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Education, history and la survivance

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Quebec Education Minister Marie Malavoy wants to create 'more room for the sovereignty question' in the province's history curriculum.

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Quebec Education Minister Marie Malavoy wants to create 'more room for the sovereignty question' in the province's history curriculum.

For French-Canadian nationalists and sovereigntists, the teaching of history has always had a special place in Quebec. Framing the past three centuries as a valiant struggle to survive -- la survivance, as it has been christened -- against English domination can be a powerful propaganda tool.

Hence, one of the first the issues Premier Pauline Marois and the Parti Québécois tackled when it came to power in a minority government in September 2012 was the province's high-school history curriculum.

"Less English in school and more room for the sovereignty question in history courses," was how PQ Education Minister Marie Malavoy put it in an October 2012 interview with the Le Soleil in Quebec City. She regretted the sovereignty movement had been relegated in the classroom to the same status as teaching about capitalism, feminism or multiculturalism.

During the past year and a half, an extensive educational consultation has been undertaken and its findings and recommendations were released at the end of February. Should the PQ win a majority on April 7, the government would begin to implement its new senior-high history course with a decidedly nationalistic slant in September. Out would go the course introduced by the provincial Liberals in 2006-07 that focused on skills, citizenship and diversity and in would come one that puts at the forefront "Quebec's singular experience" in Canada.

The PQ strategy is nothing new. Shaping (and twisting) young minds have long been an objective of dictatorships and democracies. And while teenage students might not always see the value of studying the past, political leaders certainly have. It is merely a matter of degree and subtlety.

The three great tyrants of the 20th century, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Mao Zedong all understood education and propaganda were one and the same -- their sole purpose was to serve the state as they and their regimes strictly defined it.

"Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed," Stalin told author H.G. Wells in 1937. During much of the Soviet era, education was rigid and authoritarian. History textbooks were rewritten to emphasize the Communist revolution's primacy in Soviet life to the point teachers were forced to utilize curriculum they knew to be false.

Hitler and Mao held similar attitudes and adopted similar policies. "Youth belongs to us and we will yield them to no one," declared Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. In Nazi Germany, indoctrination of the young started early and true to a totalitarian system touched every aspect of a child's day-to-day life. The education system was "purged," the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes on its website, and teachers were compelled to teach Nazi dictates. Most were happy to do so.

"In the classroom and in the Hitler Youth, instruction aimed to produce race-conscious, obedient, self-sacrificing Germans who would be willing to die for Fºhrer and Fatherland," the website states.

"German educators introduced new textbooks that taught students love for Hitler, obedience to state authority, militarism, racism, and anti-Semitism."

Likewise, Chairman Mao regarded education as paramount. "Our educational policy," he said in 1957, "must enable everyone who receives an education to develop morally, intellectually and physically and become a worker with both socialist consciousness and culture." That, of course, meant to subscribe to views and values Mao deemed appropriate.

Education in democracies and the teaching of history have been less blatant, but no less resolute. Western education (as Ken Osborne, professor emeritus of education at the University of Manitoba has shown) had a hidden curriculum aimed at creating a particular type of obedient Canadian worker and citizen.

And for much of the 20th century, the history taught in Canadian schools reflected the narrow, and from our 2014 perspective prejudiced, world view of politicians, educational bureaucrats and teachers. For example, young Canadians were taught British imperialism brought civilization to the countries it colonized and North America's First Nations were "savages" who greatly benefitted from contact with the French and English.

Today, the new Grade 11 history curriculum in Manitoba teaches students almost the complete opposite. The accompanying textbook, which was reviewed by dozens of educators and other experts, offers a politically correct and 21st-century perspective in which the white man and European do not fare as well.

Quebec's approach to education has been different and, as would be expected, shaped by its unique history. A major ingredient in the perpetuation of nationalism is cultivating a powerful collective vision of the past. And sharing an experience as a victim can be unifying.

In the late 1940s and '50s, Quebec nationalist historians portrayed the conquest of 1759-60 as a "catastrophe" for New France. Everything that followed -- from the rebellion of 1837 to Confederation to the conscription crisis of 1917 to the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s -- was framed around this theme.

There are plenty of facts and arguments to counter this view. The British Quebec Act of 1774 contributed to the survival of French-Canadian culture and the Catholic religion rather than denigrated it. And from Wilfrid Laurier to Pierre Trudeau, Quebec and French-Canadian politicians played a significant role in the history of post-Confederation Canada.

For Marois and PQ nationalists, that is beside the point. The PQ's educational policy, as well as its proposed Quebec Charter of Values, is aimed at reconfiguring the province along a more extreme ideological line.

Whether or not the PQ wins a majority in the election (and the latest polls indicate it will not) and the new curriculum goes forward, Quebec's youth already have a shared collective vision based on their family life, schooling and popular culture -- and it is not especially positive.

During the past decade Université Laval history professor Jocelyn Létourneau surveyed approximately 3,500 Quebec students between the ages of 15 to 25. In his new book, Do I remember? Quebec's Past in the Consciousness of its Youth, he found young francophones blame the "English" for everything wrong in Quebec society, past, present and the future.

"It's not so much that the history of Quebec has been a long, painful ordeal," Létourneau recently told the Montreal Gazette. "It's more that here was a society that had everything it needed to fulfill its destiny as a normal society, but it is stuck in a state of hesitation, of uncertainty, of frustration. Why? Because of others, namely the English."

 

Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2014 A7

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