Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Teaching Canadian history

Last night, I helped my 14-year-old daughter with her Gr. 8 history homework. She struggles quite a lot with history. So would I, if I had to deal with assigned readings that were wrong.
A handout, written by an education materials company, claimed Sir John A. Macdonald was the leader of the Conservatives of Canada East (Quebec). He, according to the bumpf, entered into a coalition in 1864 with the leader of the Ontario Reform Party, George Brown.
Ummmm... that's not quite how it worked. The good people of Kingston would be rather amazed to find Macdonald was a Quebec politician.
Macdonald was in a political alliance with George Etienne Cartier, leader of the Parti Bleu bloc from Quebec. Brown's support helped Macdonald and Cartier pull together enough Canadian MPs to start the Confederation ball rolling.
The writers of the handout may have believed Macdonald, as leader of the Conservatives, represented both Canada East and Canada West tories, while Brown's Reformers were a Canada West party (leaving their alliance with Dorion and the Parti Rouge out of the equation). But that would be a mis-reading of the situation, since Macdonald had no ability to "whip" Cartier and the Bleus into supporting anything. In fact, MPs of the time were quite independent.
I'm amazed the authors of the material made Macdonald a Quebec politician and left out Cartier altogether. I suspect the stuff was written in the States.
Today, the Globe runs yet another op-ed piece on the lack of teaching of Canadian history in schools.
I am not sure we need more Canadian history, especially if it's at the expense of world history. Canadian history simply doesn't make sense if you don't know American and European history.
It would also help if teachers actually knew Canadian history and could spot whoppers like the stuff I found.
I wrote a note to the teacher offering to re-write the handout so it was accurate. It will be interesting to see if I hear anything back.


Katherine Laidlaw said...

Hi Mr. Bourrie,
I'm a reporter at the National Post. I read your blog post today and am interested in doing a story about it. If you get this comment sometime this afternoon, if you could get in touch with me that would be great. I can be reached at or 416 383 2335.

Thanks very much!

Anonymous said...

My dad pulled a similar act after I received a math assignment that had all kinds of mistakes in it.

You'll be happy to know that I received extra special attention after that.

Anonymous said...

I had a friend who received a BA in history from Queen's. When he wanted to go into teacher's college he had to take an undergraduate Canadian history course first.

Anonymous said...

Better Michael Grant Ignatieff drunk than Stephen Joseph Harper sober?

Zhu said...

I'd be curious to know what you think of the booklet we immigrants receive to study for the citizenship test.

I love politics and I have been in Canada for quite a while, so even though I can't say I know Canadian history perfectly, I'm quite familiar with it.

Yet, when studying for my citizenship last week, I felt Citizenship and Immigration's booklet was really out of context.

Ottawa Watch said...

I'd love to see a copy.
Can you make a copy of it and send it to me? If you PM me at, I'll send you my mailing address.
Good luck with your test.

Zhu said...

You can actually find the booklet online, on the CIC website. Here is the direct link:

I'd be really curious to know what you think of it... I assume not many Canadians get the chance to read it!

I mean, there is nothing wrong with it, but I find some historical sections quite incomplete. Maybe it's just me...

I took the test last week, waiting for the citizenship ceremony now ;-)

jaycurrie said...

I'm not at all surprised Mark.

Largely for the reason you mention namely that it is essentially impossible to teach "Canadian" history without there being a solid grounding in European and American history. And the problem with that is the lack of interest in items like the English Civil War or the settlement of America.

I suspect some of the reluctance to dig too deeply into Western history may stem from the fact that the Europeans took their Christian religion very seriously indeed. To teach European history without teaching about the Reformation and the rise of the Protestant World is, essentially, impossible. So is teaching American Pre-Independence history without looking seriously at the religious impulse which informed so much of it.

But that, in public school, is a bit of a third rail. Even more so in urban areas where the student population may have no connection at all to European history or the religions of Europe.

So what we seem to have instead is a "Canadian History" which, with the exception of a good dose of guilt about Canada's Aboriginals takes 1867 as the starting point with anything which went on before that being largely confined to a bit of guilt about Riel and some fur trading exploits.

As you know, history is a profoundly political study. So is sanitizing history. Along the way assorted facts may be distorted, forgotten or prudentially ignored. Real history is now largely confined to upper level university courses where knowledge rather than the creation of politically correct citizens is the goal.

And people ask why we homeschool.