Looking Down on History

Words by Jillian Oliver   //   Photography by Graham Handford

I grew up in a ‘new’ part of the world. The city I was born in and live in now, Vancouver, celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2011. That makes it only 15 years older than Misao Okawa, who is currently the world’s oldest living person. Of course, indigenous people have lived here for over 8,000 years, but Vancouver’s rapid, aggressive modernisation hasn’t left many tangible signs of their world. 

When I was eight, my family moved to Hong Kong. From there, I saw places where there were structures from times so far away that they seemed like different worlds. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was touching something magical. When I was ten, we travelled to Bali and stayed in a hotel that had once been a water garden palace. Running over the old stone bridges that connected the different parts of the palace, I felt like I was being transported back in time.

Back in Hong Kong, my brother and I played in an old World War II bunker on the beach across the street from our apartment. The inside of the bunker was the perfect fort, but the walled yard that surrounded it, from where I suppose soldiers did things like shoot at enemy planes and boats, was filled with several feet of trash. The sight of this historical building, where so much had clearly transpired, sullied by the ugliness of discarded plastic greatly disturbed me, but back then I wasn’t sure why. 

I guess given my reverence for old places, it’s not surprising that history became my greatest academic passion. In school, it was the only class that I looked forward to. That’s why when my friend Graham Handford invited me to observe the Vancouver Remembrance Day Ceremony at Victory Square - one of our city’s oldest sites - I willingly hauled myself out of bed early on a Sunday and walked down to join him in the rain. 

Graham had recently made the acquaintance of Jodie Emery, the head of BC’s notorious Marijuana Party, and she had agreed to let him photograph the Remembrance Day ceremony from their headquarters, which are located across the street from Victory Square. In addition to their offices, the BCMP headquarters also feature a vapour lounge, where pot-partakers can pay $5.00 to sit on some comfy couches, listen to reggae, and use the vapourisers to get their buzz on. On the morning of the Remembrance Day ceremony, the vapour lounge was closed, but there were still some older pot enthusiasts who I assume had some affiliation with the BCMP enjoying an early Sunday morning vape. 

As Graham crouched in all sorts of contorted positions on the window sill to capture the ceremony, I watched Vancouver’s homage to the victims and heroes of World War I with great interest. For all my love of history, I had never actually seen the Victory Square ceremony before. As you can see from Graham’s shots, it is actually quite an impressive affair, especially for a city whose mind seems to be constantly on the future, on becoming what it will be rather than trying to preserve some historic local identity. 

Behind me, the folks partaking in the vapour lounge’s amenities - who were all at least in their sixties - were engaging in a sarcastic running commentary of the ceremony. If you had asked me on any other day whether my worldview was closer to that of some pot-smoking old hippies or the meticulously-dressed and stern-faced military folks they were mocking, I probably would have said the hippies. Those guys were my age during the Vietnam War and the student protests in the 1970s, part of a generation whose audacity to question authority and fight for a better, more progressive future I had always admired. But sitting there, listening to them make unfunny jokes about the ceremony and the government and military officials that presided over it, something felt off. 

Then came the time for the minute of silence. I wondered if the hippies would observe it. As the Master of Ceremonies concluded his final remarks, he said, “We stand here today not only in remembrance of those who fought and died and the atrocities of war, but in the collective hope that this should never happen again. We stand together in the hope of peace.” Needless to say, we were all silent until the march that marked the end of the ceremony began. 

What is it about old places that give us that magic feeling? Individual human life is oppressed by its finiteness. We are trapped in a specific period of time. While we are here, we think of the future so that we might leave our mark on our world. In this way, just like my city, we get caught up with concerns about how our present actions will inform the world after we are gone. But when we stand in old places, we are reminded that the past is not just filled with mistakes. It is filled with triumphs, and old wisdom bigger than anything a single human could conceive of in their little lifetime. 

It was Isaac Newton, a man widely considered to have changed the world in his own time, who said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Our troubled consciousnesses tell us not to dwell on the past, and that what’s done is done. There is wisdom to this too, but when we forget to look back – truly back to see the circumstances of the past as complex as the ones in our own time, and the people who faced them as human as we see ourselves – we often end up looking down on history. In a world filled with so many constantly new things, where we toss trash into our old monuments and talk trash about those who try to remember the past, I think we could all spend a little bit more time looking back.