Making History Teaching Fashionable in Canada. (A Matter of Trust)
Morton, Desmond, Canadian Speeches
Ignorance abounds in Canada concerning our history and heritage. The lack of emphasis on history and understanding the roots of our country is common in the educational system. Understanding our history is imperative to Canada's future as a country, to understanding today's social, political and civic issues that stem from the past. Organizations such as Historica, and the History Channel are striving to dispel this ignorance of our history to better benefit our future. A lecture at McGill University, Montreal, Apr11 18, 2002.
"The past is a foreign country," wrote an otherwise obscure English novelist, L.P. Hartley, "they do things differently there." An American scholar, David Lowenthal, borrowed the phrase for a book that distinguishes between history and heritage. History, he suggests, is the past; heritage is what we make of it. You see the difference at Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, at Old Fort Henry or in the Secondary Fourth History Exam in Quebec. We start with a concern for the past; we finish preoccupied by a concern for politically-correct interpretation, for attracting paying visitors, for ensuring that approved values and concepts have been memorized by the young.
The past does not change but its interpretation can alter radically. In Quebec, for example, Laval's Jocelyn Letourneay caused deep offence to the nationalists by arguing that their cause has worked. French is stronger. There is, in contemporary Canada, both "sovereignty and association."
More radically, Gerard Bouchard's proposed "Americanicite" invites us to trace our roots from America's first people, as is common in Mexico and Peru, rather than from European ancestors. This does not change history but certainly alters the perspective and the "us." Both Bouchard and Letourneau use history as a feedstock for altering heritage. Both use the past to interpret the present, for reasons that are not hard to understand. Neither is utterly new. Marius Barbeau, T.F. McIlwraith and other Canadian ethnologists in the 1930s antedated Bouchard's arguments and George Brown, George Stanley and other English-speaking historians denounced the doom-laden teaching of Lionel Groulx's disciples in the so-called Montreal School. History is perennially "new" and also old.
"We haven't a clue"
Back in 1997, the Donner Foundation financed the young Dominion Institute to hire pollsters from Angus Reid to ask more or less the same kind of questions of 1,024 Canadians, 18 to 24. The results, announced on Canada Day, 1997, were more or less what the reporter usually discovered. Most Canadians had no idea when Confederation happened and a third did not even know the right century. Most (63%) knew that MacDonald was our first premier though, in Quebec, the share dropped to 28%. En revanche 79% of the Quebeckers knew that Wilfrid Laurier was our first francophone prime minister, but only 33% of the Newbrunswickers. Two out of every five imagined the Canada had fought France, Britain, and Russia during the two world wars. No one could define "responsible government" because no one dared ask the question.
Later the year, on. the 50th anniversary of Citizenship Day, 1947, the Institute announced that 45% of 1,350 Canadians had flunked a standardized twelve-question citizenship test. Respondents could not name all three of the oceans that border Canada nor the event that brought the original provinces together. Most thought that Canada's head of state is the prime minister (come to think of it, so did Brian Mulroney). And the tests keep coming. Last Remembrance Day revealed that some Canadians believed we attacked Pearl Harbour. Some kind of wish fulfillment, perhaps. In ensuing years, Canadians have grown used to a twice-yearly reminder that "we haven't a clue" about ourselves.
Canadian ignorance of our history is now commonplace, and not just among professors. …