Former Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King once said that "while some countries have too much history, we have too much geography." He implied that because of the relatively young age of our country, Canada has less history than most other countries.
However, having a shorter history is no guarantee that our citizens are more likely to know it well. According to a 2009 survey commissioned by the Dominion Institute, less than half of Canadians between the ages of 18 and 35 could identify John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, from his portrait. Less than one in 10 could identify former NDP leader Tommy Douglas and barely one in five recognized Métis leader Louis Riel. Even former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was unknown by almost half of Canadians in the same cohort.
Last year, federal Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney introduced a new citizenship guide. In order to be granted citizenship, applicants must now demonstrate sufficient knowledge of essential Canadian history. The new 64-page study guide, Discover Canada, devotes 10 pages to a chronological overview of key events in our history. Any applicant who does not master these facts cannot pass the citizenship test.
Since we expect new citizens to be familiar with Canadian history, it makes sense to apply the same standard to those who grow up in this country. This is why most people expect schools to ensure students learn the key events in Canadian history.
While there will always be debate around what historical events are most important, it’s not difficult to identify some fundamental things everyone should know. For example, few would dispute that all Canadians should be familiar with our Confederation of 1867, Samuel de Champlain’s founding of Quebec City in 1608, Canada’s contribution during the two World Wars, and the patriation of the Constitution in 1982. Controversial episodes such as Indian residential schools, the Chinese Head Tax, and the forced relocation of Japanese Canadians during World War II should also be studied.
Understanding our past, warts and all, makes us better able to grapple with the issues confronting our country today. A well-educated and broadly-informed general public is the best protection against misguided government policies. Knowing our past makes it easier for us to build on our successes and avoid repeating our failures.
Because education is a provincial responsibility, there are no national history standards. Unfortunately, most provinces fail to provide an adequate history curriculum to public school students, a fact well-documented by renowned historian Jack Granatstein in his book, Who Killed Canadian History?
Although every province includes some Canadian history in the elementary grades, most do not require high school students to take a full course on the subject, but prescribe nebulous social studies courses instead. For example, Alberta students take courses in globalization, nationalism, and ideology while British Columbia students take a Grade 12 history course in which they look at major world events of the 20th century. Neither province mandates a high school course in Canadian history.
Saskatchewan does require Grade 12 students to take a history course called Canadian Studies. Unfortunately, the course is arranged thematically rather than chronologically. Instead of starting at a chosen point and showing how one historical event builds on another, students jump from topics such as "External Forces and Domestic Realities" to "The Forces of Nationalism."
Interestingly, Manitoba stands out as a bright light among the provinces. Not only are all Manitoba Grade 11 students required to take Canadian history, the course content is arranged chronologically. Furthermore, the new textbook that goes with the curriculum provides a useful and easy-to-read overview of key events in Canadian history. Other provinces would do well to follow Manitoba’s example.
Much of the inadequate teaching of history in our schools stems from a faulty educational philosophy. Prospective teachers are told by their education professors not to focus on making sure students learn a core knowledge base, but rather to emphasize the so-called process of learning. As a result, schools focus on abstract concepts such as globalization, nationalism, and social justice at the expense specific knowledge and skills.
Canadian history is too important a subject for us to allow it to fall out of use. No student should graduate from high school without a solid understanding of the events that have shaped our great country.
Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre (www.fcpp.org) and a high school history teacher in Manitoba. He is co-author of the book What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.