Current Problems

Education (6-12)

Canadian history was overdue for a rewrite

March 4, 2023
The statue of John A. Macdonald, in Montreal, on Mar. 21, 2019.

The Globe and Mail: The Governor-General of Canada usually chooses her words with careful, unsmiling deliberation. But her anger at the way that Canadian history has, until recently, been taught in our schools was unmistakable.

“It has been uneven and it is unfair,” Mary Simon said. “This country is so diverse, but for the longest time our history didn’t reflect the richness of that diversity. Indigenous people were misrepresented. This was racism presented as fact – as history – something to teach children.”

Last November, I met Ms. Simon in the Citadelle, the head of state’s official residence in Quebec City. Outside the window, way below the 18th century stone ramparts, the wide St. Lawrence River glimmered in the winter sunlight. Generations of Canadian children learned in school how European explorers – first the French, then the English – laboriously made their way up that river to claim for their monarchs this “empty” patch of a vast continent that they had recently discovered.

The story evolved, according to their textbooks, as Canada unshackled itself from European empires and established first a federation of “two founding peoples,” then complete independence. High-minded statesmen replaced the swashbuckling adventurers, and established “peace, order and good government” (POGG) for the settler society. It was a grand narrative, designed to explain how the modern state grew and to build a sense of nationalism.

Except that it was often based on dubious scholarship and, as the Governor-General pointed out, it excluded so many other stories: “We have glossed over and denied events or policies or truths that are hard to face,” she said. The histories of Indigenous peoples, non-European immigrants and women were invisible.

Ms. Simon, who grew up in the Arctic with an Inuk mother and a father of English origin, was an adult, slowly emerging as a forceful Northern voice in constitutional debates, before she realized the ignorance of most Canadians about life beyond the strip of settlement near the U.S. border. “I was always astonished at how non-Indigenous people had no knowledge of Indigenous people. They just lumped us all together as ‘Aboriginal people.’ They didn’t know anything about who we were, or our lives, or what residential schools were.”

Mary Simon is sworn in as the Governor General of Canada during a ceremony in the Senate chamber, in Ottawa, on July 26, 2021.BLAIR GABLE/THE CANADIAN PRESS

However, that was Canada up to the late 20th century. Ms. Simon’s presence in the Citadelle, as Canada’s first Indigenous head of state, symbolizes the way that this country is struggling to make its history and its politics more inclusive. Today, the Governor-General speaks frequently and forcefully about the need to “seek out the truth of our history,” as she put it in the Queen’s University Tom Courchene Lecturelast year.

But if the demolition of the old self-serving narrative of Canadian history, focused on all those POGG white guys, was overdue, what are students in public and high schools across the country learning in its stead? While scholars within universities argue about historicism versus presentism, and angry crowds pull down statues of Sir John A. Macdonald, what is happening in classrooms?

I had heard some answers to such questions earlier in the day, at the presentation of the prestigious Governor-General’s History Awards to 13 teachers in the Citadelle’s ballroom. The teachers had been selected by Canada’s National History Society, the Winnipeg-based organization that wants citizens today to understand their country’s past better. The range of these teachers’ projects was astonishing for anybody who had not set foot in a history classroom in the past 15 years.

For example, Cynthia Bettio, who taught a class of Grade 10 high achievers in a large Richmond Hill, Ont., high school, explained with pride, “In my classroom, we don’t just learn history, we do history.” The curriculum required the class to study Canadian history from 1914 to the present day, and Ms. Bettio designed a course in which those years were seen from the perspective of traditionally under-represented groups, including Indigenous people, racialized communities and women.

The students, a large number from non-European backgrounds who typify urban diversity in today’s Canada, learned what questions to ask of any historical narrative, and how to assess and evaluate different sources. Ms. Bettio told me that she “really wanted to ensure that my students could see themselves in the history of the country they call their own.”

For example, Sikh students realized that there were events in the past that were relevant to their community, such as the Komagata Maru incident of 1914. Students whose families had fled the war in Syria glimpsed parallels with that conflict and what happened in Holland during the Second World War. Ms. Bettio described how “they saw the connections between past events and the realities they have as Canadians.” By the end of the year, the students had learned to think about the ethical dimensions of what has happened in the past, and how events are remembered.

More than a 1,000 kilometres away, in the small Manitoba town of Hartney (population 462), teachers Carla Cooke and Tracey Salamondra had taken an entirely different approach to the same challenge: Showing their Grade 11 students “how to do history.” Rural teenagers rarely see themselves reflected in large, national narratives, but their teachers developed a course that had little to do with Confederation or the Charter of Rights and everything to do, in Ms. Salamondra’s words, with “history that exists outside the textbooks and the cities.”

These teenagers were invited to produce interpretive panels for a trail through a local park. They visited the local museum to do artifact research, scoured online newspaper archives, conducted interviews with local historians and volunteers, and constructed a narrative about Prairie settlement. Ms. Salamondra stopped worrying that her students could not afford to attend well-publicized school trips to the Vimy battleground and enjoyed seeing how enthusiasm for a local history project spread through the whole school.

“When kids know their community,” Ms. Salamondra said, “they know part of themselves.” The students also realized how one-sided historical accounts can be. They noticed that their local museum had disproportionally few Indigenous artifacts and sources.

Dr. Clement Ligoure treated hundreds of patients after the Halifax Explosion devastated parts of the city in Dec. 1917.C. C. LIGOURE/COURTESY OF QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES

The teachers I met in Quebec City came from seven of Canada’s 10 provinces, and were as likely to work in small elementary schools as high schools. In Halifax, for example, a group of 22 students in Grade 1 chose to research a little-known Black doctor, Dr. Clement Ligoure, who had played a key role in helping the injured after the 1917 Halifax Explosion. Their teacher, Natasha Camacho, showed them how to find materials in local museums and archives.

“They were thrilled to discover for themselves that Dr. Ligoure lived and practised just a few steps from their school,” she said.

The class, which included five Black students, reported their findings in writing and art projects, and produced a documentary. They were shocked to learn that their families and neighbours had not heard of this important figure, because he seldom appears in most accounts of the 1917 disaster. They sent petitions to the mayor requesting a heritage plaque in front of Dr. Ligoure’s house; this gave them “a sense of their own agency,” Ms. Camacho said. Even six-year-olds can reshape history.

Luisa Fracassi, who teaches in an east end Toronto school where nine out of 10 students come from minority groups, developed a course for her Grade 10 history class that she called “Immigrant Voices” and involved changes in Canadian immigration policy from the 1960s. The students participated in two virtual tours of the Pier 21 Museum in Halifax, on Jewish and Asian immigration, looking at primary sources such as photos and letters.

Next, they attended a workshop on how to conduct oral history interviews. Then each student conducted one, often with a grandparent, which they then had to transcribe and shape into a story. Ms. Fracassi explained how the project helped students see how their stories connected them “to the broader history of Canadian immigration.”

These days, there is little Canadian history in Canadian classrooms – only one mandatory high-school course in most provinces, and no compulsory courses elsewhere. That gives teachers only a small window to instill an interest in our collective past. And most teachers are facing students who have already learned not to take anything on trust, and who frequently come from families who have been in this country for less than two or three generations.

So the past two decades have seen a revolution in history teaching in schools, as educators rewrote the curriculum so it might resonate with today’s students. The focus today is on acquisition of history skills, rather than assimilation of facts, so students can see how to “do” history for themselves. Layered on top of this is the new attention to Indigenous history – one of the “calls to action” in the 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Many of the educators in Quebec City had put the spotlight on Indigenous history. Barbara Giroux’s Grade 1 class in Ottawa had tracked news stories about Indigenous people today, then formulated the question, “Do all Canadian children have the same rights? If not, why not?” Jen Maxwell’s Grade 12 class in Abbotsford, B.C., researched the TRC’s 94 calls to action, then developed their own ideas about how to take concrete action on those calls.

Peggy Cameron, from the non-profit Friends of Halifax Common, stands in front of a stately home for which the group is seeking heritage designation to save it from demolition, in Halifax, on Jan. 19.DARREN CALABRESE/THE CANADIAN PRESS

In Winnipeg, elementary teacher Jacqueline Cleave’s students explored the TRC’s calls to action, then researched the issues of colonization they address through meetings with Indigenous elders and visits to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. The book that the students produced, featuring the calls to action in child-friendly language, is now in local schools and libraries.

In some cases, students themselves selected their topic. In Manitoba, a group of students at Winnipeg’s Westwood Collegiate came up with a project on the Holocaust, then educator Kelly Hiebert organized an extracurricular history society to help them pursue it. The teenagers produced a documentary featuring interviews with nine Holocaust survivors in the city about the hatred and antisemitism they had encountered in Europe and Canada.

But before they embarked on the interviews, the students had consulted historians and educators including officials at the United States Holocaust Museum. Production of the video involved a specially composed soundtrack, plus archival film interspersed through the interviews. The documentary, titled, Truth Against Distortion: Survivors Speak Out Against the Rise of Hate, has been entered into several film festivals, widely distributed, and is available on YouTube.

“A big part of the documentary was the parallels between the past and Canada today,” Mr. Hiebert explained. The students themselves were unsettled by the passionate media debates about mask and vaccine mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic. Making the documentary, he said, showed them “how history has to be told truthfully, with evidence from experts and primary sources, not just websites and Twitter. They became very critical consumers of social media.”

The teachers knew that their approaches were controversial. I heard several of their anecdotes about angry parents asking, “When are you going to stop this propaganda?” or “When are you going to start teaching proper history?” The various projects might get students to engage with history, but even some of the teachers’ own colleagues asked why there was no overarching theme to explain the “big picture” of this country – the historical development of today’s Canada that might give students a coherent sense of national identity.

Rose Fine-Meyer, a curriculum expert at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and one of the National History Society’s judges for the awards, is as impatient as the Governor-General with that argument: “The old ‘master narrative’ of Canadian history was always a false construct,” she said. “Why do you need a dominant narrative? There is no single story – except our interrelationship with each other on this land.”

An illustration by C.W. Jefferys from his book Canada’s Past In Pictures, published in 1934 by Ryerson Press Toronto, envisions the scene of explorer Jacques Cartier meeting the Iroquoian people of the St. Lawrence in 1535.C.W. JEFFERYS/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Civics and social-studies classes teach how government works and the requirements of citizenship. Today’s history classes highlight a diverse, multicultural and fragmented history, in which Jacques Cartier, Mackenzie King or Lester Pearson may or may not have walk-on parts. The best teachers, in Ms. Fine-Meyer’s view, introduced the craft of the history profession to their students, then encouraged them to take those skills outside the classroom and use them in hands-on experiences to explore multiple and diverse perspectives on their topic.

At the Governor-General’s History Awards ceremony, Ms. Simon encouraged the teachers to keep building “platforms for inclusivity,” and for addressing head on “inequality, diversity and inclusion.” She said that those who bemoaned “what they call a ‘rewriting’ of history or questioning historical figures from our country’s past” were missing the point. “We are telling a fuller history.”

It is certainly a larger history, and I would be happy to see any child taught by the teachers I met. But it is also a radically different approach to history than the one I absorbed in my own education, during which teachers drew on the past to shape national pride and literary skills.

Today’s history educators in Canada put the emphasis on “critical thinking skills”: They teach students to gather, analyze, interpret and assess diverse historical evidence. These are skills essential for an informed citizenry in the age of social media, conspiracy theories and polarized politics. The narratives I was taught certainly had a propaganda element, but the Canadian history being taught today has abandoned any attempt at a modern, integrated narrative that encompasses a far wider range of experiences.

Perhaps such a narrative is impossible in a sprawling, diverse country like Canada, with a demographic churn that transforms communities from one generation to the next. Yet there are distinct, common values that have persisted and evolved through the years – support for gun control, bodily autonomy, compromise rather than conflict, health care as a common good. The roots of those shared values, which make Canada the country it is, lie in the past – back to Confederation and beyond.


Charlotte Gray: SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL – Charlotte Gray is a biographer and historian who won the Pierre Berton Award in 2003.