Let us begin with a confession. When presented with the opportunity four years ago to become involved in bringing Magna Carta to Canada for its 800th anniversary commemoration, we were not very well-versed in what exactly Magna Carta was. For starters, we were still calling it “the Magna Carta” which, now that we have had our knuckles rapped a few dozen times, we realize is tantamount to sporting t-shirts that read “IMPOSTERS!”
We knew it had something to do with the rule of law and habeas corpus, was English in origin, was written in Latin, was really old, and … that was about it.
Do we truly appreciate the gift that is Canada and the mix of materials that built the foundations that hold us steady as the world around us stumbles and falls?The reason we were involved at all is that an English friend had asked us, “Would your country be interested in hosting an original copy of Magna Carta if a loan of the document from the U.K. to Canada could be arranged?” Our answer was “of course.” But given that our tastes do not always run with the crowd, we thought it best to ask some of our 35 million fellow Canadians.
Given that it was 2011 and, south of the border, the U.S. presidential primary season was in full swing, we did what everyone else seemed to be doing: we formed an exploratory committee. We canvassed members of the legal community, cultural community, corporate community and, of course, academic community. A resounding “absolutely!” was the consensus. And so, with zero experience in the world of museums, fundraising, committees and priceless treasures hailing from the Middle Ages, we jumped in.
A Magna Carta and a Charter of the Forest, both issued by King John’s grandson Edward I in 1300, have left the grounds of Durham Cathedral for the first time in 715 years and travelled across the Atlantic under heavy security and secrecy so that they may be put on display in four Canadian venues over a six-month period. To say we are excited is an understatement. Actually a misstatement. What we are is terrified. What if we are imposters?
In a short time, many of you will have the opportunity to visit the document and the exhibition that amplifies it. What has transpired since has been remarkable. We are not academics, nor are we historians. But we do possess a keen awareness and fervent belief that when the gifts of the past reveal themselves, they are worth a moment (or four years) of our time. As a result, we committed ourselves, as willingly as unwittingly, to the task placed before us. We say unwittingly because it never occurred to us what lay ahead. We assumed that we would find a capable and enthusiastic organization to which we would simply supply our recently acquired charitable foundation number and email contact list for the folks at Durham Cathedral and then step back and eagerly anticipate the documents’ arrival on our shores with the rest of the country.
It turned out that there was no such organization capable of, enthusiastic about, and standing ready to, among other things, navigate the various levels of both the U.K. and Canadian governments for approvals, raise tremendous sums of money from both the private and public sector, design and build a website and sponsorship materials, liaise with public relations and marketing firms, engage in cocktail party conversations with and make boardroom pitches to countless potential donors, assemble steering and honourary committees, navigate the options of gift shop merchandise, become social media mavens, commission a book and a film to complement the exhibition experience, generate lesson plans for students across the country and wade in to the world of museum exhibit design. All of which, as we discovered, somebody would have to do.
So how did we do it? Simple. We didn’t.
It turns out that there are many others like us out there … except for the bit about having no idea what we were doing. Dozens of people came forward willing to contribute their talent, time, energy and enthusiasm. Many of them have become our friends and all of them have changed not only the trajectory of this endeavour but the two of us forever. We have heard from people across the country asking for nothing except the opportunity to become involved, from descendants of barons volunteering as docents, to teachers working to ensure that students have access to engaging learning tools, to professionals offering their time and expertise, to those with connections sharing their networks, to lovers of history whose imaginations were captured. All of them populating our world and enhancing this endeavour beyond measure.
Dozens of people came forward willing to contribute their talent, time, energy and enthusiasm. Many of them have become our friends and all of them have changed not only the trajectory of this endeavour but the two of us forever.Since we became parents 25 years ago, we have tried to instill in our sons a sense of where they fit into an ongoing story. Not just in terms of the black and white photographs that adorn the walls of our home, but where their footprints lie on the path of human history. Our children have been raised in a generation where the next greatest thing is always just a few months away. Nothing astounds them. Nothing compels them to stop in their tracks and be amazed. The incredible has become ordinary; the inconceivable, the norm.
What moments like this 800th anniversary of Magna Carta give us is a reason, an excuse, to pause and to ponder the long arduous journey that began long before us and will continue long after us. Do we truly appreciate the gift that is Canada and the mix of materials that built the foundations that hold us steady as the world around us stumbles and falls?
What this moment offers all of us is a tactile, tangible, teachable one. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to place all of our sons and daughters, or grandsons and granddaughters, squarely before the piece of parchment that is arguably the quickening moment of our democratic ideals, rule of law and human rights standards. Today, where the history we teach is more often than not lifeless words on a textbook page, won’t it be something to be able to stand behind young people, place our hands on their shoulders, lean forward as one and fix our collective national gaze on this transformative document that has cast one of the brightest lights in human history?
What we are celebrating is not just the launch of an exhibition, the publication of a book or the screening of a film. We are celebrating the acknowledgement that the message of the written word may have changed modes of dissemination over the centuries — first scribed by hand, then printed by press and now sent virtually through the touch of fingertips (or nowadays thumbs) to keyboard — but its power to inspire people and effect change has not been diminished. Little did we realize when we stepped outside of our comfort zones and immersed ourselves in medieval times that it would serve to cultivate an appreciation for just how very lucky we are to live here and now. But it has, and we are better people for it.
In a short time, many of you will have the opportunity to visit the document and the exhibition that amplifies it. For those who are unable, our website will offer reading materials and educational tools that will enhance your understanding of and appreciation for the gifts of Magna Carta. You will learn what Magna Carta meant to people 800 years ago and how, across the centuries, it has served to shape the rule of law that protects us, the system of government that answers to us, and the human rights that strengthen us.
Because the “here and now” is a direct result of the “there and then.” It always has been and it always will be.