Failures in Education

The Test of Time: Battling to Keep Canadian History Alive

Emma Haynes
March 30, 2023
Young Canadians are learning precious little in classrooms today about the country’s past, for two reasons: the growing hatred for any history instruction that is not about racism and oppression, and the education system’s simple lack of prioritization of the subject. Emma Haynes examines this dark descent toward historical nihilism and explains why teaching history – all of our stories, good and bad – is so important. Apathy about one’s country’s past, she explains, creates a weaker, less cohesive society. How can we expect our children to care about building a nation they know nothing about?
Failures in Education

The Test of Time: Battling to Keep Canadian History Alive

Emma Haynes
March 30, 2023
Young Canadians are learning precious little in classrooms today about the country’s past, for two reasons: the growing hatred for any history instruction that is not about racism and oppression, and the education system’s simple lack of prioritization of the subject. Emma Haynes examines this dark descent toward historical nihilism and explains why teaching history – all of our stories, good and bad – is so important. Apathy about one’s country’s past, she explains, creates a weaker, less cohesive society. How can we expect our children to care about building a nation they know nothing about?
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This is my “David and Goliath” story, except that it’s not about a Biblical-era youth staring down a nine-foot-tall man. No, it’s about the pebble that was used to bring the giant to the ground.

My Goliath was a decade of genuinely useless social studies in elementary and secondary school. The pebble was Mr. Rajala, my grade 10 history teacher at Fort Frances High School in northwestern Ontario. Mr. Rajala was an amazing storyteller who was passionate about his subject and opened my eyes to the vastness and wonder of history. I had entered his class with a vague and fragmented understanding of my country’s past. I left it the way a reader feels after finishing a great book: thrilled by a gripping plot, filled with new insight and actively searching for more to devour. 

In today’s environment, it’s safe to say that students are unlikely to leave their history classes loving Canada. Whether they are a 10th-grade student in Ontario leaving the only high school history class they will ever have, or are taking a university course that teaches them Canada’s past is an embarrassment, we are failing as a nation at teaching students how to even talk about our country’s history. 

Much of the cultural conversation has been focused on attacking Canada’s history, and that anger has moved into the classroom; history gets little attention in school and what is taught are narratives of racism and oppression. (Source of photo:

Unlike David, we face more than one Goliath: there is the growing hatred for certain histories because they do not align with the current cultural conversation, and there is the lack of prioritization of the subject in our schools. This is occurring from coast to coast. Alberta, to take just one example, has been fighting on both fronts since the UCP government two years ago introduced a revamp to the elementary school curriculum that includes more on the basics of Western history and more instruction on facts in general. It was immediately criticized by school boards, academics, teachers and even some parents, who claimed the curriculum was too Eurocentric and was “the stuff of nightmares.” An NDP MLA called it irrelevant to students, claiming there was no point in teaching about historical figures like Genghis Khan.

These disputes around Canadian history are not attempting to speak to our story, but instead are responding to a moment in time when disagreement is taken by one side to mean rejection. Calls to cancel Canada Day and the tearing down of statues are just two manifestations of this unfortunate trend. Last year, as Blacklock’s Reporter discovered, “Management at the national archives has deleted a website feature honouring John A. Macdonald as ‘redundant’ and ‘offensive.’ The content including historical facts and photos for schoolchildren was deemed out of step with ‘our diverse and multicultural country’,” archivists were quoted as saying. This outrageous move elicited a few squeaks of protest, but no eruption of outrage from Canada’s senior historians or educators.

Destruction seems the only answer for those who don’t know how to work through the more dubious aspects of our past without destroying everything in the process. Two years ago the BC Museums Association encouraged museums, galleries and heritage organizations to reinforce the calls to cancel Canada Day by cancelling all of their planned events as well, and by advocating that people participate in “service disruptions” against those who chose to celebrate. This was a protest of Canadian history and national pride from a group meant to preserve it.

On the activist website, a blogpost entitled A settler’s guide to cancelling Canada Day: July 1st and beyond suggested that, “If you’ve been invited to a private [Canada Day] BBQ, respectfully note that you won’t be celebrating and use the opportunity to talk about why.” It went on to encourage instead spending the day tearing down statues, and celebrated the actions of those who toppled Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue in Montreal, gleefully pointing out that the vandalism broke off the statue’s head. This kind of destruction doesn’t aim to advance the understanding of history. It is born of anger and nihilism, it seeks to polarize and divide, and it even attempts to speak for those who have no desire to be a part of such violence. 

Tearing down history: Activists gleefully celebrated the toppling of Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue in Montreal, while in Kitchener, Ontario, the city let red paint mar the statue of Queen Victoria for more than 10 days before cleaning up the vandalism. (Sources of photos: (left) The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes; (right) CityNews Kitchener)

Founding fathers are not the only victims of this broad-strokes cancellation. Queen Victoria was a key figure in our history, gaining the informal title “Mother of Confederation”. But last year some residents of Kitchener, Ontario began calling for the removal of the local Queen Victoria statue, saying the “idolization of colonial figures” is outdated. When the statue was later vandalized, the city chose to let the paint sit for more than 10 days before it was cleaned up. If that behaviour wasn’t enough, some activists and journalists even went after Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, objecting to mourning the death of the widely admired and even beloved Queen Elizabeth II, saying that “she stood for all the violence, oppression and theft imposed by the British colonial empire.” Such statements willfully ignore the positive contributions of the British Crown in Canada’s history, and even what the monarchy might mean to other Canadians.

This is not to say that re-examining history is without value. New stories about women, Indigenous people, workers and immigrants matter a great deal. Some aspects of our history clearly should not be remembered as positive. But that does not mean we need to completely rewrite the narrative into one of unending oppression. There are remarkable examples of people who helped build this country – or what would later become this country – and they should be taught and celebrated. Matonabbee, for example, was a Chipewyan leader instrumental to the trading between the Hudson’s Bay Company and Indigenous peoples. Samuel Hearne’s overland journey to the Arctic Ocean in the late 1700s would not have been possible without Matonabbee’s leadership and knowledge of the vast land and its complex waterways.

Heroes lost: First Nations warriors were critical to Canada’s success in the War of 1812 (left, Brock meeting Tecumseh) and Laura Secord saved countless lives by revealing an impending American attack (right); stories like this are rarely heard any longer. (Source of left image: courtesy of Library and Archives Canada/C-073719)

First Nations warriors were critical in fighting the invading American forces during the War of 1812. According to British commanders at the time, warriors from the Ojibwe, Algonquin, Mohawk, Huron, Abenaki and more were instrumental in winning key battles. Further, in 1813 a young Laura Secord walked 20 miles through American-held territory in 1813 to warn British soldiers of an impending American attack, but was not recognized for her heroic efforts until long after her death. These are stories of fortitude, courage, cooperation and success, but since they do not align with a narrative of oppression, racism and weakness, they are rarely heard any longer.

Some of the giants of Canadian history undoubtedly had flaws. We now look back and many, including me at times, are disturbed or perhaps even horrified by some of their words and actions because of how much they differ from what is acceptable today. But their personal flaws do not make Canada less great, or their positive contributions unworthy of recognition. There would be no Canada without Sir John A. Macdonald. Queen Victoria granted Canada responsible government, making it less dependent on the Crown and much more in touch with its own people. And we owe a great debt to Sir Wilfrid Laurier for his politics of compromise that kept English and French Canada united.

The current destructive extremism, however, has eliminated any room for conversations about ways to reconcile the beneficial and even heroic aspects of our founding fathers (and mothers) with their mistakes and character defects. As we learn new stories, we are told to reject all the previous ones. That kind of zero-sum game is not what history should be. We must reject the tearing down of our nation’s history, never mind tearing down statues. We have a responsibility to teach why all history matters, why every story is important. 

But the other big problem is that we’re barely teaching it at all. History (and many other social subjects) is the loser in our modern curricula. In most provinces, the discipline has been folded into “social studies,” a vague field that includes everything from community living to geography and leaves no room for the distinct nature of historical thinking.

Students in Ontario learn “socials studies” up to Grade 6 and then a history program that stops before any mention of either World War, leaving students woefully uninformed of the sacrifices made to build Canada. Pictured on the right, Canadian Corps, Summer 1916. (Source of right photo: George Metcalf Archival Collection/CWM 19920044-601)

Topics covered in Grades 1 to 6 social studies in Ontario’s 2018 curriculum include “Our Changing Roles and Responsibilities,” “Changing Family and Community Traditions,” and “Global Communities.” The curriculum, still in use, further states: “The social studies program in Grades 1 to 6 develops students’ understanding of who they are, where they come from, where they belong, and how they contribute to the society in which they live. Students develop a sense of who they are by exploring their identity within the context of various local, national, and global communities in which they participate.” It isn’t until Grade 7 that a history narrative begins: “The Grade 7 and 8 history program provides students with an overview of Canadian history, from pivotal events in colonial North America during the early eighteenth century to issues facing a young nation on the eve of World War I.” 

That’s eight years of schooling without a single mention of either world war. 

The curriculum is inadequate and ignores the capability of children to absorb valuable information, something previous generations of teachers had great faith in. Thanks to a nurturing family environment, I learned a lot during those otherwise useless “Goliath” years. For example, by age nine I had read Anne Frank’s diary twice, knew all about the role of the Navajo code talkers in the Second World War, and could tell you the exact date and time of the sinking of the Titanic. If I could learn all of this outside of school, why can’t such things be taught in school?

Ontario’s current curriculum assumes that young people can only handle so much of the story at a time, leaving them to enter the next school year confused and uninformed. The curriculum in elementary school is often full of individual events, people, groups or places in history, lacking any effort to create a storyline or plot for Canada. Most of these instances are pre-Confederation. Even worse, since only four provinces (Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Nova Scotia) require a Canadian history credit in high school, huge numbers of students are not exposed at all to post-Confederation developments. Across Canada, students leave high school with barely a clue about what preceded them.

“Curriculum specialist” Samantha Cutrara (left) wants a history curriculum that helps students “discover” themselves; author Patrice Dutil (right) says that approach risks leaving out huge chunks of history because students might not identify with the historical figures in question.

Even though the curriculum is already inadequate, there are those who threaten to make it even worse. In a recent book, “curriculum specialist” Samantha Cutrara advocates redefining what it means to be Canadian, and for that answer to be reflected in the history curriculum. She wants one more focused on the student and helping them discover who they are. Developing a sense of self is a great thing for a student to do – but history class is hardly the place to begin that process.

In a recent critique of Cutrara’s book, professor and author Patrice Dutil notes her wish that history bolster the student’s sense of self: “This can be done only if students see themselves in the lesson plan.” This risks ignoring significant moments of Canadian history because students might not identify with the particular historical figure in question. “Cutrara’s biggest problem with ‘historical thinking,’ I suspect, is that it does not sufficiently orient the student to historical significance,” Dutil continues. “For her, the importance of noteworthy figures and events – say, Confederation or the Battle of Vimy Ridge – cannot be taken for granted; the student must personally accept them as significant, and that can happen only if the student is willing to even consider them in the first place. Could such logic ever apply in other established fields – whether science or technology or mathematics?”

We cannot underestimate the importance of forming a sense of national history in our classrooms from a young age. A national narrative creates a form of national unity, wherein all Canadians are educated on the accomplishments of great Canadians and the contributions their country has made to the world. It strengthens a country’s “core identity,” something Prime Minister Justin Trudeau infamously claimed Canada does not have. Apathy towards one’s country creates a weaker, less cohesive society. What is the point of caring about the preservation of a nation you know nothing about? What persuades us to work to make Canada better if we know nothing about the sacrifices it took to get it to where it is today? 

Learning history is a kind of gift to democracy, no matter how long your family has been in Canada pictured (left) are civilians surrounding a Canadian tank during the liberation of the Netherlands and (right) Dutch immigrants at Pier 21 in Halifax after the war. (Sources of photos: (left) George Metcalf Archival Collection, Canadian War Museum 19920085-1384; (right) Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 Collection DI2013.1531.1)

My own family’s experience is but one example of so many. My grandmother – my beloved “Oma” – is a Dutch immigrant who lived through Nazi occupation. She has vivid memories of the time Canada’s army was front and centre in liberating the Netherlands, and the hope she felt when she saw the tanks rolling over the hills from her kitchen window with the Red Ensigns waving high. She says she never saw so many adults acting like such children in their excitement. Her family immigrated to Canada two years later and so my family’s history with Canada technically did not begin until 1946. And yet, as someone who owes a great debt to those soldiers who saved my Oma and her family, I want to know everything there is to know about this country I call home. I believe I have nothing to give Canada if I don’t have any understanding of how it came to be in the first place. 

The cost of destruction and ignorance is immense. As I see it, understanding our history accurately and comprehensively is one of the greatest gifts we can give to our democracy, whether our families have been here for two months, two decades or two centuries. As historian and author Trilby Kent put it, history “equips us with the knowledge we need to comprehend our world clearly, and the ability to analyze it accurately.” With that knowledge, we raise a generation of more informed voters and citizens. Without that knowledge, we only understand the perspective of our own realities, not considering those who came before, and what lessons they learned for us.

A David and Goliath battle: If today’s Goliaths are those attempting to silence and destroy voices from the past, the brave Davids are the passionate teachers and curious students who seek to know and understand all of our history.

Our Goliaths are those who wish to silence and destroy voices from the past because there is a slight possibility that their views don’t square with their 21st century opinions, coupled with decades of curriculum that don’t even mention Confederation. These issues both need to be addressed urgently.

Our Davids however, give me hope. Our Davids are passionate teachers. Curious students checking out books on their classroom subjects on their own time. Rich educational materials given to us by those who understand the importance of history, such as the Heritage Minutes (a couple of my personal favourites being the Liberation of the Netherlands and Lucy Maud Montgomery). They are the other Mr. Rajala’s of Canada: capable, knowledgeable and innovative teachers who are planting the seeds of curiosity, using story-telling and instilling a respect for facts, chronology and sequencing, constantly prompting their students to distinguish fact from fiction. They’re the ones who make us ask the question: is our teaching of history adequate to properly tell the remarkable story that is Canada? I know what my answer is.

Emma Haynes is a recent graduate of Trinity Western University who works as executive assistant to a member of Parliament.  

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