Poor history report card

As Canada Day approaches, it seems unbelievable that three-quarters of Canadians between the ages of 18 and 24 have no clue in which year our Confederation was created. Yet, that was a finding of a 2007 survey by the Dominion Institute. 

This year, the institute decided to investigate why so few young Canadians have so little knowledge of their nation’s history, and conducted a study of the history curricula in Canada’s provinces and territories. The institute assigned a grade based on the quality of each province’s and territory’s history curriculum at the high school level.

What the institute found was four provinces failed the study and received an F. None received an A. In fact, the study showed only four provinces require high school students take a course on Canadian history. Manitoba, which received a B-, was one of only four provinces with a mandatory Canadian history course at the Grade 11 level, while it also has social studies courses in grades 9 and 10. Overall, Manitoba was ranked fourth among the provinces and territories.

“One drawback of the Manitoba curriculum is the vast period in history it attempts to cover;” according to the study,  “many important topics could be dealt with in a cursory way.”

The institute recommends a second mandatory Canadian history course “in order to enable more in-depth exploration of the nation’s past ... Manitoba would also benefit from offering an optional course in Canadian history to allow interested students to learn even more.”

Manitoba received added praise for revising its Canadian history curricula — in effect next year — to incorporate new thinking about the skills needed to be effective historians.

At the top of the rankings, Québec (B+) is the only province requiring students to take two years of Canadian history before graduating. Nova Scotia (C+) requires its students a choice of five courses for its mandatory high school history requirement — Canadian history, African-Canadian studies, Gaelic studies, Études Acadiennes and Mi’Kmaq studies. Ontario, the only other province to have a mandatory history course, received a B.

While British Columbia, which finished higher in ranking than Manitoba with a B, does not require its students to complete a course in Canadian history, the mandatory social studies course taken in grades 9 and 10 includes significantly more Canadian history than courses in other provinces. 

Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island only have optional history courses offered in their high schools.

Yukon was the only territory to receive a B, while Nunavut received a D and the Northwest Territories an F. The problem with the territories is that they follow the curriculum of neighbouring provinces. Fortunately for Yukon, it has adopted the B.C. curriculum, while Northwest Territories follows Alberta’s which earned a dismal F in the Dominion Institute’s rankings, while Nunavut received a slightly better ranking because it follows Alberta’s former curriculum which is slightly more attuned to Canadian history than the existing one.

Don’t confuse “social studies” with learning history. Students do not become critical historical “thinkers” as a result of taking social studies courses. Social studies is a “catchall” phrase that involves the teaching of a hodgepodge of information about a nation such as geography, demographics, sociology, political science, economics, religion and anthropology with just a smattering of history thrown into the mix. 

To be a student of history, one requires the ability to use primary sources such as diaries, artifacts, newspapers and interviews in a critical manner.

“The best teaching in history encourages students to develop their own interpretations regarding what transpired in the past,” according to the Dominion Institute. “The use of primary sources also brings students face to face with history and can ignite interest in the subject.”

Actually, one thing students of history quickly determine through their research is that there can be significant differences in the interpretation of historical events based upon a particular political or social bias. Many historians may agree on the basics of a particular event or person, but their biases may effect how they interpret the “big picture.” 

A good example of this is Louis Riel. Some still consider Riel a “villain” and dismiss his role as the driving force behind Manitoba’s entry into the Canadian  Confederation, while others give the Métis leader full credit as being the “Father of Manitoba.” There is significantly more evidence to support the latter case than to accept the former, but that requires a “critical” look at the primary sources. The case of Riel being a “villain” is based upon accounts from Ontario Protestant settlers in Red River, who had a grudge against Riel, which affected their subsequent recollections of the events of 1869-70. Once they became the “power” in the new province, they  took it upon themselves to expunge any of Riel’s  “good” deeds from the record, while promoting their own role, which in the sense of bringing Manitoba into Confederation was minor at best. In reality, their actions often created more chaos at the expense of peace in the Red River Settlement than providing any useful outcome. 

It was decades before historians made further investigations — W.L. Morton, one of Canada’s most respected historians, was among their ranks — and showed that there were actually two historical Riels. The first was the “Father of Manitoba,” and the second was the “rebel” who led the Métis in the 1885 Northwest Rebellion.

What the Dominion Institute’s study does show is the failure of our schools to prepare students to be useful participants in the Canadian democracy. Without a knowledge of the nation’s past how can these students become engaged citizens. Learning the skills necessary to become good historians requires investigative skills and critical thinking, which are useful tools that can be used in future endeavours involving disciplines or pursuits quite divergent from history.

For the benefit of the three-quarters of Canadian youth who didn’t know the answer, the new nation of Canada was formed on July 1, 1867.