general, actions speak louder than words.
So what exactly are you trying to say with your historic weapons demonstrations? What is the subtext behind the gunfire, behind the active firing of the weapons that subjugated a continent and eliminated entire civilizations?
Have you articulated the interpretive theme of your historic weapons demonstration? Is your point of view critical? (And by critical I mean questioning intelligently; creating context for understanding.) Or is it laudatory? Are you interpreting colonialism or endorsing it through costumes and firepower?
Why this is so uncomfortable
This is going to sound strong, but I’ll say it: non-verbal shows of colonial power—disguised as interpretive programming—are one of the last socially-acceptable bastions of the colonial patriarchy. I’ll go so far as to suggest it’s one of the reasons why some managers love them so much. We get to pay lip service to reconciliation with our pat acknowledgements of traditional territory at the start of the day… and then dress the kids up in red coats and fire off the weapons with glee. “Blammo!” the cannons declare. “The white men are still in charge, and don’t you forget it!” We’re letting our firepower speak for us, as centuries of European colonists did in the past.
Is it possible to demonstrate weapons critically and sensitively?
Of course it is. These weapons are part of our history and it’s not constructive to pretend they aren’t. We need to own our colonial past; we need to comprehend the military history that got us here. There is a thread of historical continuity that leads from the cannons of Louisbourg to the weaponization of the police today. As good interpreters we can use dialogue to draw that line and bring greater relevance to our historic sites.
My point is that we’re not doing that work; we’re complicit in the military takeover of the continent by casting the use of that firepower in a nostalgic light. And I’m skeptical of sites that claim to be taking a well-rounded point of view while still putting dress-up uniforms and gunpowder at the heart of their brand. What are your evaluations telling you? Are your visitors walking away having challenged their knowledge and preconceptions about the violent politics of colonialism? Or are they just telling you they really liked making the guns and cannons go off? Are you even asking these questions?
First truth, then reconciliation
“Everyone wants to get to reconciliation without going through the truth part,” an Indigenous community member told us in a recent consultation.
The truth is, we have yet to take on the work of acknowledging and rejecting the Doctrine of Discovery and the Doctrine of Terra Nullius. Of all the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation commission, these are the two that are the most salient to historic sites and museums.
Canada—like every colony—was founded on a late medieval Papal doctrine that decreed that the first European/Christian power to ‘discover’ a land had rightful sovereignty over it and its people. That doctrine informs the history of virtually every historic site in Canada; it shapes virtually all of the toxic entitlements and racist assumptions that plague Canadian society today. It’s going to take a long time for us, as interpreters and facilitators of visitor experience, to work through it. Firing historic cannons mindlessly to the delight of our audiences doesn’t contextualize the doctrine; it reinforces it.
Terra Nullius is the other lie on which Canada was founded: it’s the doctrine that most of this country was unoccupied and wasted, and better put to use through colonization. Again, this is heavy baggage that weighs us down as Canadians and as interpreters; it stands between us and the joyful work of connecting people to place.
It’s time to do the work of reconciliation. Truth-telling is step one. It seems to me that being honest with ourselves about how attached we are to our demonstrations of colonial power is a simple step forward.
Having written the interpretive plans that you decry here is somewhat hypocritical, Don. Or have you just now had an epiphany? Being proactive and building programs that balance our messages or that even play against our current messages (interpretive programs) can be a healthy way to introduce reconciliation and build public knowledge and understanding of the real impact of colonialism. We have to stop burying our heads by ignoring or casting aside the past and start facing it. We just have to change the stories we tell.
Hi Frank- thanks for your comment. I would call it more of an evolution over the last several years rather than an epiphany, but you are correct in that I have written interpretive plans that included historic weapons- at least one, anyway. The only plan I can recall was for a certain fort on southern Vancouver Island, that we did in 2015-2016. I would definitely do it differently today; I also regret that we did no meaningful consultation for that plan. I think everyone’s thinking has evolved in the last few years and I hope it continues to do so. For myself, that evolution has sometimes been slow and difficult- I am a privileged old white guy after all.
Yes we have to start facing the past- absolutely, and I agree that we have to change the stories. As I mention above, I think it’s possible to demonstrate weapons in a new and thoughtful way. I think it involves not only changing the text but the subtext, the context, the non-verbal part of the program as well. I’m not sure what that looks like yet but I know it’s not a celebratory firing of weapons for white people’s amusement.
Don, I appreciate your article, and agree with the idea and the need for careful thinking about how to interpret re-enactments, but I think you go off in the wrong direction by citing the Doctrine of Discovery. As author Douglas Sanderson (Prichard Wilson Chair in Law and Public Policy at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, and member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation) wrote, recently, in the Globe and Mail: “The problem is that this discourse [calls for renouncing the Doctrine of Discovery by the Pope] only breathes life into a legal doctrine that has actually had little influence on relationships with Indigenous people in this specific part of the world.” See the full article — “The Doctrine of Discovery was only given legal life by the United States. So why do we bother talking about it in Canada?” in The Globe and Mail, 5 August, 2022.
Culturally, the Doctrine was both a symptom of, and perpetrator and justification for, virtually all of Europeans’ entitlements around colonized land. Legally, I think it’s reasonable to suggest that the Doctrine informed a fair bit of Canadian legislative convention around the time of confederation.
“The Fathers of Confederation embraced both the formal equality principle and the doctrine of discovery as fundamental to the rule of law. Formal equality applied together with the doctrine of discovery assured and justified the perpetual dominance of the British and the French over the land and the permanent subordination of the indigenous peoples who occupied it.” U of C Law Blog