ROBERT STAMP says: there’s a good reason why Canadians don’t know who they are; the schools and universities haven’t told them

February 5 1966


ROBERT STAMP says: there’s a good reason why Canadians don’t know who they are; the schools and universities haven’t told them

February 5 1966


ROBERT STAMP says: there’s a good reason why Canadians don’t know who they are; the schools and universities haven’t told them

CAN YOU name the Canadian prime ministers since Confederation? Can you say what day it was in September, 1939, when Prime Minister Mackenzie King overcame his qualms and launched Canada as a sovereign nation into the epochal storms of World War II? Probably not. Few Canadians — including high-school graduates — can. Even fewer Canadians have a firm grasp of the underlying historical patterns that helped Canada achieve its precarious unity; fewer still have studied in depth the economic and sociological impact on Canada of such thin-’s as the development of the CPR, the two world wars, the depression of the 1930s or the protracted battle between labor and government.

Yet a large proportion of these same Canadians can probably rattle off lists of 3ritish prime ministers and American presidents at will; they can probably even say with didactic certainty that Britain declared w'ar on September 3, 1939, and add (with smugness) that the U. S. didn’t join the fray until December 7, 1941. But w'hen did Canada declare war and why did we hesitate? These are, surely, important questions.

The standard criticisms of Canadian history are that it’s dull (which it isn’t) and short (which it is). But both these c; mments are irrelevant when you realize that Canadian history, dull, short or otherwise, is almost totally neglected at the senior high - school and university levels in this country. As CBC producer Ronald Weyman puts it: “This parlor game of who we are derives from the fact that nobody has ever told us.” Weyman complains with some justification that at least one of the reasons why Canada seems to be falling apart at the seams is that many Canadians are ignorant of their owm colorful history.

Names, dates and the adventures of fur traders are just the groundwork of our history. Children in elementary schools are taught enough of this (perhaps * o much) but the process usually comes to an abrupt stop just about the ;me history is becoming relevan’ "I meaningful and just about • me the minds of the students a’ o raming mature enough to grapoV : h some of the subject’s more difficult concepts.

The exception to this historical '“'lationism is. of all places, the

juries. Saskatchewan and Manitoba jth require senior students to take ƒ full course in Canadian history.

'""’Curriculum officials in Regina and Winnipeg talk with some pride about this “mature course.” And weil they

should. Other provinces offer only optional courses, part courses or courses in social studies that include a smattering of history. The theory seems to be that if science is king and literature queen, history is a handmaiden — and Canadian history is a handmaiden’s handmaiden.

I'm ni t arguing for more Canadian history in the schools because I want to deveh p a generation of narrowminded, flag-waving nationalists. And 1 don’t want Canadian history at the expense of international history. But I do think we need to be more conscious of our own national identity it we re going to make a contribution to the global world of tomorrow. Take the case of the Scots. They have contributed a great deal (including several prime ministers) to the development of Britain since the Act of Union 250 years ago. Part of the reason is that Scotsmen have always had a peculiarly strong (if sometimes outspoken) sense of their own national identity. How can Canadians make similar contributions if they remain a society without a past?

And w'e can make contributions. We are, as novelist Hugh MacLennan w'rites. “the first nation on earth, once a colony of the Old World, to achieve self-government and independence

without having gone through the frenzies of a revolution.” That’s a fruitful area for research these days. And despite current tensions, we’re still one of the best examples of peoples of different races living together in reasonable harmony. The rest of the w'orVI might like to know how we pulled off that trick too. But most of

us don’t know enough about it ourselves to tell them.

Some people have been trying to get the message across in recent years. “If the secondary schools were allowed to teach Canadian history,” pleaded a teachers’ committee from Peterborough, Ontario, in 1963, “they would do more to foster national pride and cement national unity than all the stamp issues, memorial plaques, royal commissions, flags or national anthems ever can do.” Similar thoughts are echoed on the west coast. “There are many teachers in British Columbia who agree with Walter Gordon that what is left of Canada is still worth saving,” says J. S. Church of the BC Teachers’ Federation.

The issue boiled up in Ontario two years ago when a Toronto newspaper discovered that only a few people knew January 1 I was Sir John A. Macdonald’s birthday and a survey showed that most high-school students were appallingly ignorant of some of the basic historical facts about Canada. The newspaper put the blame squarely on the schools system. The Ontario government was quick to respond and since then much has been done — on paper — to foster the idea that the provincial educational authorities are vitally interested in the teaching of Canadian history in the schools.

But despite a series of inspiring statements from education minister William Davis (“it has become more important than ever for our schools to stimulate an interest in Canadian history”), Ontario still doesn’t feel the subject is important enough for a full senior-level course. Yes, it is taught in Grade 13 — but only for half a year and only as an optional subject that half the students who reach Grade 1 3 bypass. The story is similar in most other provinces.

Our universities are just as guilty of neglect in this field — in spite of the presence of outstanding Canadian historians in arts faculties from coast to coast. It seems to me. for instance, that if engineering and educational students are to be given only one history course during their university career, it would be a good idea to try to instil in these future leaders some idea of their own national heritage. Yet the policy of most university administrations is to give the engineers a survey course in modern European history. Apparently the machinations of Hitler are more relevant than the blueprints of a bi-cultural nation.

Ultimately, I suppose, our teachertraining institutions are more responsible for the neglect of Canadian history than any other section of our educational system. How can we expect students to learn about Canada if the teachers aren’t trained to teach it? Even the courses in educational history offered by most teachers’ colleges are non-Canadian. Much is said about the great Greek and Roman educators but litt'e about men like John Strachan and Egerton Ryerson who moulded our Canadian schools.

There are some progressive voices

crying in this wilderness. The University of Western Ontario’s college of education recently introduced a course in Canadian rather than European educational history but some oldguard educators expressed concern over this “revolutionary” move. And a senior member of the educational faculty at one of the western universities (who feels his views are too radical to risk using his name) says: “We are now turning out a generation of young teachers who are not as adequately prepared as they should be in the background of Canadian history, politics, geography and economics. This will have unfortunate repercussions in the understanding of Canadian problems so essential to our unity.” Perhaps the Canadian and provin-

cial historical societies can adopt as their centennial project a campaign to foster the teaching of Canadian history to senior students. But the most effective way to improve the situation is for the Canadian public, parents and graduates, to put pressure on the provincial departments of education. These officials must be made to realize our schools have an obligation to give their students some idea of their national heritage.

Why not start by asking your edu cation minister if he can list the Canadian prime ministers or name the date Canada declared war? Here are the answers for your check list: Macdonald, 1867-1873; Mackenzie, 18731878: Macdonald, 1878-1891; Abbott, 1891-1892; Thompson, 1892-1894; Bowell, 1894-1896; Tupper, 18961896 (two months); Laurier, 18961911; Borden, 1911-1917; Borden (Unionist), 1917 -1920; Meighen, 1920-1921; Mackenzie King, 19211926; Meighen, 1926-1926 (three months); Mackenzie King. 1926-1930; Bennett, 1930-1935; Mackenzie King, 1935-1948; St. Laurent, 1948-1957; Diefenbaker, 1957 -1963; Pearson 1963-the present. And Canada declared war on Nazi Germany exactly one week later than Britain: on September 10, 1939.