Skip to Content

Teaching the Past for a Better Future

Posted by Jessica Chandra...
8 Avril 2014 - 11:33am
The prevention of atrocity and genocide in the future was firmly grounded in an historical framework.The 
speakers represented a wide variety of stakeholders, including academics, activists and survivors, who are invested in the prevention and understanding of the complexities of genocide. Ensuring that history is not disassociated from the present was an important theme and teaching tool that I took away from the conference. History cannot be understood as static or monolithic. Conference presenters each shared different ways of reading history through a variety of entry points and perspectives. This opened up a productive space for irreconcilable, sometimes controversial, more nuanced ways of teaching about genocide. 
A particularly interesting discussion came out of one of the first plenary panels titled 
“The gross and systemic human rights violation of Indigenous peoples: but is it genocide and 
does this matter?” The panelists agreed that naming the colonization of the Americas and 
institutions such as the residential schools system as genocide was important. However, there 
was some disagreement from the audience as to whether the UN Convention on Genocide applies to 
atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples. This provoked an important discussion 
between audience members and the panelists about the historiography of the term 'genocide' 
itself. It was pointed out that the term 'genocide', as coined by Raphael Lemkin and later 
 defined in the  UN Genocide Convention of  1948, was a political shift. Furthermore, the 
discussion illustrated the politicization of history and how the histories of colonization have been 
denied and erased. The panelists and audience members pointed out that recognition and 
acknowledgement of atrocity and the genocide of Indigenous peoples is not only important for 
more nuanced understandings of genocide, but is also vital to the healing of Indigenous 
communities who have been denied personhood through historical denial.
The denial of history and the framing of the violences of the past is important to my own 
work on post-war Sri Lanka. I presented a paper which analyzed the testimonies made to the 
Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), a domestic Sri Lankan government-
organized Truth Commission. The opening statements made by the LLRC commissioners are 
illustrative of the ways in which the state understands the historical experiences of Tamils living 
in the Northern Province where the majority of the war took place. When these opening 
statements are compared to the testimonies made by Tamils who survived the war, it is apparent 
that the framing of atrocity is directly connected to a survivor’s sense of self and humanity 
within a post-war state. As I learned from other panelists who presented work from a wide range 
of sites and time periods, the framing of past violence is vital to building a peaceful present and 
The Understanding Atrocities conference showed that the past lives with us and shapes 
the present. Atrocity and genocide challenge chronological ways of thinking about time and 
disrupts the progression between the past, present and future. While the categories of victim and 
perpetrator are at times complicated, for those who lived through or are descendants of genocide, 
the conference at Mount Royal showed that past atrocities live in the present. Therefore, teaching 
about histories of genocide and atrocity is really about learning about the present. The past 
informs the present and remembering and learning about the past will undoubtedly shape 
our future.
How do you teach about difficult histories in your history lessons?