A debate that surely won’t make history - Macleans.ca

A debate that surely won’t make history

Paul Wells on a heritage committee study and the politicization of Canadian history


AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Sometimes Ottawa politics offers up a Rorschach moment. Something random happens and the various reactions tell a story. Last week the Commons heritage committee announced it would launch “a thorough and comprehensive review of significant aspects in Canadian history” that would extend lo unto the nation’s school classrooms. Your members of Parliament passed a resolution saying they would compare “standards and courses of study offered in primary and post-secondary institutions in each of the provinces and territories.”

This gave many observers frissons—of outrage or bold purpose, depending on their inclination. Education is, after all, a provincial responsibility under the Constitution. In Quebec, the government of Pauline Marois paused from its regular work of running the province’s economy into the ground so that assorted ministers could find microphones and declare they would never tolerate such an intrusion. In Toronto, National Post columnist Andrew Coyne congratulated the parliamentarians for abandoning at last the notion that we live in a federation where different levels of government play different roles.

Both the outrage and the kudos were premature. News of the committee’s decision broke on May 2. At their very next meeting, on May 6, the committee’s members voted unanimously to backtrack. There will be no federal study into provincial history curricula.

That’s not to say the heritage committee will ignore history, however. The motion, as amended, still gives MPs a mandate to examine just about every other aspect of Canada’s history, Canadians’ thinking about history, Canadian institutions that have something to do with history or may once have existed at some point in Canada’s history, or whose names may contain the letters h, r or y.

MPs will look at “how Hansard can be used as a means of preserving important witness testimony” as well as “the tools and methods available to Canadians to increase their knowledge of Canadian history.” They will “visit relevant national museums” and invite the National Film Board to “discuss their role in preserving important accounts of Canadian history.” There’s more. I’m actually giving you the exciting bits here.

One imagines the MPs staring in amazement on Tool and Method Day as some infinitely patient witness shows them a library card or a computer mouse. “The book opens from the front. Like this!” Oohs and ahs.

Guy from the National Film Board: “We’re a board that makes films about the nation.”

Scribble scribble scribble.

MP: “I’m sorry, could you repeat that? I didn’t catch the simultaneous translation.”

Pierre Nantel, an NDP heritage critic, has argued that the point of the planned investigation is to fill up the committee’s schedule with make-work so it can’t do anything substantive that might embarrass the government. Government MPs make up a majority on the committee, so Nantel’s theory is plausible. Committee members remain free to prove him wrong by coming up with something fresh and compelling. That would be a nice surprise.

The reason history provokes such tension is that history cannot be divorced from a set of ideas about how society should be organized. Of course the Parti Québécois doesn’t want the federal government interfering in Quebec schools, because the PQ wants to teach that the last three centuries in Canada have been a sack of woe. Of course the NDP doesn’t want Conservatives teaching history because the Conservatives want to tell tales of exploits in war. There would be less time to talk about Tommy Douglas. And of course a few kibitzers are eternally worried that our schools are teaching nothing at all. One favourite shorthand among the professionally outraged is that schools teach nothing but “victimization.”

My own experience with the fourth-grader and eighth-grader nearest to me suggests the curriculum in Ontario is actually pretty big on the classics. Names of provinces, their capitals, major resources and industry. Champlain, the fur trade, the Plains of Abraham, the United Empire Loyalists and Sir John A. There’s victimization here and there too, but in less insecure parts of the world, people don’t try to pretend that history is a constant march of victimless triumph. Even in Conservative Ottawa, abuse in residential schools, the Ukrainian famine and the Armenian genocide have all been commemorated by this government. I know the PQ would be amazed to learn that the expulsion of the Acadians is taught to English Canadian kids, and the hanging of Louis Riel too. What are they taught to think about such things? Actually, I’m delighted to report they’re given options and invited to debate them. As if history were open to interpretation. As if Canadians could think for themselves. Perhaps that’s the thought that upsets partisans so.

Can schools make our history come alive? Only up to a point. The dirty secret of Canadian history is that it’s actually not that exciting. Oh, it’s fine. We had perfectly intrepid explorers, perfectly interesting agriculture. History in most other places is a tale of slaughter on a scale that beggars imagination. Try telling a Russian that it’s Canadian teachers’ fault if Canadian history seems dull. How many died in the Battle of Kursk? A quarter of a million? We have to get our kids excited about the Winnipeg General Strike. It will never be easy. Such are the blessings we could count, if we would pause from our made-up debates to count some blessings.

For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at macleans.ca/inklesswells


A debate that surely won’t make history

  1. Too formal .. I believe that should be Sack O’ Woe …

  2. All right wing totalitarian regimes try to change the visible landscape of their historical narratives. Although the Conservatives have been in stealth mode concerning this common practice until now, that could change drastically if they manage to win the next election. We will then have to man the barricades and be prepared to fight to the death to protect our basic right to know just the facts about our common heritage without any ideological meddling by Stephen Harper’s government..

    • Our ‘common heritage’ has suffered decades of ideological meddling as matters stand. It’s long past time to clean up the mess.

      Although I can hope the current government will try, they might not succeed.

    • I think you’d find that the left wing regimes are actually more notorious for revising history. Recall Mikhail Gorbachev cancelling Soviet state history exams in 1988 because the history students had been taught was a lie. In Canada, the facts of history haven’t really been attacked by anybody. Which facts are emphasized and the spin put on them are another matter. On that point, I don’t think the Conservatives are any worse than the Liberal “nation of peacekeepers” spin dating from the ’70s until the late ’90s.

      • All totalitarian regimes try to create their own histories, whether they are right or left. If you are willing to cite the Soviets, you should also cite the Nazis, or Italian Fascists, and vice versa.

        It is what makes them TOTALitarian – their desire to recreate society in their own model. Left or right is really a pointless term in this situation, or at best an excuse for doing what they want to do.

        • hell, today Singapore is right wing and has totalitarian education.

        • I suppose the major difference is that the left-wing authoritarian regimes have had 60 years or more to practice their distortion; the Nazis and Italian Fascists never had more than 20 years.

          • A redundant pleonasm.

            Yes. Of course. Hitler. Franco. Mussolini. Stalin. Taking up your specious argument that they might have only had 20 so odd years to accomplish the task of rewriting history, look at what the endeavor cost in terms of the number of innocent lives lost, plus the utter economic devastation of entire countries. I’m damn glad that you’re not in power Herr Walrus or we’d all be giving the Sieg Heil at hockey games instead of singing the national anthem.

  3. I love how the left wing looney crowd loses all grasp of reality when you start to even think about changing what took them years to do :) – way to go Haper – I think this is his most imporatnt attribute outsdie of the innate capacity to play whackamole with opposition leaders … for far too long we have allowed the left wing so called liberal philosophy to have it’s way and infest our classrooms and there are a lot of very and I mean very upset parents who are demanding change – to allow our classrooms to become little socioogly experiments and have the sheer audactity to claim that it’s not parents that are pesponiosble for raising and educating their children but the state ! This concept is target number one – as I type this now more and more parents are stepping up to the plate in each province and demanding that the curriculum be available and accountable as well as that of about educationg our children and not indoctrinating them into the liberal school of moral relativism and worshipping at the altar of whatever the latest fad is green or any other colour … all left wing totalitarian states try to change the visible landscape – oh wait a sec we have an example already posted here of such left wing loonyism !!!!!!!

    • Just in case no one’s noticed. Young Wayne’s just not too deep. While he possesses a vast plethora of empty right-wingnut partisan platitudes he real short on content. Oh yes. I completely forgot. He’s still learning how to spell. Well given a little more time he just might get his head around that concept.
      “way to go Haper” “pesponiosble” “socioogly” “imporatnt” At least he’s entertaining. LOL

  4. “And of course a few kibitzers are eternally worried that our schools are teaching nothing at all.”

    I am one of those kibitzers, it is hard not to be when you learn what kids are being ‘taught’ these days.

    George Bush – Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?

    • My wife [ the teacher remember] says hi. She always enjoys your your informed analysis of the ills of our educational institutions. Or she would if she had been teaching 20 or 30 years ago.

  5. But government is only set on making sure all youth learn the important moments in our history! Who can forget Conservative leader Laurier looking out over the vast fields of the newly explored prairie and saying “The 20th century belongs to Canada as long as we follow the Economic Action Plan and stay safe from the troubles lapping at our shores” or the widespread famine and riots caused by the (booga booga booga!) National Energy Program (shiver!) which finally caused brave young Preston Manning to march upon Ottawa at the head of the largest crowd ever assembled, throw Brian Mulroney III bodily out of office, institute democracy and take a seat at the head of government while STILL turning down the crown offered to him by Mark Anthony and the people!

    Shame on us for thinking different!

  6. “Such are the blessings we could count, if we would pause from our made-up debates to count some blessings.”

    Indeed! One can have too much history. Just ask just about anyone who came to this country from away. Even those of us who came from fairly sane, countries at least in recent historical terms, can attest to this – it has been one of the charms of the place for me for over 30 years now. Lord only knows what someone coming from recent hell holes like Iraq, or less recently but still within living memory – Vietnam – must feel? You life long Canadians don’t know how lucky you are – some of you anyway.Half the rest of the world would gladly forget their history forever.

    We could do a better job teaching FNs stuff, but even that’s better than it was. My grade 6er even knows who the Haida are, other kids learned about our local Dene culture.
    Whatever happens politically in the coming years, whoever is in charge can we please stay away from heavily radicalizing/politicizing our history. I know the tories like to pretend the liberals tilted the historical field all their way, but really highlighting stuff like peace keeping is hardly a radical distortion of this countries proud military history. Nor did it ever stop anyone saying so.

    So, sure lets talk about the 2 world wars a little more, 1812 too, i don’t mind.Hey let’s tell the whole story, the good and the bad. But this stuff should be shared, non partisan, non political anyway in a half way sane country such as this one.

  7. “History in most other places is a tale of slaughter on a scale that
    beggars imagination. Try telling a Russian that it’s Canadian teachers’
    fault if Canadian history seems dull”

    My grade 6er has been working on Russian studies for the whole year now. I’m worried she may be turning into a communist….how do i get a hold of this committee pronto?

  8. At one point in Saskatchewan a provincial government official who hated history tried very hard, with some success, to remove history from the Social Studies curriculum. An incomprehensible mish mash of sociology and anthropology made for courses that were nearly impossible to teach. Who needs Federal meddling when provincial idiocy can achieve nasty results.