Understanding of Canadian history shifts

This week is going to be extremely education-heavy. I am not sure why, but there have been a cluster of stories that caught my interest this week and the thread that ties most of them together is education.

There is a fantastic German word – zeitgeist – which refers to the general cultural understanding of a subject. For example, the current North American zeitgeist is moving towards an understanding of ecology and conservation that did not exist 50 years ago. It is not too long ago that recycling or having a compost pile or using energy-efficient appliances was the exclusive domain of hippies and academics. Now, the zeitgest toward environmentalism has shifted to normalize those behaviours, pushing the fringe out to veganism and brewing sun tea – who knows how mainstream those things may become in the next 10 years.

Shifting the zeitgeist is not done by changing individual minds. Those on the accommodationist side of the Gnu Atheist camp seem to think that the goal should be dialogue with people in order to change their minds; those of us who adhere more closely to the “firebrand” label recognize that a cultural shift is needed. There are many ways to shift the zeitgeist, including public campaigns and demonstrations, influential books and articles, and legislation. However, one of the most effective ways to start a shift of an entire culture (at least in time) is to educate the young:

Ask Canadians whether it was the French, British or aboriginal nations who played the leading role in founding the country, and the answer will depend largely on the respondents’ own ethnic roots — and age — a new national survey suggests. A poll of 1,500 Canadians commissioned by the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies shows French- and English-speaking citizens — centuries after the rise of New France and the formation of British North America — still have starkly different views about who is chiefly responsible for creating the country.

But [ACS executive director Jack Jedwab] adds that “sharp” differences of opinion “rise to the surface” when Canadians are asked to identify the most important founding group in Canadian history.

Mr. Jedwab talks about the “collective psyche” of Canadians, which is certainly a good analogue to zeitgeist. The way we understand history differs depending on our background. Not too long ago I was accused of favouring affirmative action policies that discriminate against the “founders of Canada”. My retort was to ask which founders my interlocutor was talking about – the French? The First Nations? The Ukranian and Polish immigrants who built the prairies? The Chinese who built the railroad and much of Western Canada? The African immigrants who were instrumental in building the maritime provinces?

The point is that our understanding of history affects the way we see the world. A simplistic understanding of history says that British Christians built this country. A more informed understanding shows that there are several groups who played instrumental roles in the country we live in today – it would be a very different nation without them (if it could exist at all). Failure to recognize this fact makes us more likely to ignore or dismiss the important contributions of those people not in the majority.

One way to combat this propensity to funnel history along a majority narrative is to change the way we teach history. This seems to be working:

And Jedwab highlights another intriguing result that shows the youngest Canadians surveyed — those 18 to 24 — giving significantly more credit than other age groups do to aboriginal people in the founding of the country. Twenty-five per cent of respondents from the survey’s youngest cohort said aboriginal groups played the most important role in Canada’s formation, while 28 per cent chose the British and 19 per cent said it was the French. That result, said Jedwab, “raises the question of whether the latest cohort of students is being offered a version of history that directs more attention at the ‘founding role’ of Canada’s First Nations.”

This, incidentally, is the reason I support public apologies for past injustices – not because I think guilt is a useful emotion (I don’t – things done out of guilt are seldom noble), but because it raises public awareness of history. The more aware we are of our history, the less likely we are to repeat the mistakes of the past. Hopefully as we begin to educate ourselves (and our children) with a broader understanding of historical events, we will shift the zeitgeist away from outmoded ideas and learn to use the study of history the way it is intended – to provide a pathway to a brighter future.

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  1. Ethan Clow says

    What’s interesting about this to me is that Native peoples in Canada *weren’t* instrumental in founding Canada. They were excluded every step of the way.

    They, like the other groups you mentioned, contributed in a “blood, sweat and tears” way, adding to the infrastructure of the nation, but when it came to making policy decisions or deciding the fate or direction of the nation, they were excluded.

    I’m a little concerned over the history that 25% of those 18 to 24 are being taught. If they think Natives played a founding role…that’s a pretty bizarre way to think of conquest of the First Nations.

  2. says

    That’s a good point. My question would be what was the respondent’s definition of the word ‘founding’? If they interpret the question as “who was responsible for the beginning of the political entity of the Nation of Canada” then yes you’re absolutely right. I rather suspect they used a more colloquial definition.

    The distinction, however, is nontrivial – if these students thought that Aboriginals were enfranchised members of the political establishment, then that is a misunderstanding of history with real consequences.

  3. says

    I agree with Ethan… yeah, aboriginal Canadian people are important to include in our history books and to understand as part of the modern world, but I’m not sure it could be historically accurate to say they played a large role in the founding of the country we recognize as “Canada.”

  4. says

    Again, I think it comes down to what you mean by “founding”. I wouldn’t define the political system as the only way in which “founding” could be described. And it’s not that Aboriginal people were not part of the political founding, it’s that they were intentionally excluded.

  5. says

    And it’s not that Aboriginal people were not part of the political founding, it’s that they were intentionally excluded.

    I’m definitely not denying this. I guess I just sort of see “intentionally excluded” as a sub-category of “not part of”. I mean, if they are intentionally excluded, they are still not a part of the political founding–what’s changing here isn’t whether they are part of the founding or not, just the motives behind why. I certainly don’t believe anything as misguided as “Oh yeah, the western European immigrants really loved those aboriginals and wanted to include them! The First Peoples just didn’t want in on that Canada thing!” X)

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