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Fort Battleford, Sask: fired up by the Old West. (CP)
Fort Battleford, Sask: fired up by the Old West. (CP)

J.D.M. Stewart

We need to peel back the curtain on our history Add to ...

"No one knows my country, neither the stranger nor its own sons."

- Bruce Hutchison, The Unknown Country (1942)

During the past couple of decades, much has been written about the woeful state of Canadians' knowledge of their own country. Polls, studies, books and anecdotal evidence have all given thoughtful citizens reasons to sigh. More needs to be done now to remedy the problem. Enough of the talk.

One place to look for solutions is, naturally, the school system. When only four provinces require high-school students to study Canadian history, it's self-evident that energy and resources must be directed there.

But given the slow-moving nature of provincial governments and the lack of political will to change this, we're not likely to see Canadian youth learning their history in school any time soon. It will remain a national tragedy until real political leadership steps into the breach.

But there are many ways to tackle a problem, and one solution rests with Canadians: We need to show this country to ourselves.

"Canada is an immense and an exciting country," Pierre Trudeau once said, "but it is not an easy country to know." So why not make it a national project to show our kids the country? This could be a great collective enterprise as we approach the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

There's no shortage of spectacular, engaging and wondrous places to visit. These may be national landscape treasures such as the beaches of PEI, the north shore of Lake Superior or the Rocky Mountains. Or they may be some of the fascinating historic sites such as Port Royal in Nova Scotia, Fort Battleford in Saskatchewan or Laurier House in Ottawa.

And let's not forget the local war memorials found in every community in Canada. Public memory, where the country has already tried to save and reflect some of the nation's history, is one of the great, undiscovered aspects of Canada's past. Then there are our mighty rivers. What could be more historical and edifying than canoeing parts of the Fraser or the St. Lawrence, following in the footsteps of some of Canada's first explorers?

The value of this discovery has not gone unnoticed. The Historica-Dominion Institute is encouraging young people and families to see the country. Its My Parks Pass program gives Grade 8 students from coast to coast a free pass to any national park or national historic site in the country.

Too often we think we need to take our kids to New York or Boston or even Europe for a holiday. But how will we give our young people a sense of the land, a sense of its culture and history, a sense of its immensity, if we don't take the responsibility ourselves?

Travelling the country, whether it's a day trip to a local community or a longer national drive, is an essential part of building citizenship in our youth and infusing them with a sense of what Canada's all about. One hundred years ago, after prime minister Wilfrid Laurier returned from his summer journey to Canada's western provinces, he said: "I left home a Canadian to the core, I return 10 times more a Canadian."

Exploration and discovery have always been a central part of the Canadian identity. But in today's modern world, with iPods, cellphones, and other gadgets that distract us from the natural and historical Canada, we'll need to work harder to connect with the country's essence.

But it won't happen automatically. It has to be a conscious decision made by Canadians. Thankfully, we may well have a captive audience in young people. Serendipitously, I was reminded of this by the final stanza of Miriam Waddington's 1992 poem, Jacques Cartier in Toronto, which happens to be immortalized on the $100 bill:

Do we ever remember that somewhere above the sky in some child's dream perhaps Jacques Cartier is still sailing, always on his way always about to discover a new Canada?

Our youth should be having those dreams turned into reality as they peel back the curtain on Canada's history, geography and culture. Let's make it so.

J.D.M. Stewart teaches Canadian history at Toronto's Bishop Strachan School.

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