My daily routine during my winter break from school has become very predictable: turn on my laptop, open up some Google docs to write in, and press play on the Hamilton soundtrack. Against today’s wild and bewildering political climate, I find the story of Alexander Hamilton’s rise (and fall) a fascinating one. Interestingly, despite the different time periods and political cultures, there are some lyrics from Hamilton that I think are relevant today.
As you likely know if you’ve read some of my other blog posts, I am typically optimistic; and so, I love this lyric from The Schuyler Sisters in Hamilton: “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.” This lyric resounded in my head as I read Maclean’s and came across a poignant oral history of the first arrival of Syrian refugees in Canada. In the article, Bruce Grundison, the senior direction of resettlement operations at Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada, remarks that he recalls turning to someone and saying, “Something amazing is going to happen here. We have such an opportunity to participate in a historic effort…”
This made me think of my own role, albeit a small one, in welcoming the refugees. I worked with a youth council I was part of to create a video to welcome the refugees. The video was also promoted on social media to raise awareness of, and for, the refugees in our community. It’s only been a year but I already look back at Canada’s acceptance of 25,000 refugees as a powerful historic moment that I’m proud to have lived through. I’m so lucky to live in Canada, I thought to myself as I read about the refugees who kissed the ground when they landed in Canada and the father of a family coming to Canada who said he’d “rather snow [fall] from the sky than bombs.”
And yet. I cannot, we should not, blur the line between pride and smugness. Because it’s easy to be smug and invoke all the Canadian stereotypes when other countries are falling to populist regimes and the fate of the world order is precarious, if not frighteningly uncertain. In a recent speech, America’s Vice President (for a few days longer) Joe Biden said, “Vive le Canada, because we need you very, very badly.”
Canadian advertising is going to increase its appeal to the Canadian national identity, according to the Globe and Mail, because of the country’s 150th anniversary celebrations. Certainly, this pride in our identity as Canadians will increase our love of our country, but I hope it doesn’t increase our self-righteousness. Such self-righteousness is, in my opinion, one of the things that led the election of Donald Trump to be such a shock (even to those of us who watched the election as bystanders who were glad we weren’t American. But that’s more self-righteousness, because Canada is not immune to populism.)
So, yes, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now. But let’s not forget the work that remains, because, as a song from Hamilton suggests, “History has it’s eyes on you.” And maybe those eyes are not specifically on you (depending on what you’re up to, that is), but history has it’s eyes on us as a people. There is a another side to that refugee situation: the treacherous war they’re trying to escape, the perilous conditions they’re fleeing under, the racism and xenophobia they face even in the countries where they are promised refuge.
When historians look back on the years you were alive, what do you want them to see? Do you want to be part of the group who, for example, shunned the refugees; or part of the group who welcomed them with open arms and actively sought to improve the quality of their lives and that of the country they now call home?
History, of course, is not Big Brother. It doesn’t literally have eyes. But members of the public do. And those of us who look around and feel lucky to be alive should consider what impact we want to have on history.