Thoughts on Heritage and Here-ness

It’s the third day of my residency in Fredericton’s garrison district. I feel so fortunate to have been given this week to work on new writing. My residency partner, Allison Green, and I have talked about the value of working in public, when so much of making art is solitary. To be able share the process of making work with people, rather than only the product, is really quite special, an experience I would recommend to any writer.

IMG_1117We’ve already received well more than 100 visitors, who are drawn in by Allison’s beautiful work, the little colouring table we’ve set up for younger visitors, or my own odd display of provocative questions and comments about the theme of my residency, “Come From Away.” The expression is commonly used in the Maritimes to describe people not from here, and this week I’m exploring just how the phrase is used.

I’ve been particularly impressed by the number of people I’ve met who live here in Fredericton, many of them who have lived here for a long time, who have told me that they are still “from away,” that they don’t have any “locals” in their social circle, and that they don’t feel like part of the community. I’ve been thinking about what effect it might have on a place for many of its inhabitants to feel excluded in this way.

I’m not talking about how being called a CFA might make someone feel, although that issue is certainly relevant. When I participated in a recent conversation on Maritime Noon about the expression, “Come From Away,” people seemed to keep circling back to whether the label might be hurtful or unwelcoming. But now that I’ve had the chance to think about it more deeply, I’m less interested in the phrase’s emotional impact than in its practical consequences.

I’m not sure they would be measurable, or even observable. But I think about how my own from-away-ness limits my participation in local life. I feel confident that there are events and conversations happening in town all the time that I have no way of knowing about — and in which I would not feel entitled to participate even if I had the opportunity, because it’s not my place to do so. If we multiply this experience by every person “from away” in town, how much of the population is not participating in the life of Fredericton? How many of us are living our lives as though we’re guests in someone else’s house?

People, like me, who have moved here from other places are attracted to Fredericton (and New Brunswick and the Maritimes) by the fact that it has a strong sense of place and of its own heritage. Having coming from a place that is similarly rooted in the past, I have empathy for people whose families have been here for many generations and who would want their connection to that heritage to be honoured.

However, whenever white people in North America talk about heritage, we need to proceed with caution. When we claim a place as our own — especially as more ours than someone else’s, and especially a place located on unceded or ceded aboriginal territory — it is an erasure. It erases the realities of aboriginal peoples and their ancestors, whose generosity, wisdom, and blood, has made possible our survival on this continent. In fact, it even erases the realities of our own ancestors, who came here as foreigners and had to struggle to make this their home. We need to keep in mind that the past extends into the distance as infinitely as the future. Along a timeline that stretches that far, no one is more at home than anyone else.

When you conceive of heritage as a connection to a particular group of settlers who arrived at a particular moment, you wall off the past so that it belongs to a single group of people. And in so doing, you also wall off the present and the future. You make heritage a closed loop.

The Montreal scholar and writer Sherry Simon compares the preservation of heritage to a process of translation, “through which objects and memories are selected, salvaged, preserved, and recontextualized for new viewers.” I like this comparison because translation implies a desire to communicate. It also implies imperfection, compromise, perhaps even confusion, within that communication.

I wonder, if we approached “heritage” from this standpoint, as an opening, or a conversation to which we all contribute, whether notions of here and away would fade into the background. I wonder how it would contribute to truth and reconciliation process if white Canadians began to reframe their notions of history and heritage with an eye to “the bigger here and the longer now.” I wonder how “come from aways” would contribute to the future of Fredericton if they no longer felt that they lived somehow outside of its present.

Please continue to leave your comments here, or better yet, please come down and visit us at the Barracks to share your thoughts in person.

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