Five Lessons from the First Day on the Job

The first day on the job is always hard. It offers equal scoops of excitement and fear. Two first day experiences helped shape the five lessons that I learned and now humbly share.

first day on the job

I was hired to teach History at what was then called a vocational school. It was designed for teenagers who had learning disabilities, had recently arrived in Canada from schools that left them woefully unprepared, and others who were waiting to go to jail or just out, and more who were too bored, angry, or damaged to fit in elsewhere.

On the day before classes began, I was told that I would not be teaching History but Grades 10 and 12 Mathematics. I protested that I had not studied Math in university and was awful at it in high school. I was told I’d be fine. My classroom contained two big stacks of text books; one blue, one yellow. The yellow one had stuff that looked harder so I made it the grade 12 book. I noticed that all my class lists had around 30 kids each but the room only had 26 desks. I was told not to worry, they would never all show up.

On my first day I was told to fuck off twice. The second time was in a marvelous Jamaican accent so it was actually, fuck off, mon. No matter what I did or said in one class, they just ignored me. Bob Hope and Jimmy Carter, I swear, were in another class. I had them sit together, it only seemed right. After lunch another teacher and I broke up a hallway fight. The boy I pulled off another spun and tried to kick me between the pockets – I jumped, he ran.

That evening I told my wife that I had made a terrible mistake in accepting the job and moving us to this city where we knew not a soul. We discussed options. But the next morning, I affixed another of my brand new ties, and went back into the lion’s den.

Several years and three schools later I walked into my first day at one of Canada’s premier independent boarding schools. It’s a school for kids of the upper middle class and rich who can buy their children’s peers and an education and environment that all schools, if properly funded, led, and staffed, could and should provide.

We gathered for the first morning chapel, held in the theatre because the chapel was under reconstruction. I was stopped by the athletic director and told I was the senior soccer coach. I confessed that I had never coached soccer. In fact, I had never played soccer. “Don’t worry”, I heard him say, as if it was a sixteen-year old echo, “You’ll be fine.” The first practice was that afternoon.

The school’s new academic building was also under construction and so I was among several teachers in rented, old and smelly portables. Wex and Alasdair were the first students to arrive for the first period class. They both shook my hand and welcomed me. Wow, I thought, they’re adults. Because each boy weighed well over 200 pounds, they laughed at the tiny desks. They wedged, wiggled and stuffed themselves between the chair and the tiny affixed table. As if on cue, they hopped – all four desk legs left the floor. Wow, I thought, they’re children.

The rest of the students arrived, saw the two hopping about and, of course, joined in. I soon had us lined up for a race. That did it. We were one. The chemistry was among the best of the hundreds of classes I have taught in my career.

That afternoon I was given a mesh bag of soccer balls and met my team. We began practice with a run. I stretched it out as long possible while deciding what I could possibly do next to kill the hour. I put them through a number of hockey drills until it was mercifully over. That evening I took notes as my daughter taught me how many players are on the field, the names of the positions, and the basics of the game. The next practices were marginally better. There were six teams in our league and that season we came second – second in every game we played.

Top Five First Day Lessons I Learned:

  1. It Gets Better: The most underpaid worker is the one struggling through their first day, or week, or month. Things will never get easy but they get easier. I learned to note the good moments and accept the bad as rude instruction.
  2. Character Matters: A good boss hires not a resume but a person. That person’s most important asset is character. I learned to have faith. You will pick up what you need to know soon enough but until then your character is your guide.
  3. Laughter Matters: It is important to always take the job seriously but never yourself. I learned that even the most titanic of stressful, embarrassing situations quickly shrivel to funny little stories.
  4. Client Service: Concentrate on the clients; in my case the students. Overwhelm them with your dedication to their needs. I learned that it is only by impressing clients that anyone ever impresses the boss.
  5. Don’t Water the Rocks: Every workplace has folks eager to sink a sabre into a colleague’s back for some perceived advantage. Ignore them. They trade their souls for ephemeral victories and realize too late that real grown-ups left school yard intrigues long ago and that, in the end, there’s no one keeping score. I learned to waste no time on sycophants or saboteurs.

It all sounds easy. The toughest things always do. I wish I understood the lessons on my first day back at the vocational school. It was my toughest day. I’m glad I had learned them by my first day at the independent school. It was among my best days. While I still dedicate myself and whatever talents I possess to doing the best I can, I have never let my job, title, or employer define me. Work is not life. Work is what I do to have a life. That alone makes any first day, or any day after that for that matter, what it should be, just another day at work.

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A Time For Heroes

We have always yearned for heroes.  A hero personifies, in character and deed, traits that inspire admiration and imitation. A society’s values are revealed and reinforced by those deemed heroic. In the same way, your heroes say a lot about you.

In his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan observed, “Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don’t know where to look. You can see heroes every day.”  The president understood that we need not seek a hero in history or myth or among the famous and powerful. They are all around us. It was an important thought, but it was wasted on me. I already knew where to look.

Among my heroes is a man you have never heard of. He never got his name in the paper. He won neither medals nor laurels. There will never be a statue erected or movie made about him. But he was heroic. His character and the manner in which he lived render him as worthy of admiration and imitation as any whose names are known around the globe. He was a gentle, humble, dignified hero. He was my grandfather.

John Boyko 001

John W. Boyko

He believed in moderation. My Dad told me of golfing with him.  Dad would blast drives out 275 yards or so and then watch as his father did as he always did: 150 yards, straight down the middle. Then, as the others hit those marvellous iron shots that fade magnificently and, when they work, bounce and bite on the green, his father would strike a little bump and run. Without the awe of the masterful shot, most would roll closer than the others.

At the end of nearly every round, my grandfather would stroll from the eighteenth green with the same ball he struck from the first tee, and almost always with fewer strokes than his flashier opponents and partner. The metaphor is apt. Moderation informed his decisions about friends, family, fun, and every other aspect of his long life. Moderation matters, it’s heroic.

He believed in loyalty. Last summer, a colleague launched into a highly-charged rant detailing all that was wrong with our place of employment. I was nodding at the litany of things apparently wrong when I unexpectedly thought of my grandfather. While pretending to listen, I reflected on the 42 years he gave to Dofasco, the mammoth Hamilton steel plant. I never once heard him utter a critical word.

This man who lived through a depression and world war taught me to be grateful for a safe place and fair wage and to always give more than expected. If one’s employer does not reciprocate loyalty with loyalty, then don’t become disloyal, find another employer. Loyalty in all aspects of life and, ultimately, to one’s dignity, matters. Loyalty is heroic.

He believed in patience. On a great number of misty mornings and sunny afternoons I accompanied him to Oakville’s Bronte pier. He loved fishing. I hate fishing. But I loved being with him and so along I’d go, secretly cheering for the fish. One warm afternoon, I pointed to a string of boats about three hundred yards out into Lake Ontario. He said they all had fish finders and guessed that the Coho salmon were out there. A few moments passed before I ventured, “So, does that mean that we haven’t a chance of catching anything here?” He shook his head and said, “No, but it’s a nice day, and you never know.”  We practiced our casting for another two hours, had great chats, and headed home. Patience matters – it’s heroic.

Bronte pier

He believed in generosity. We are captains of our own ships, embarked on journeys of our own design, but family is the beacon that always guides us home; home to the sanctuary where we are reminded of whom we truly are. My grandfather celebrated my triumphs and, from time to time, commiserated with my despair. He always offered compassion without judgment. He knew that the most generous gifts are time and attention. And those gifts, bestowed with gentle grace and twinkling eyes were the essence of the man. He seldom gave advice, even when asked; winter can’t warn the spring. His advice was in his example. Generosity matters – it’s heroic.

We have known heroes from Achilles to Kennedy and from Louis Riel to Eleanor Roosevelt. They matter for what they offer and reflect about the societies and individuals who revere them. I have my own hero. I share his name. I share his values. Every day he instructs me. Every day, I strive to be worthy of his memory.

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A Country Worth Fighting For

Being Canadian is tough. It takes work. Since long before Confederation, Canadians have experienced periods of existential re-examination in which we have struggled to determine just what it is about being Canadian that is worth proclaiming and protecting. Strong leaders do not shrink from those moments. In fact, they seek them, shape them, and have us learn from them.

The first such moment emerged from the First World War’s muck of Flanders and the ridge at Vimy. Before the war, most Canadians considered themselves British. Afterwards, we were Canadian. Prime Minister Borden insisted that Canada sign the Treaty of Versailles and have its own seat in the ill-fated League of Nations. It was the beginning of Canada’s shift from, as noted historian A. R. M. Lower entitled his seminal 1953 book, Colony to Nation.

Vimy Ridge Memorial Vimy Ridge Memorial

It was a nice thought. But nothing is as simple as it seems. The First World War also saw the middle of the end of Britain’s reign as the world’s paramount power and the passing of that torch to the initially reluctant Americans. Canada was forced to accept that change when, in 1917, Britain told a surprised Borden that it could no longer help finance Canada’s war effort. He was forced to turn to the United States for help in order to keep helping Britain. In the two decades after the war, American investment in Canada’s economy surpassed Britain’s. Canada bought and sold more stuff over the border than across the Atlantic.

Another moment came in the awful spring and early summer of 1940. France and most of Western Europe had fallen to Hitler’s blitzkrieg. It looked like Britain would be next. Prime Minister Mackenzie King met with President Roosevelt near the border at Ogdensburg, New York and agreed upon a continental defence strategy. A Permanent Joint Board on Defence was created. A year later they met again, this time at Roosevelt’s posh Hyde Park estate. The Hyde Park Agreement further linked Canada’s economy to America’s with pledges of wartime purchasing and financing.

With Canada’s economy already dominated by the United States, and its culture being swamped by American books, magazines, radio, and movies, Canadian nationalists were infuriated. It appeared that Canada was selling out to a new master in order to shell out to the old one. With the Cold War’s legitimate fear of communism, Soviet aggression, and nuclear destruction, and Canada’s old parents enfeebled, it was good to have a friendly neighbour who just happened to have the biggest, meanest dog in town.

Maybe Lower was wrong. Perhaps Canada had not moved from colony to nation but from colony to nation and then to colony again. An important Canadian leader challenged the trend and forced a new existential moment of self-examination: John Diefenbaker. Like Canada’s founding fathers, he was not anti-American, but pro-Canadian. Canada, he argued, was in danger of losing all that Canadians held dear unless action was taken to establish a greater pride in being Canadian and more independence. Diefenbaker argued that Canadians needed to determine if they had a country worth fighting for and were up for the scrap. Canada, he said, must stand up for its sovereignty and declare itself a colony no more.

Diefenbaker was prime minister from 1957 to 1963. His nationalist vision led him to stand up to Eisenhower and then Kennedy in ways that frustrated both. President Kennedy wanted Canada to join the Organization of American States, stop trading with Cuba and China, back Britain’s joining the European Common Market, and accept American nuclear weapons for its weapon systems in Canada and Europe. Diefenbaker said no, no, no, and no. Despite having ignored Diefenbaker while deliberating options during the early days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy demanded an immediate and obedient response to his order regarding the alert level of Canadian troops. Diefenbaker said no.

kennedy and diefenbaker  Kennedy and Diefenbaker

The highly respected George Grant noted in his influential book Lament for a Nation, that Diefenbaker’s standing up to the Americans represented the “last gasp of Canadian nationalism.” After Diefenbaker’s defeat, his nationalist vision was shunted to one side for Lester Pearson’s economic integration and the fluffy patriotism of his flag and fair.

Sparks of patriotism always flare and fizzle. Patriotism is about celebration. Nationalism is about identity. Patriotism can dance merrily along without autonomy, but nationalism demands it. Unlike the bread and circuses of patriotism, or jingoist chest-thumping, or empty-headed chauvinist aggression, nationalism reflects a quiet, self-assured confidence in what is unique, valued, and valuable. It is inspirational and aspirational in defining what deserves to be cherished. It’s what is worth fighting for long after the “We’re Number One” chants are forgotten. That was the pro-Canadian, historically and ideologically-based nationalism that Diefenbaker proposed.

John Diefenbaker was a flawed Prime Minister and, in many ways, a flawed man. However, we cannot allow those flaws to blind us the importance of the existential moment he offered. Perhaps, as we pause to consider the sacrifices of those who fought in long ago wars and the battles of yesterday, we can reflect on the Diefenbaker moment. Maybe we can ponder the questions he asked and the vision he proposed. Do we have a country worth fighting for?

This column was originally published on the site Leaders and Legacies. If you liked it, please share it with others through the social media of your choice and consider checking out Leaders and Legacies.

Happy is a Decision

Happy is not a goal. It’s not a destination. Happy is not a dream or some Hallmark card hokum. Happy is a decision. I once enjoyed a lecture by a Tibetan monk. He said a great deal that rang of declarative knowledge, that is, he dragged things I already knew into the light where, for the first time, I could see them clearly. Of all that he said that day, the one thing that resonated most was, “If you want to be happy, go ahead.”

It sounds easy, but it’s not. Many people struggle with depression or other ailments that make happiness frustratingly illusive. Thankfully, I am not among them. But, for a long time, I might as well have been. I simply refused to see that if happiness is indeed a decision, then it implies responsibility. I had work to do. I had to differentiate between those things that make me happy from those that do not. Like changing one’s diet rather than going on a diet, the challenge suggested a long-term life-style change. The idea that happiness is a decision forced me to redefine happy.

I have, for instance, taught myself to avoid what Germans call schadenfreude; taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. Shameful joy is too easy. It’s what makes slapstick comedy fun, from Charlie Chaplin to Jim Carrey. But in real life, it’s a sad and shabby pleasure. Shameful joy’s price is shame and its reward is not joy. Like the emptiness of envy or materialist consumption, it is an abdication of responsibility; it is the outsourcing of one’s happiness.

Like an alcoholic summoning the strength to avoid a sip of that rich double malt, I sometimes still struggle to avoid drinking from the sour nectar of shameful joy. But I force myself to keep that old habit locked in the cage with other happiness-draining habits such as succumbing to the media’s fear du jour, or the tug of an advertiser’s appeal, or the succulence of the latest celebrity, neighbourhood, or office gossip. I guard the cage’s frail and fragile bars. I heed the monk.

trail

Last week I was running along the trail near my home. It is a beautiful place. There are fields and woods along one side and a river along the other. On this particular afternoon, the sun was striking the river so that it shone as diamonds. The sky was a deep and vivid blue. I had just passed the 6K-mark where the endorphins kick in and my mind begins to float and even my Clydesdale-like gait feels graceful. I said, out loud and to no one, “This is a good moment.” And it was.

My practice of quietly announcing good moments has helped me to see life as a bonsai tree. I snip off the parts that ruin its symmetry; the situations, people, and places that bring me no happiness. After all, consider how many people lie on their death bed and whisper, “I wish I had spent more time at the office, or in lineups, or in traffic, or buying stuff, or with people whose insecurities or inner demons poisoned rooms.” How many, on the other hand, say with their last breaths, “I wish I had filled my life with more moments that filled my heart?”

Try it. Wait for a moment that offers true tranquility, pure enjoyment, heart-skipping joy, or tear-inducing warmth. Then say it: “This is a good moment.” It won’t count unless you mean it and it won’t count unless you say it out loud. Say it although others may hear it. Say it because others may hear it. Say it because you have decided to be happy.

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Inventing Home

Where are you from? Where do you live? They are the two most popular questions to ask travellers, party guests, and game show contestants. The answer allows a stereotyped categorization. It can spur a conversation or, perhaps, the decision to not bother starting one. It’s odd though, because while often seen as the same question they are two totally different inquiries. Ask yourself the two questions. Do you get two answers?

I am from Hamilton. It is known as Canada’s steel town although with the slow death of the industrial revolution the nickname means less all the time. Home to Huron, then French, and then British settlers, it is named for Robert Hamilton, a War of 1812 veteran, who built his estate at the west end of Lake Ontario. The place grew quickly as railways passed through on their way from the American border to Toronto. The pig iron plant arrived first. Then came the Steel Company of Canada (Stelco) and then, the smaller Dominion Foundry and Steel Company (Dofasco).

Dofasco Dofasco

My great grandfather was among Dofasco’s first employees. He got my grandfather into the foundry and he worked there for over 40 years. He never said a bad word about Dofasco. He always spoke of the bosses as Mr. This and Mr. That. My father worked there too. He tells stories of playing in the Dofasco baseball league and bowling league and hockey league. I recall as a child going to the Dofasco Christmas party. It was a massive affair where an entire building was emptied and then opened for the thousands of employee families. There were treats and games and Santa Claus and a wrapped present for every kid.

Stelco is gone now. Dofasco is all but gone too. Their shadows remain but they were bought and sold a couple of times and are now just cogs in transnational corporations with no ties to Canada let alone the city. Corporations may be constitutionally people but they neither have a home nor care much about those who do. With the steel plants went the others. Hamilton is not the same.

Go to any city. Go downtown near the river or the harbour at the lake. You know the places I mean in whatever city has entered your mind. The big old buildings are nearly all empty. Or they have been turned into fancy boutiques, offices, or condominiums. The places to shop and eat are elsewhere and everywhere the same as everywhere else. You can picture that street too can’t you? Walmart, Costco, McDonalds, and the Tims have taken care of it. Online shopping took care of what remained.

So that is where I am from – a ghost. I still have family there, I’m a proud McMaster University alum, and a great deal remains that I find invigorating and beautiful. But it’s a city re-inventing itself as surely as when Robert Hamilton created it in the first place. It will succeed. There are too many good people for it to fail. No one is sure how just yet, but a consensus will grow. It will enable enough people to recognize that a city, like a well-lived life, is not about money and stuff.

A community rests on shared values and the places where people from up and down and across town meet to enjoy the same things at the same time. Hamilton, and for that matter every city that is going through the same period of existential angst, will come out the other side when enough people say enough to driving out of town to have fun and to driving past boarded up shops once owned by folks they knew to stores the size of football fields to save fifty cents on toilet paper. The city will begin to move when people move by getting out of their cars and walking. When people start to walk they will need some place close to walk to and some version of Walmart won’t put a store there, or a book shop, or a pub – but a neighbour might, in an actual neighbourhood. In walking, neighbours will start talking and the rest will take care of itself. It won’t be easy, but then Robert Hamilton didn’t have it easy either.

Where I live is different. I live in a village of 2500 people called Lakefield. Lakefield was created on Ojibwa land just a few years later than Hamilton. It became known not for stinky steel but silent canoes. It was home to several canoe manufacturers including Walter Walker who made canoes and paddles for ordinary folks and royalty with the same dedication to excellence. It has always been an artistic place. Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie lived and wrote in Lakefield as did Margaret Laurence. The Leahy band lives nearby as does Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins. First-rate painters, children’s book authors and illustrators, and sculptors call Lakefield home as do highly respected architects and film makers. The Lakefield Literary Festival and world-renowned Lakefield College School are here.

A river runs through the centre of my Village and it is only right that it does. It is a metaphor that speaks of perpetual movement and things that never change. Margaret Laurence wrote The Diviners here and, if you recall, the novel begins by speaking of a river that runs both ways. It does you know. It really does.

Canoe-and-Paddle-e1413940425220

Last week a new pub opened in Lakefield called the Canoe and Paddle. It is fashioned to reflect the look and feel of a pub one might wander into on an English afternoon or Halifax night. It is owned and run by folks from the village. Last Thursday my little rock band played the pub’s first night of music. It was music for neighbours by neighbours. Last night I walked across the bridge to stand with a pint and enjoy a Celtic band play one lively reel after another. The place was packed. As I looked around the room I realized that I knew nearly every face. Everyone glowed with the happiness of a Saturday night among friends, with neighbours, and in a community that understands the meaning of the word. The pub will do well. The Canoe and Paddle has reminded us that we understand what doing well means.

Hamilton is where I am from. Lakefield is where I live. It’s good to be home.

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John Lennon Was Right

Reduce the Bible to its essence. Consider the messages of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, the Dali Lama, and Mahatma Ghandi. What is the plea of a baby’s cry or a wounded soldier’s moan? What explains both the sad old man feeding pigeons on a Sunday morning and the smiley young pup at the bar the night before? John Lennon knew – all we need is love.

For a long time I thought I understood. It began on the first day of my last year of high school. I took my assigned seat in Biology class. Decked out in my purple corduroy bell bottoms and high collared green silk shirt and with my curly brown hair falling to my shoulders, I slid into my desk with the practiced sneer of teenage sullenness. Then it happened. To my left sat the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I was gobsmacked. The poor teacher rattled on but I heard nothing. I just had to speak with her. I finally asked to borrow her ruler. There it was. Neatly printed on the back was her name. Nirvana! I drew a few quick lines and returned it, swooning at the thought that my hand had brushed hers.

The tall blond girl and I have been married now for decades. As teenagers we thought we knew everything. We quickly learned that we knew nothing. And now what we know for sure is that everyone makes it up as they go along and do the best they can. After all these years, no one can make me laugh as she does. No one can put me right like she does. She has saved me, made me, remade me, and inspired me to become the best I can be. Without her I would now be dead, in jail, or sleeping under a bridge.

John Lennon John Lennon

Our child arrived when we were little more than children ourselves. Due to the necessity of finding work, we were living hours from home and family. We relied on logic, instinct, each other, and the long-distance wisdom of moms and grand-moms to figure it all out. We did the best we could and we did OK. As the years of teenage angst rendered our lives more interesting we kept pledging that we would not let her moods dictate ours – we never managed it. As all young people do, she circled the dark side of the moon where communications are temporarily lost and then returned as we knew she would to the safe orbit of family and home. We were only ever as happy as her. We are still only as happy as her. We could not be more proud of her.

This morning, like always, our granddaughter arrived at our door. She bounced in with the sunshine of a six year old; always in the moment, default position stuck on happy, and with the assumption that all is well and always will be. We and her parents are not helicopters hovering to mandate her every move or snowplows eliminating every obstacle. We’re more like bowling alley bumper pads. We ensure that she tacks her way forward in her own way and at her own speed with scraped knees and magic band aids while never knowing the gutter.

I watch her climb trees and play hockey. We’ve dressed up as princesses. We bounce on the trampoline and enjoy picnics in our secret spot. We walk downtown for the best hot dog in the world. We throw stones in the river and hang upside down at the playground. We read and walk and laugh and talk and scheme and joke and tease and cuddle. She always runs faster than me, wins every Trouble game, and patiently explains kids shows that I can never manage to understand. And, regrettably, I rub her arm so the insulin needle won’t hurt quite so much.

Without a clue as to her power, my grand-daughter has reshaped me as first my wife and then my daughter did before. She has taught me what I presumed to already know; what I thought I learned way back in Biology class and on those three-in-the-morning nights when the baby just wouldn’t go back to sleep. She taught me how to love all over again and, this time, more profoundly than I ever imagined possible.

I consider people begging for change on the sidewalk the same as those filling their lives with stuff and screens. I see people defined by their job and whose minds are at work even when their bodies are home the same as those stuck in perpetual adolescence whose buddies are the centres of their circles. I understand the holes in their hearts. It’s sad. I know they will never be filled by the next coin, thing or app, or by the next promotion or beer. Everyone, of course, is free to make their own way. But during the journey, words, gifts, and promises ring hollow and echo silence. Time and attention, on the other hand, skywrite what matters.

I have done a lot, travelled a lot, and accomplished a lot in my life, and have a lot more left to do. But I am convinced that the only reason I am here is to love the three women in my life and to be loved by them. All the rest is background music. Next January I will meet a new teacher who, now that I think I understand, will begin the instruction all over again. I can’t wait. But for now, tomorrow morning, when my grand-daughter arrives for school and what she calls second breakfast, she will remind me once again, as she always does – John Lennon was right.

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Sherlock and Murdoch and Me

Why do we do what we do? Many people struggle with the answer but I know. I think I’m a detective and I think what I do matters. Take a second and name a detective from literature or television. It’s easy because we know a lot of them. They entertain, inform, and leave us with a warm assurance that, in their hands at least, the good guys always win.

murdoch and sherlock

Every detective begins already knowing what happened. The detective’s job is to find out why it happened, who was involved, name the guilty, and exonerate the innocent. While many others may have already combed the scene, his job is to see it differently. The detective gathers clues that others may have missed or dismissed. The detective reads and then reads some more to become expert on whatever and whoever the case involves. The detective sifts evidence through the sieve of his reading and experience. He then writes up his conclusions which are based on his use the past to explain the present and will hopefully help people to avoid similar bad stuff and people in the future. But he’s not done. The court brings together other experts; some perhaps embarrassed by having missed what the detective found and eager to punch holes in his conclusions. Members of the public arrive who are fascinated with the event and eager to learn more. The detective’s work and conclusion are put to the test and the media weighs in with its opinion. Meanwhile, the detective has already moved on. The detective will happily discuss the case now holding the public and court’s interest but his mind is already on the next case.

Now here is the challenge. Please go back and re-read the last paragraph but substitute the word historian for detective. Don’t cheat – do it. Go ahead, I’ll wait for you ………………………………………………………………………………………………..done?  Interesting isn’t it? That’s what I do.

I am working on a case right now. Everyone knows what happened but I arrived on the scene about a year ago. I have read everything I can find about the people and events of the era that I am investigating. I always know I’m done that stage when the books and articles start overlapping and repeating themselves. It’s then time to do the real work, the archival work; to stop going wide and go deep. Last month I did research at the archives in Ottawa. I then moved on to the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston.

If a museum is a country’s front parlour then an archives is its attic. Its job is to hold and protect every document, book, record, and piece of music, foot of film, picture, painting, and photograph that tells our stories about ourselves. Like museums, libraries, monuments, and architecture, an archive represents, reflects, and explains us. Archives are a historian’s playground and workplace. Without archives historians are unable to solve cases, unable to write history.

So what, you may say. Well, history is never settled because the story is never completely told. History is the stories and myths that hold us together as a people. Without at least a cursory knowledge of history we are like Forrest Gump’s feather floating without purpose, understanding, or intention. Without history we are like amnesiacs; constantly surprised and confused and vulnerable to the next politician or pundit arguing without context and hoping you won’t ask the next question. But the historian is there, like the nosy detective who pokes around and sees things that may have been missed and urges a new look at things considered settled.

Journalism is history in a hurry and TV punditry is history on crack. Real history is a wise detective asking new questions and offering a new perspective. History is not nostalgia, that warm-bath sensation of gazing longingly back on misty memories of times gone by. No, history is a cold shower. It is not a balm but a challenge. It insists that we not be like those who after the tragedy of 9-11 asked like dewy-eyed school girls why they hate us. It will not allow us to grow angry at Native people’s anger. History is neither a weapon to attack another’s ideas or shield to protect one’s own. It is a spy glass, a detective’s spy glass, there to examine people, events, and ideas to determine the past to explain the present.

A good history book is a grand detective story. It is a mystery solved that you didn’t even think was a mystery in the first place. So I guess, sitting there alone, so far from home and opening another archival file I was Sherlock or maybe Murdoch. But I felt more like Columbo. I was a little dishevelled and ragged around the edges but doing my best to ask the right questions so that the story I will tell will be worth the telling.

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