It’s Something, But It’s Not History: Canadian History In Ontario Schools

Butler Schram

Butler Schram is the pseudonym of a high school history teacher in Ontario.

 

In 1998, noted historian J.L. Granatstein published Who Killed Canadian History?, a work decrying the influence of multiculturalism, political correctness, and the general leveling tendencies  of public education in eviscerating the teaching of Canadian history.  Granatstein argued that the teaching of Canadian history had ceased to aim at creating national cohesion through the delivery of a compelling narrative, and instead sought to inflame feelings of grievance and marginalization against a supposedly unjust Canadian government and society. His book resurrected interest in Canadian history for a brief time, and government and private institutions sought to correct the Canadian public’s ignorance of its own history by revamping curricula, promoting historic sites, and creating TV segments to dramatize crucial events in our past.

This revival of traditional Canadian history petered out quickly. Curricula were modified—but so as to focus on skill development, rather than on the dramatic and unlikely sweep of Canadian history, the diverse and fascinating characters of the individual men and women who made Canada, and the country’s many successes. In Ontario, where I teach, the province’s revised history curriculum ensured that students would develop a wonderful inventory of skills, but at the same time it obliterated any material that would spark pleasure in or curiosity about their country’s history. (History curricula are much the same throughout Canada, but I’m just going to write about Ontario, where I can give a first-hand account.)

Part of the motivation to change the history curriculum derived from a backlash against the old Anglo-Imperial historians. Donald Creighton’s Canada: The Heroic Beginnings (1974), for example, used a fusty style to narrate Canadian history as an illustration of the virtues of conquest and empire. George Tait’s Fair Domain (1960), the history text I was required to read in the seventh grade, similarly celebrated the glories and achievements of Canadian history while scarcely mentioning its darker moments–the harsh conquest of Quebec, the unjust treatment of some First Nations, and the difficulties of non-English-speaking minorities in adjusting to life in Canada. These books didn’t have the whole truth of Canadian history.

Canadian history needed to be improved. Instead, the history curriculum designers made it repellently dull, and exchanged one bias for another. In the first place, the Ontario Curriculum (2013) replaced historical narrative with abstract thematic units designed to stupefy students—Social, Political, and Economic Context; Communities, Conflict, and Cooperation; Identity, Citizenship, and Heritage. Moreover, the Curriculum’s sample questions skew towards explorations of multiculturalism, gender inequality, and racism. There is nothing wrong with this in principle: these topics are part of Canadian history, and they should be part of what we teach. But they aren’t all of Canadian history, and certainly not all of Canadian history worth studying. The disproportionate emphasis on these topics amounts to a slanderous retelling of Canadian history as a chronicle of villainies.

For example, one of the Curriculum’s suggested questions for the study of the settlement of the Loyalists in Niagara after the Revolutionary War asks how the First Nations would have felt about being “forced off their land” to make room for the Loyalists.  Not only does the question contain an unwarranted assumption, it invites a misreading of the actual history. The Crown purchased the land from the Mississaugas, one of the many First Nations tribes with whom the Crown had a good relationship. Whether or not the price for the land was a fair one is a worthy topic of debate. But as it stands, the investigation of this question will leave students believing that, inarguably, there was nothing but exploitation devoid of even a shred of fair dealing in Loyalist settlement in particular and in European imperialism in general.

The Curriculum also fails to ask questions that might frame the settlement of Loyalists as a praiseworthy example for modern Canadians. An additional question might have prompted students to consider whether the Crown’s treatment of the Loyalists in providing food, clothing, and shelter to refugees from Revolutionary America was a spiritual or practical model for Canada’s welfare state—which Canadians nowadays take to be a jewel of the country. The Curriculum presents Loyalist settlement as an example of injustice; it could just as easily present it as an example of compassion and courage—or as a complicated mixture of the two. This sort of simplification pervades the curriculum. For a further example, the curriculum highlights the experiences of slaves in New France and British North America, but fails to mention that John Graves Simcoe, Governor of Upper Canada (modern Ontario) from 1791 to 1796, abolished slavery in the colony—and thus made Upper Canada the first area in the British Empire to eliminate that evil institution. Students who have never heard of Simcoe will not understand the complexity of colonial relationships with indigenous and black communities—and will not know of a glorious and defining moment in Canadian history, in which they should take pride.

A similar skew affects the Curriculum’s treatment of World War I. The Curriculum offers as a sample question, “When recruitment drives were held, were all young people welcome to join the armed forces?” This leading question presumably is meant to prompt students to find instances of racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination in the armed forces at the time. Such instances existed, and they certainly should be mentioned as part of the history of Canada during the Great War. But why not also include a question based on a famous remark by Canadian Brigadier-General A.E. Ross  at Vimy Ridge in April, 1917: “In those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”  The question might be, Why would a soldier suddenly feel a swell of patriotism and national identity during the horrors of battle? This could prompt students to learn about Canada’s accomplishment at Vimy—the first exclusively Canadian major military operation in its history, and one which resulted in victory when previous efforts by the French and the British to take the Ridge had failed—and to consider how military endeavor and martial virtue work to constitute national identity. It would also let Canadian students know they have a military history, founded on Canadian courage, competence, self-sacrifice, and love of country, in which they can take great pride. But the Curriculum instead asks tendentious questions designed to inflame the politics of grievance.

The Curriculum also grossly distorts Canadian history by paying little or no attention to the role of religion. For example, the “social gospel” beliefs of Canadian Methodists, whose faith led them to believe that both individuals and societies can be improved, led directly to the creation of a public education system in Upper Canada in 1844. There is no question that (as the Curriculum mentions) the social and economic forces of increased urbanization and industrialization played an important role in the creation of Ontario’s system of public education. But they provided the preconditions: Methodist faith brought the system of public education into being. The Curriculum obscures the actual motors of Canadian history when it obscures religion—as well as obscuring reasons for students to think well of Canada’s faithful, for what their faith gave to their country.

The Curriculum also obscures the role of individuals in Canadian history—and its reduction of the creation of public education in Upper Canada to increased urbanization and industrialization also illustrates just how much they leave out when they remove the individuals. “Methodist faith” in the abstract didn’t create public education in Upper Canada, and neither did Methodists as a collective whole. The Methodist educator Egerton Ryerson personally drafted the bill that created Upper Canada’s system of public education, and as Chief Superintendent of Education in Upper Canada he led the administrative campaign that turned public education from a blueprint into solid reality. When Ontario’s Curriculum ignores Ryerson, it ignores the individual whose moral vision and administrative acumen actually made the system of public education in Ontario—schoolteacher by schoolteacher, textbook by textbook, schoolhouse by schoolhouse. The omission of Ryerson from the Curriculum, by the by, is ungrateful: the Ontario school system created by Ryerson ought at the very least to mention his name.

Ryerson is just one example of the role of brilliant personalities in Canadian history. Notably, the very creation of modern Canada in the 1860s from the loose association of provinces in British North America would never have happened without the redoubtable Quebecker George-Etienne Cartier, the irascible Ontarian George Brown, or the stout New Brunswicker Samuel Tilley.

Or sly John A. MacDonald of Ontario. A victim of personal tragedy and a raging alcoholic, MacDonald once, when waiting for an opponent to conclude his remarks in a debate, vomited … profoundly. When his opponent accused him of drinking too much, MacDonald replied: “I get sick not because of drink but because I am forced to listen to the rantings of my honourable opponent.” That is one of the best zingers in Canadian history. No-one questioned MacDonald’s love of his country, but he was a thorough political realist: “Anyone may support me when I am right; what I want is a man that will support me when I am wrong.” And he was ruthless. On the subject of the pending execution of Métis rebel Louis Riel: “He will hang though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour.” It was primarily MacDonald’s ability to charm and persuade the other Fathers of Confederation that made Confederation possible. MacDonald provides a compelling case study in a kind of anti-heroic leadership. (Especially by way of contrast to that other Founding Father—what was his name?—oh, yes, George Washington!) Students could consider MacDonald as an example of a man who overcame personal adversity to help create a country, character defects and all—but such a view is impossible if John MacDonald’s life and character is left out. Perhaps more to the point, reading about the life of a sharp-tongued, funny, successful rogue like MacDonald would make students interested in the foundation of modern Canada in the first place. Remove his life from Canadian history—as the Curriculum does—and you make Canadian history itself lifeless.

Canadians live in a vast and savage land, still largely uninhabited. Most of its inhabitants make their living in a narrow band of marginally habitable land that, year-round, lies in the shadow of winter. For much of their history, they have had to balance between dependency on Great Britain and collapse into the acquisitive embrace of the gargantuan Great Republic to their south. The Canadian union itself is ramshackle: Quebec has voted on the matter of secession more than once, Western provinces have grumbled about being ignored by the Parliament in Ottawa, and the Maritimes have been disaffected by their chronic economic depression. The odds against Canada’s survival have been great.

Yet survive we have—and flourished, and done wonderful things that should fill us with pride. Students should hear this story—of Canada’s battles against nature, its eccentric and cranky personalities, and its improbable events—because it is fascinating, because it is worth knowing, and because it will inspire them to keep up Canada’s improbable feat of survival. But with Canadian history taught as it is in the Ontario Curriculum, no Canadian student learns anything of their country’s wonderful history. I wonder if they will bother to keep up Canada’s balancing act, not knowing how it survived in the past, or why their forefathers bothered to make, keep, and improve their country.

A history teacher can do better than the Curriculum. I try to give my students more real Canadian history than the Curriculum provides, and so do some of my colleagues. But there are limits to what we can accomplish. Not all of us know enough Canadian history to challenge the dull grievance-of-the-week narrative the Curriculum has substituted for the chronicle of our past—and even when we are able to challenge that false history, we pay a price for doing so. After all, teachers are judged in their performance evaluations and promotions on how well they teach the Curriculum, not on how well they teach a balanced, nuanced Canadian history that provides the material for pride in our country’s past.  So long as the Ministry of Education endorses the Curriculum’s narrative of victimhood, real Canadian history can only be smuggled in at the margins—at best.

Restoring Canadian history to its proper place will be a fair task. We will need the faith of Ryerson and the wit of MacDonald, and the pluck of our Loyalist ancestors as they settled in the wilderness. And although the Ministry of Education is not quite as well entrenched as the German infantry were a century ago, perhaps a touch of the courage our soldiers displayed at Vimy Ridge.

References:

Creighton, Donald. Canada: The Heroic Beginnings. Toronto: Macmillan, 1974.

Granatstein, J.L. Who Killed Canadian History?  Toronto: Harper Collins, 1998 (rev. 2007).

Ontario Ministry Of Education. The Ontario Curriculum. Toronto: The Queen’s Printer, 2013.

Tait, George E. Fair Domain. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1960.

 

Image Credit: Public Domain.

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