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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

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This year, our daughter, our youngest child, entered fourth grade in New York State. The event provoked a certain amount of dread in my husband, Raj, and me. This is not because we expected her to misbehave or because the school is substandard, but because this is the year she will learn about the American Revolution.

To illustrate why two Canadian parents might have reason to grimace at this portion of an American-born child’s education, I have only to look back on our family trip to Boston this summer. Having just completed the fourth-grade curriculum the previous school year, our younger son was full of pride in the Patriots (as they are referred to in the U.S. history texts) and their brave fight against the tyrannical British. He jumped at the chance to tour the Boston Tea Party museum, listening attentively as the guide expounded on the madness of King George and the oppressive laws of the British, marvelling at the courage of the “Sons of Liberty” and delightedly throwing crates of fake tea into Boston harbour (take that darned Brits!).

Raj and I listened silently to the American version of events, all the while exchanging dubious glances and wondering how we would ever break it to our little Patriot that his two Canadian parents were, in fact, the cultural heirs of those party poopers deluded enough to remain loyal to the British Crown. "Do you know about the United Empire Loyalists?” I whispered to the tour guide once our son was out of hearing. “Who?” he replied, with a look of perplexity.

Raj and I sighed. It seemed important for our son to be aware of the Canadian perspective, but it was hard to know when to break it to him that – far from admiring the revolutionaries – his father and I had been taught to regard Loyalists as sole voices of sanity in a colony overtaken by mob rule. What, we wondered, would our loyal little American think when he found out that the Canadian schools that Mom and Dad attended in the 1970s and 80s represented fidelity to the British crown as a noble dedication to tradition and treated American republicanism as a dangerous fit of arrogance threatening to upend law, justice and due process? How to break it to him that the elderly lady he has seen on Canadian money is not only the direct descendant of that mad King George but is also still (still!) Canada’s head of state. What, we mused, would our son say when he learned that Canadian children are brought up to admire Canada’s gradual, bureaucratic progress toward independence that was finalized, not in 1776 but 1982 (for goodness’ sake!)

As our son stood proudly for photos outside Paul Revere’s house on Boston’s North Square, and reviewed the facts of Revere’s famous midnight ride, Raj and I wondered how we would ever tell him that our own, Canadian version of Paul Revere was a woman named Laura Secord, that the oppressive military force whose arrival she heroically announced was none other than the Americans themselves and that the forces whose victory she ensured were, in fact, British! (Although we hoped the association of Secord’s name with a chocolate company making delicious candies might somewhat reconcile our son to her stature among Canadian children.)

The trepidation Raj and I felt about the effects of this information on our younger son was not unfounded. We both remembered the awful shock our older son had experienced several years previously. In this case, the child had returned from a school lesson on the Revolutionary War full of amazement at the horribleness of George III. At the time, we were living in North Carolina, a region with far less sympathy for the British even than New York State. “King George was really crazy and a tyrant,” our older son informed us at the family dinner that night. In his mind, this man (and his British ilk) were the undisputed villains of the piece.

While our older son was surprised when I shared the Canadian perspective on the American Revolution, his expression turned to alarm when his dad chimed in to say that he had, in fact, attended King George Junior Public School in Toronto! Our son was horrified. Here were his parents, whom he had been accustomed to see as good and righteous, now revealed as the worst kinds of traitors! All along, he had been living in a nest of vipers and never knew it! We tried to backtrack by telling him that the school was not actually named after that King George but a different one, George V, but it did little to mitigate his disgust.

As awkward and painful as it is, Raj and I keep emphasizing our alternative perspective on the American Revolution because we believe that the difference between our education and that of our kids provides, perhaps, the best history lesson of all. History, our children have learned, is complicated. How you tell it depends on your location and the networks of power and loyalty of which you are a part. One story can have many different versions, each emphasizing a different facet of events in order to bolster a different theory or a different collection of interests.

Their embarrassing Canadian parents have taught them that there are no clear villains and no undisputed freedom fighters. Was George III a tyrant or a divinely ordained monarch? Depends on how you look at him. The same can be said of Secord, whose heroic legend also conceals a more complex reality. Although Secord sided with the British in the War of 1812, she was the Massachusetts-born daughter of a man who fought on the side of the Patriots in the American Revolution. And while Secord may have provided crucial information to the British, it is also possible that they were warned of the coming Americans by their Mohawk allies.

Raj and I are, ourselves, part of a more complex story: Although we received one kind of education in our Canadian schoolrooms, our own immigrant backgrounds offered us different perspectives. My father, raised in the Catholic south of Ireland, had no kind words for the Queen. Raj’s family roots lie in India, where British colonialism exacted a far more violent and oppressive toll than it ever did on the white American colonists. As we watch our youngest child encounter the history of the American Revolutionary War from the perspective of that conflict’s winners, we wonder what her reaction will be. As for our younger son, he was philosophical about Mom and Dad’s weird Canadian past, “It’s okay,” he said. “It’s how you were brought up. You can’t help it.”

Nicole Nolan Sidhu lives near Rochester, N.Y.