Studies of social memory and historical consciousness in Canada have proliferated over the past two decades. Echoing the importance of regional experience in recent Canadian historiography, much of this rich scholarship has emphasized how these forms of public history have articulated regional visions occasionally at odds with the nationalizing impulses of the academy.
Cecilia Morgan's latest book is a welcome contribution to this historiography. Historians rarely consider Ontario – particularly southern Ontario – from a regional perspective; more often the region becomes a stand-in or a case study for English Canada generally. Creating Colonial Pasts suggests, however, that southern Ontario has indeed evolved a coherent regional approach to historical commemoration.
As Morgan expressly states in her introduction, Creating Colonial Pasts is not a comprehensive history of commemoration. Rather, it is a selection of complementary case studies, stories that Morgan encountered while researching other subjects. Bookending the work, and accounting for well over half of its page count, are two chapters examining historical [End Page 246] commemoration in the author's hometown of Niagara-on-the-Lake. The first chapter analyses the efforts of local historian Janet Carnochan (1839–1926) to preserve the town's history in a museum and in her magnum opus, History of Niagara. The final chapter explores the broader process of refashioning Niagara-on-the-Lake as a historical and cultural tourist destination, from the age of steamship excursionists through the tensions that accompanied the establishment of the Shaw Festival.
Between these two Niagara-on-the-Lake stories, Morgan explores the challenges of writing the history of southern Ontario's Indigenous communities. One chapter recounts the efforts of Six Nations historians Elliott Moses and Milton Martin to find space for their community in the region's emerging historical consciousness. A second considers the avocational historical career of Celia File, a teacher from Belleville whose experiences with the Mohawks of Tyendinaga informed her writing of the life of Mary Brant.
The positioning of these two chapters on Indigenous histories between those on Niagara-on-the-Lake speaks to the dual meanings of the "colonial pasts" to which Morgan alludes in her title, and which underpin historical memory in southern Ontario. On the one hand, the "colonial past" was an object of local pride and tourist interest; "colonial" in this context connoted the romantic, the old-fashioned, the picturesque, and the anti-modern. This notion of colonialism was very much at play in preservation and promotional efforts at Niagara-on-the-Lake. On the other hand, "colonialism" today connotes the more ominous process of Indigenous dispossession and the legitimation of European settlement and rule. Morgan hints at this tension, especially in her treatment of the Six Nations historians, and the case studies she has selected suggest that the two meanings of colonialism were less conflictual than complementary. Janet Carnochan's History of Niagara found space for Indigenous people, however ambivalently, and acknowledged that Indigenous people never completely vanished from the region. Meanwhile, Elliott Moses and Milton Martin's insistence on the value of Indigenous history to the Canadian narrative did not expressly challenge the colonial order; Moses in particular favoured political acculturation for the Haudenosaunee people.
Morgan's case studies point to several features of public memory in southern Ontario: an affection for the "romance" of colonial times, the role of women as both historical actors and producers and popularizers of history, and the effort to find space for Indigenous people in popular historical narrative. However, she concludes with an insight that is relevant to the study of historical memory more generally: that creating colonial pasts is a personal and subjective process. This is not a radical assertion, for works on scholarly historiography have noted time and time again how personal experience and outlook influences the work of "objective" [End Page 247] and "professional" historians. Nevertheless, it bears repeating, particularly in a work on popular commemorations and memory. Scholars of social memory often look for the elusive "popular conception" of a historical event or personality. But newspaper editorials and letters to the...