- To the Past: History Education, Public Memory, and Citizenship in Canada
This thought-provoking little book quickly took me back more than fifty years. In 1954 I was a grade-eleven student at Victoria High School in British Columbia. A recent immigrant, I was taking my first course ever in Canadian history. The subject turned out to be so boring that I resolved henceforth to avoid it. I managed to keep this resolve as an undergraduate, even after switching to majors in history and English. Not until I entered the graduate program of the University of Toronto and was forced to take Canadian history did I get reintroduced to the subject.
Taught by Ramsay Cook, who three years later became my dissertation supervisor, the course made me realize that there was much more to be [End Page 132] said for Canadian history than I had thought. He showed – and I now quote from Ken Osborne's essay 'Why We Need to Teach and Study History' – that Canadian history 'is interesting, even fun, as entertaining as any film or novel and in many ways more gripping, as it deals with what has actually happened and how we find out about it.' Having spent my professional life teaching Canadian history and writing about it, I hardly need to be persuaded of its value. Even after reading the essays in this volume, however, I'm still not sure what place the subject should have in the elementary and secondary curriculum.
The key problem, as all of the contributors say in one way or another, is what to include and what to exclude. Is it possible to construct a narrative that does full justice to all the groups, including those who were already here when the first Europeans arrived, and to the many regions that make up Canada today, that makes students on each side of the English-French linguistic divide and of the cultural divide between Quebec and the other provinces understand and respect the experiences of the other, while preventing that narrative from reading like a catalogue and being mind-numbingly didactic? The answer is not easy. As Peter Seixas writes in a fascinating essay about historical consciousness, 'There are too many origins, too many heroes, too many stories.'
Indeed, there may not be an answer at all. Timothy J. Stanley points out that for many years the grand narratives of English-Canadian history have been racist, downplaying or even ignoring groups and individuals who do not fit easily into the chronicling of Canada's development from colony to nation, something that seems desirable from the point of view of fostering citizenship. From my own experience I know that he is right. Rewriting the narrative without turning it into an encyclopedia of aggrieved minorities, however, will be a challenge. In writing about the historical memory of young Quebécois Jocelyn Létourneau convincingly identifies the existence of a storyline that seems to exist independently of what gets taught in school, and that questions the validity of other Canadian stories and of a pan-Canadian history. His prescriptions for change are less convincing.
Desmond Morton, in a characteristically cheerful, even breezy essay identifies what we might seek from history. A first objective is 'appreciation of the continuum of past, present, and future.' A second is 'awareness of cultural, ethnic, and family heritage.' A third is 'understanding how and why our society has evolved.' Finally, there is 'knowledge of our world.' However, his suggestions on how to implement these go no further than involving history educators. 'History in Canada seems to me to be very much alive,' he writes. He is right, I believe, but reading the essays by Chad Gaffield and Ken Osborne makes me wonder how much effect Morton's insight is having in classrooms at the primary and secondary levels. [End Page 133]
Like the authors, I believe the teaching of history and particularly of Canadian history is important. Even after reading To the Past, though, I am unsure whether and how their eminently...