I’m Sorry

(This is a strange place, my blog. I spend a fair amount of time telling stories of the past I’ve uncovered in the archives. Occasionally I offer a contemporary political rant. Once in a while I spill my guts about my own past. And now here is just a rambling of thoughts that haven’t fully taken shape, certainly aren’t earth-shatteringly brilliant or new, and may mean nothing outside my own head. But as thoughts they continue to grow…)

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Victim-Impact Statements, Formal Government apologies, Consultative Group on the Past, friend-to-friend texts: “I’m sorry”

We don’t say “sorry” to get away from the past. Apologies don’t erase the past. They reinforce it.

I have wounded others. I have lied and offended. I have gossiped and betrayed. I have forgotten about people and cut down others with my words. Intentionally and unintentionally.

I have been wounded by others. I’ve been lied to, gossiped about and betrayed. I have had my body invaded and my heart crushed. Literally, figuratively. Intentionally,  unintentionally.

I’ve seen both sides of that coin and experienced the way one side leads to the other with pain received begetting pain given and back again. It can be a cycle that seems impossible to break. A spiral of wounding.

As humans, we initiate coping mechanisms to help us deal with the pain life seems inevitably to bring. As a child, I learned early on the skill of pushing painful memories just past the edge of my consciousness, careful never to look at pain too directly for fear of being inexorably broken by it.  Internal veils and doors helped hide the wounds. And as a result the memories inside seemed ever-shifting.  As an adult, I feel a tendency to do the same thing – finding it hard to anchor painful memories in place even now.

But I’ve been thinking about how apologies change that tendency.

Apologies don’t hide the past. Apologies bring the past to light, they strip away veils. Apologies act as anchors.

Apologies say – yes, I see what happened. Yes, what happened was real. Yes, what happened was painful. Yes, what happened wasn’t your fault. Apologies by perpetrators say – I take responsibility for that and I ask for forgiveness because I own the way I’ve hurt you.

Apologies can offer definition and substantiveness.  They can stop the doubt-laden shifting that pain creates inside. Apologies can anchor in us a certainty about the legitimacy of our pain. Even when the apology is offered by a witness rather than a perpetrator, the edges of our pain become less blurred. And it becomes easier to release our grip on that pain.

But what do we do when there are no apologies? How do we stop the shifting of our pain when there is no one to say – yes, I see it too? How do we move forward without that anchor? I know that I have missed many apologies over the years – lacking maturity or insight or humility when I ought to have been saying “I’m sorry.” And I know that for many of the wounds I’ve received, I will never know any form of apology or acknowledgment. That is the reality of life in our world. And it’s hard.

“I’m sorry” doesn’t erase the past, it engraves it into the greater story of our histories.


Derry, Northern Ireland


She Went Back

I take some flack from my academic cronies for focusing on the elite of society. It’s true that I have a rather exclusive group of subjects. That’s how they self-identified. But they were no less human despite being exquisitely dressed. And their stories reveal very real parts of life in the past. And for all the beautiful art and grand houses and domestic staff, their worlds were just as subject to heart-break, joy and bewilderment. Time and again I am taken aback by the internal strength these women exhibited.

Lady Allan is no exception. I told part of her story earlier. What I learned in the archives this Spring was that after the formal grieving for her daughters in Montreal, this brave woman returned to London to continue her war work – undoubtedly carrying an everlasting internal grief with her. That is strength unimaginable to me.

Dundee Evening Telegraph, Monday 8 January 1917

Lady Allan, a prominent Canadian, wife of Sir Montagu Allan of shipping fame, has recently rented 41 Park Street, London. She is an indefatigable worker at the Maple Leaf Club, Connaught Place, where she helps with the canteen, as a member of the Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire.

Her daughter Martha is an all-round good sport, and a fine type of Canadian girl. She has been taking a long rest since her illness contracted whilst nursing in France.

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Hands 1918

During the Great War, Canadian artists were commissioned to memorialize significant individuals, places, battles, and monuments. Among those selected as a subject was Lady Julia Drummond. Florence Carlyle was selected as the artist. Drummond had relocated to London in order to be closer to the front lines of the war effort. (Wait for more on Drummond… it’s coming!) In order to find even small pockets of time to observe her subject, Carlyle moved into Drummond’s home located around the corner from Buckingham Palace. Between guests and meetings and outings, Carlyle found it hard to sequester Drummond for uninterrupted posing sessions. But even when she did procure those rare pockets of uninterrupted time, she found Drummond’s hands impossible to paint: “It is impossible for her to keep them still. They moved constantly and she was not aware of it.”

These were hands that years and years earlier had held her own baby’s hand long after his heart stopped beating. These were hands that had wiped the brow of her dying husbands. Not once but twice. These were hands that had torn open a telegram just months earlier announcing that her only living son was no longer living, that he too was a casualty of Ypres. These were hands that were busy with packages and letters and appeals and bills and pleas, ever moving in an effort to end the darkness that seemed to cover her world.

These were hands aching to hold her baby grandson, that child who would never know his father. I wonder if that was what kept her hands moving.

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Drivers’ Ed

I’m sorting through all the goodness I found on my recent research trip. It’s like Christmas morning over and over again. I’m thinking a lot about women and grief and war and new responsibilities and skewing divisions of labour. But I’m also thinking about the small pragmatic details. For example, of all the women who offered to drive cars and ambulances during the war, there was, for many of them, the small detail of learning how to drive.  I had never thought about that before…

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Whispers I

I’ve been in the archives. This truly is my happy place. There are few things as exciting for historians as the thrill of searching and finding. And this week I have found some amazing things. You may have to wait for the formal publications to understand the academic implications of this quest but here on my blog I’ll exhale the emotional reaction.

The strongest reaction I’ve been having is that I feel burdened by the sheer number of untold stories. Of course, not everyone wants their story to be told. I understand that. I’m well aware (frustratingly so as an historian at times!) by the lengths people will go to in order to bury their past. I have to respect those choices and those historical instructions. (It’s hard, but I try!) But for others, their stories sit silently waiting. This week I have encountered so many of those stories. They aren’t the stories that are likely to show up in what I’m supposed to be writing about these days but I feel a responsibility to share. I’m not sure yet how many will make it onto here but here goes.

Whispers I

Here is the story of five men: two white soldiers, two black soldiers, and police officer. It’s a story in which we almost sigh with relief that justice was served. Except then the whole context of the story floods in and we realize that the “insignificant” fine at the end was the very least of the life-long punishments these two men received. Most likely members of a segregated battalion, these two men knew that every day was a battle with injustice. I’ve taken it directly as it was reported in the Chelsea News and General Advertiser. 

Blacks v. Whites: Fracas in Elizabeth Street, Friday 22 November 1918

Two negro soldiers in the Canadian Army, William Robinson and Nathaniel Young, were charged at Westminster Police Court, on Monday, with unlawfully wounding John Duncan McLean, of the Canadian Engineers on Saturday, November 9th in Elizabeth street. At a previous hearing evidence of an assault on another Canadian soldier named Gray, at the same time and place, had been given.

McLean, a wounded soldier, said that on the afternoon of November 9th he was outside the Maple Leaf Club, in Elizabeth street, when the prisoners attacked his comrade Gray. They had had a squabble in a public house a short time before about a drink. Witness went to Gray’s assistance, whereupon Robinson drew out a jack-knife and Young a razor and attacked Gray. Witness tackled Young who slashed at him with the razor, cutting his tunic, his pay book, and his left hand. Witness was taken away by other soldiers. He and Gray were sober, but Robinson was drunk.

Robinson said the row started in the King’s Head. Gray commenced fighting Young and he (prisoner) joined in. He could see that Gray and McLean were both “soused up pretty bad” and he and Young went away to get rid of them. They were staying at the Maple Leaf Club, but he (Robinson) and his companion Young decided to pack up and go elsewhere, as they could not get on with the other occupants. When they got outside they were attacked by about forty soldiers and he admitted pulling out the knife but denied using it.

Detective-sergeant Henry Purkiss, B division, said that he was at the corner of Gerald road and Elizabeth street when he heard a lot of shouting and he saw thirty or forty Canadian soldiers outside the Maple Leaf Club, fighting four coloured men, including the prisoners. He saw one of the four knocked down on the pavement and bleeding from the head, and as he went towards the crowd the prisoners were backing away from the Canadians, but facing them. They got into a florist’s shop and witness got in the doorway and prevented the soldiers following. P.C. Hearne came up and they saw Gray outside, bleeding from both hands. He said, “These men have used a knife on me.” Witness arrested the men. Robinson denied using the knife and said “Some guy punched me in the mouth. I’ve not used my knife since I came to this European city.” Both prisoners were sober but Gray had been drinking. Gray’s injuries were quite superficial.

In reply to the magistrate, Sergeant Purkiss said that Robinson had been three years and Young two years in the Army. He had not been able to trace the third negro, who was injured.

Mr. Chapman said it was clear that the prisoners were defending themselves against a superior number of men and, although they had no right to use the knife, he thought the injuries were inflicted in self-defence and with no malice or intent to injure. He thought the circumstances would be met be binding each prisoner over to keep the peace and ordering each to pay 40s compensation to Gray and McLean.

Number 2 Construction Battalion

No. 2 Construction Battalion, 1917, Veterans Affairs Canada