National Post (Latest Edition)
A crisis of ignorance
Canada’s 150 th anniversary will take place in 2017, but according to a recent Dominion Institute study, Canadians probably won’t notice.
The institute’s Canadian History Report Card paints a disturbing picture of the state of history education in Canada today. In spite of years of lobbying, popular campaigns and public prodding, only four of Canada’s 13 provincial and territorial governments require students to complete even a single course in Canadian history before graduating from high school.
The institute recommends not allowing Canadian high schoolers to graduate without having taken two high school history courses. Furthermore, it suggests that these courses should balance national and regional history, should be taught chronologically, should integrate primary source evidence and analysis, should emphasize critical thinking and writing and should culminate in a national history examination.
Understanding our history makes us better Canadians, but it also makes us better people, the institute explains. By denying the next generation an understanding of our past, we risk compromising their ability to make a difference in the future.
The institute is not the first to make this argument. Jack Granatstein’s best-selling Who Killed Canadian History? made the point. The people behind Histori.ca (a bilingual educational Web site developed to promote the teaching and learning of Canadian history and heritage), The Beaver magazine and others agree.
It has been more than a decade since the public campaign to improve the teaching of Canadian history began in earnest, yet progress has been fleeting. One of the significant impediments to change has always been jurisdictional. The federal government claims to be powerless because education is a provincial responsibility. And the provinces show no interest in surrendering their exclusive right to set their own curricula, and seem unusually comfortable with the lack of national standards. Municipalities have never considered national history their problem.
But jurisdiction is not the only roadblock: The lack of political will to force a change is equally important. Canadian leaders at every level have repeatedly failed to respond to a crisis of ignorance that is growing larger.
Although the public campaigns waged by the Dominion Institute and other organizations like it have been noble and wellintentioned, they have reached the limits of their effectiveness. There will be no progress until the political elite in Canada feel a personal stake in educating young people about the nation’s story.
Proponents of Canadian history should emphasize the potential embarrassment that the tragic loss of Canadians’ collect- ive memory, and the general reluctance to do anything substantive about it, might eventually cause Ottawa in national and international fora. The inability of Canada’s leaders to handle even the simplest historical questions during the constitutional crisis that energized the country and nearly toppled the government last fall should have been a warning.
Does Canada really want to be the only developed country whose prime minister might graduate from a Canadian high school without ever having taken a course in his or her own national history? Judging from the Dominion Institute’s surveys, without changes to the provincial curricula it is only a matter of time before some of our future members of Parliament consider running for office without the basic knowledge of Canada’s past necessary to pass our own citizenship test.
Before we consider a national history exam for high school graduates, why not establish one for all federally elected politicians? Institutionalizing the importance of Canadian history would undoubtedly spur our leadership to action. The Dominion Institute should also challenge serving politicians to participate in a nationally televised history contest. Such an event would en- courage Canadians to learn more about their country, and pressure politicians to do the same.
Finally, during the next federal election, the institute — or another organization like it — should ask all federal candidates to document the extent of their knowledge of Canada’s past, how they received it and how it will contribute to their conduct as members of Parliament. The results could be published on the institute’s Web site, allowing Canadians to compare the responses for themselves.
Cl e a r l y, e f f o r t s to shame policymakers into action by documenting Canadians’ collective national ignorance have failed. And with the state of the provincial curricula today, it is likely that Canada’s next generation of political leaders will know less about their country than any generation before it.
The Dominion Institute has been too kind in the past. Next time, it should set its sights higher and demand that Canada’s leaders know something about the country that they are hoping to govern.
Once our politicians have a personal understanding of how much of our history has already been lost, perhaps they will gain the courage to mobilize the provinces to improve the state of education across the country.
Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College.