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Don’t treat history as a civics lesson

The Globe and Mail by Laura Madoroko 23 May 2013

The parliamentary heritage committee’s recent decision to conduct a review of history as it’s presented in Canadian museums and archives has sparked debate across the country about the nature of this history. Proponents of the review believe it will ensure that “Canadians understand that the rights and freedoms we enjoy are a precious inheritance.” But treating Canadian history as a civics lesson is a mistake.

According to the National Household Survey, one in five people in Canada are foreign-born. To some, this may make the need for value-laden history seem all the more pressing. Yet, newcomers already receive some of the most intense – and superficial – lessons in Canadian history, especially when they start down the road to Canadian citizenship.

A few years ago, the federal government modified the Canadian citizenship guide to include more material about Canada’s military and royal heritage and less about the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The selected historical tidbits were intended to communicate Canadian values imbued with a particular flavour, much like the current review by the heritage committee and its emphasis on military history.

In response, a group of academic historians published the People’s Citizenship Guide: A Response to Conservative Canada. This guide, co-edited by Esyllt Jones and Adele Perry, focused as much on the country’s failures as its successes and paid particular attention to social movements in advancing the very rights and freedoms that the Conservative government seems to associate with military achievements.

As the contents of the two citizenship guides suggest, people prioritize Canadian history differently and invest in them accordingly. History as a work in progress has the potential to be inclusive. So it’s baffling that the heritage committee would use a closed-vote process to initiate its proceedings, then invite only a few people to reflect on the committee’s pre-established criteria. We need a political culture that promotes historical debates, not historical narratives.

There are many examples of how this can be done. In 2007, for instance, a group of community leaders and academics created the Anniversaries of Change initiative in Vancouver. With an eye to both the past and the future, the initiative noted the race riots of 1907 and key anniversary moments since then, including the right to vote for Chinese Canadians in 1947, the universal immigration regulations of 1967 and the 1997 handover of Hong Kong (which sparked considerable migration to Canada).

Anniversaries of Change included an academic conference, public commemorations, walking tours and the development of relevant school curriculums in collaboration with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation. It was a commemorative event that started with a nasty chapter of racism in Canadian history, made room for discussion about the nature of contested progress since then, and made this history relevant to Canadians and newly arrived residents of Vancouver alike.

This is what history should aspire to. Before we undertake reviews to consider whether there’s enough of a particular narrative in a given museum exhibit or archival collection, let’s think how we can encourage discussion about history that’s inclusive and democratic. Let’s treat history as a process, not just a tidy container of facts. This is the best way for Canadians, regardless of their place of birth, to understand the nature of rights and freedoms in Canada.

Laura Madokoro is a Trudeau Scholar and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University.