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Canada’s $10 bill depicts the country's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald
Canada’s $10 bill depicts the country's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald

Marc Chalifoux and J.D.M. Stewart

Canada is failing history Add to ...

As high school students across the country sit to write their final examinations this month, Canadians may be shocked to discover that few of them will be tested on what they know about Canada's history.

For more than a decade, the Dominion Institute has commissioned surveys chronicling the national malaise about Canada's history: Four in 10 Canadians cannot name our first prime minister or identify the year of Confederation. Young Canadians often know even less about our country's past than their parents or grandparents.

The Dominion Institute decided to find out what exactly was required of high-school students in Canada when it comes to learning about the country's past. What events, people and themes are they required to learn in our nation's classrooms? What skills are they expected to acquire?

The results, found in the just-released Canadian History Report Card (the full report is available at report-card.dominion.ca), are troubling. The institute's analysis of provincial and territorial curriculums revealed that:

  • Four provinces failed and deserve the F they received;
  • No province received an A;
  • Only four provinces - Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia - require Canadian history as a mandatory course in high school. The others do not;
  • Most provinces simply offer courses in "social studies," catch-all courses that generally ignore Canadian history (with the notable exception of British Columbia).

The report's findings showed that, as a country, we are letting our students down when it comes to educating them about Canada's past. Too many provinces do not take the teaching of Canadian history seriously. Provincial ministries of education must be responsible for what they ask - or do not ask - teachers to teach their students.

Why should we care about the teaching of history? Class time is limited and there are many important subjects to teach, but Canadian history cannot be lost. For citizens to function in a modern democracy such as Canada's, they must develop an appreciation and understanding of the country's past.

We believe that all provinces and territories in Canada should change their graduation requirements by insisting on not one but two courses in Canadian history before leaving high school. Currently, only Quebec requires two history courses to graduate.

A single course in Canadian history is not enough to develop a deep understanding of the past. In Ontario, for example, high-school students do not learn about the 50 years following Confederation, skipping everything it seems from John A. Macdonald to the settlement of the West. Courses that try to cover 400 years of history in a single course - such as Manitoba's - will inevitably skim over crucial content.

The curriculum must also find the right balance between national history on the one hand and provincial/regional history on the other. The usual suspect in this regard, Quebec, has recently reviewed its curriculum and should be applauded for adopting what appears as a far more pan-Canadian perspective.

The Dominion Institute recommends that a core body of knowledge and terms of national significance be developed and included in all history curriculums across the country. It is unacceptable to think that students can graduate from high school without learning about the First or Second World War, Canada-U.S. relations or about the history of aboriginal Canadians.

Learning about history is not only about the specific knowledge that students acquire, but also the important skills - critical thinking and research, for example - that they develop in the classroom. The history curriculum must allow students to learn to use primary sources (diaries, artifacts, treaties, photographs, interviews) as they bring students face to face with history; these can ignite a lifelong passion for the subject. If your child is being taught history only through a textbook, you should be worried.

The Dominion Institute does not pretend to have all the answers, but it is clear that something must be done. The goal of the Canadian History Report Card is to begin a wide-ranging debate on the teaching of Canadian history to the next generation of citizens.

If we intend to nurture the past and give a vital "thrust of intention into the future," in the words of political philosopher George Grant, then we are going to have to do a better job of educating our young people about our history.

The facts are in. We are not teaching enough Canadian history in our schools. As a result, we are failing our students and putting our country's future in jeopardy. We must demand better.

Marc Chalifoux is executive director of the Dominion Institute and J.D.M. Stewart is a teacher of Canadian history at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto.

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