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Who Killed Canadian History?


Canada is suffering and will suffer from the failure of our eduation system to accurately teach the history of our country.

From the preface to J.L. Granatstein's book, Who Killed Canadian History?, published in February, 1998, by Harper Collins Publishers Ltd.


J.L. Granatstein

 Author Notes

Canadian historian, former Professor of History, York University, Director-General of the Canada War Museum, author of more than 30 books including Who Killed Canadian History (1998, Harper Collins)

Books by J.L. Granatstein
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Who Killed Canadian History? (1999)
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Yankee Go Home? : Canadians & Anti-Americanism (1998)
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 Essay - 2/1/1998

Whose history would we teach? That is the usual response from education ministers and school board officials to questions why so little history is taught in our schools. It suggests that for a linguistically and geographically divided nation, for a country populated by immigrants, there are many histories - far too many for us to teach. Better to offer none at all. But the answer should be that we will teach the history of Canada, of all its people, of their role in developing this nation, and of Canada's place in the world. Somehow, unfortunately, that all-too-reasonable response never stirs to action those who shape education policies. Yet the question is answered every day in our classrooms in ways that might surprise parents and taxpayers.

Brad is a bright eight year old, a reader, a talker, and a budding violinist. George and Suzanne, his parents and my friends, pay $8,000 a year to send him to a small private school near their home in the Maritimes because, they are convinced, it offers good teaching and quality learning. In his "enhanced" grade 2 class this last school year, Brad began to be taught something about his country, and he learned about Canadian geography, Quebec sugar bushes, and the Group of Seven. He also wrote five brief historical reports. The first was on Samuel de Champlain, with a substantial emphasis on the tribulations his child-bride suffered. The second report examined the extinction of the Beothuk, thanks to shootings, disease, and starvation caused by the white man. The third report was about Louis Riel, whom Brad called a Métis hero but who was labeled a traitor in his day because he stood up for his people. The next report outlined the opposition and frustration endured by Canada's first female doctor, Emily Jennings Stowe, as she sought to practice. The last, on the maltreatment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, dealt with what happened to people when, as Brad wrote, the government decided it could not trust anyone who looked Japanese.

Brad's papers are impressive for a child his age, but profoundly depressing in what they suggest goes on today in our schools. The first exposure to the history of Canada that Brad received in class combined seemingly unrelated events and individuals - without much regard for chronology - that were judged important by his teacher. Though provincial guidelines offer little direction for early primary grades, the teacher was reflecting what she deemed to be the province's educational priorities. The material taught stressed the existence of anti-Aboriginal, anti-Métis, and anti-Asian racism, as well as male sexism and discrimination against women, as if these issues were and always had been the primary identifying characteristics of Canada. Riel, the first "hero" to whom Brad was exposed, in a country that always bewails its lack of them, was a man who, after a kangaroo court trial, ordered the murder of a loud-mouthed Ontario Orangeman and, to boot, was a crazed religious fanatic who led two armed rebellions. Riel might be a hero and a leader to the Métis, but he has no credentials as a hero to all Canadians, and no school should teach his life that way.

Indeed, since all education is about choices, we might ask why Brad should learn about Riel rather than Sir John A. MacDonald, someone whose accomplishments were more important and much longer lasting. Or about Emily Stowe rather than Frederick Banting, the discoverer of insulin. Or about the maltreatment of Japanese Canadians rather than the successful integration of millions of immigrants.

The reasons, unfortunately, are all too obvious, and they provide the real answer to the question, Whose history should we teach? The choices being made every day in Brad's school are political, not historical. They aim to teach a lesson about racism and sexism, not history. The lesson taught is that of the grievers among us, the present-day crusaders against public policy or discrimination. The history omitted is that of the Canadian nation and people.

There was racism and sexism in Canada's past, just as there is today. These are not the only themes in our history, however, though one would be hard-pressed to prove it from the history education offered to Canada's young schoolchildren. Sadly, Brad's experience is echoed in classrooms from Newfoundland to British Columbia. What are we saying to our sons and daughters? What are we doing to our history? Somewhere, somehow, we have completely lost our way.

Canada must be one of the few nations in the world, certainly one of the few western industrialized states, that does not make an effort to teach its history positively and thoroughly to its young people. It must be one of the few political entities to overlook its own cultural traditions - the European civilization on which our nation is founded - on the grounds that they would systematically discriminate against those who come from other cultures. The effect of these policies on a generation of students are all around us as the twentieth century draws to a close.

I have spent most of my life in the study and teaching of Canadian history, first as a graduate student in Canada and the United States in the early 1960s, and then as a professor at York University in Toronto from 1966 until I took early retirement in June, 1995. I began my university career as an enthusiastic teacher, greatly stimulated by my students, the best of whom were superb. In the fourth year seminar I offered, the students read 250 pages a week and prepared fifty-page papers based on primary sources and wide research; many were of publishable quality. Twenty years later, teaching the same subject area to third- and fourth-year students, I found I could ask for only 100 pages of reading a week and twenty-five page research papers. The quality of writing, of historical knowledge, and of research had dropped alarmingly, and in other courses purchased essays and plagiarized papers began to appear with increasing frequency - a clear demonstration that students knew less about history and more about the quasi-legal services that were available to them for a fee. By the time I decided to leave the university, standards had dropped still further, and the Internet was providing term papers either free (a service started by a York University student) or for payment. Even graduate students in history were often not able to write adequately or to handle heavy weekly reading loads. Friends teaching at other institutions assured me that they were experiencing the same decline in literacy, hard work, and historical knowledge among their undergraduate and graduate students.

What had changed in the three decades I taught at York University? Had student IQs suddenly declined? I cannot believe this is the case, but there is little doubt that students came out of the public and high schools, thanks to provincial ministries of education and local school boards, less prepared in every respect than they were thirty years ago. Large numbers are computer literate, to be sure, but many cannot read or write well. They know little mathematics or science, and the weak Canadian scores in international comparisons of student learning are, in my view, exactly right. (Alberta seems to be an exception in scoring well in mathematics and science, but Ontario stands well below the national norm.) History is just as important, but because history in general, and the history of the Canadian national experience in particular, has all but disappeared from the school curriculum, the first-year students come to university knowing little about the past and their own history. Only a small percentage will take a history course of any kind. Those who don’t will go into the nation's work force almost totally ignorant of their nation's past. Those who do take history, because of the type of teaching they get at university, will graduate knowing much more about a few things and very little about the most important aspects of Canadian history.

Our university students, regrettably, are typical of the majority of Canadians. Young and old, educated or ill-educated, they are lamentably ignorant of their past. They watch television programs about history - the CBC's commemorations of D-Day, V-E Day, and the 500th anniversary of John Cabot's voyage to Newfoundland drew huge audiences - but at the same time, they declare their history boring. They say they have no heroes, yet their past is replete with genuine heroes rather than bastardized ones like Riel. They somehow believe that Bill Clinton is Canada's president or that the Civil War was a Canadian affair.

Does this matter? Canadians, after all, are nationalistic in a polite way (unlike their noisy neighbours to the south), and they are quietly, fiercely proud of their country, even if they cannot articulate their reasons. But they also live under a weak federal system whose central government has less and less influence over its citizen's lives. The provinces seem daily to accrue more power, and they combine to demand yet more from Ottawa. Talk of separatism, and not only in Quebec, is in the air. The nation is fragile indeed, and one reason for this lamentable state of affairs might well be the lack of a history that binds Canadians together. It is not that we do not have such a history. It is simply that we have chosen not to remember it.

Some cynical readers might ask why I complain so loudly now, after I have retired from teaching. After all, I profited from the educational system. Is Granatstein not like Robert McNamara, the U.S. defense secretary who directed the war in Vietnam with the fervour of a true believer until he left office, when he soon began to appear as a dove? Well, no. Unlike McNamara I was consistent. I preached the gospel of Canadian history and national history to thousands of students. I wrote scholarly books - on national history topics - for small audiences, but I also did a number of volumes, alone and with co-authors, of popular history; some of them sold reasonably well. I was one of the three founders of the Organization for the Study of the National History of Canada. I found a publisher for the journal 'National History', and I spoke frequently on television on broad Canadian topics. I continue to be passionately engaged in studying the past.

History is important, I believe, because it is the way a nation, a people, and an individual learn who they are, where they came from, and how and why their world has turned out as it has. We do not simply exist in a contemporary world. We have a past, if only we would try to grapple with it. History teaches us a sense of change over time. History is memory, inspiration, and commonality - and a nation without memory is every bit as adrift as an amnesiac wandering the streets. History matters, and we forget this truth at our peril.

This book is one more effort to make Canadians remember the history they are losing. If we have no past, then surely it must follow that we have no future. We do have a history, a proud history of working together to accomplish great things and to overcome enormous obstacles - if only we can be persuaded to study it, to learn from it, and to draw strength from it to meet our current and our future challenges.

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