When we think of Canada’s history, it’s easy to fall back on old habits and recall the facts and figures we memorized for tests in schools.
Not so with Irene Gammel, the Canada Research Chair of Modern Literature and Culture at Ryerson University. To Gammel, our history is our identity, and that identity embraces the culture and heritage of every Canadian.
That’s why in her research Gammel prefers to delve deeper to uncover the stories of the real people behind the historical facts.
She’s particularly interested in the stories of women who fought against the restraints and limitations of their time, but who still pushed for equality. She wants to tell their unique stories not only because they are an important weave in the Canadian fabric, but also because they represent strong role models for women today.
One example is the female war artist, Mary Riter Hamilton. At the age of 50, Mary had travelled to Europe during the First World War, and stayed in the trenches creating artwork to give something to the soldiers and their families as her contribution to the war.
At first, Mary was told that she couldn’t go to the front because she was a woman. But she refused to take no for an answer and went anyway. She spent an entire year living in the trenches, witnessing the brutality of the war first-hand. Mary’s story is a remarkable one, and serves as important lesson in resilience, strength and courage, says Gammel.
While Mary had received international attention at the time, her collection of over 300 paintings had faded into obscurity. But thanks to Gammel and her team, these paintings will have a much-deserved spotlight shone on them again.
Gammel, like so many others, is excited by inspirational people. She hopes that others will immerse themselves in the textures and threads of these stories, and find that same excitement too. She’s determined to remind us that Canada’s history is full of inspirational stories. By understanding the past, we can better shape the future.