Saturday, July 1, 2006

Canadians, less and less, remember their history

On this the 139th birthday of the Canadian federation, I wonder as do others how many know about Canada's history. Quite a few know not much, it seems.

A few years back, the Dominion Institute had a survey testing Canadians and Americans on their knowledge of civics. I doubt the numbers have changed much. In sum:
  • 90% of Americans knew their first President was George Washington; but only 54% of Canadians knew John A. MacDonald was their first Prime Minister.
  • 87% of Americans knew America's founding principles are "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"; whereas only 41% of Canadians knew Canada's founding doctrine was "peace, order and good government."
  • 61% of Americans knew their year of independence was 1776; only 45% of Canadians knew Canada won home rule in 1867.
  • In an ironic twist, far more Canadians than Americans knew the first US citizen in space was Alan Shepard (33% to 14%).

It hasn't gotten much better since then. The most recent survey of Canadian knowledge of their history that I can find -- for 2005 -- showed only 8% of Canadians remember the National Energy Policy and only 5% know their country's first political crisis was the Pacific Scandal (which involved kickbacks in the building of the first transcontinental railway). On the other hand, 74% knew Eaton's (which was later melded into Sears) had both the first catalogue and the first money-back guarantee in North America.

Back in high school, I had to take a compulsory course in Canadian history. It was fine for what it was, but we actually spent more time talking about the Holocaust; than we did about Beaumont-Hamel, Vimy Ridge, Dieppe, Normandy and Appeldorn. Combined. Not that the massacre of over 11 million people wasn't important, but I would have wanted to learn more about both our triumphs as well as our failures. The internment of Japanese and Italian Canadians during World War II was reduced to a "detail."

Further, we talked about the British North America Act but very little about what happened between the Charlottetown Conference of 1864 and the ultimate creation of Canada as we know it today. My later research -- in university -- showed it was a lot more tense than was was learned in high school.

Several years back, the government of Ontario decided that Confederation and even the period from 1900 to 1914 didn't matter anymore. So kids here don't learn about Clifford Sifton's policies that led to the mass settlement of the Prairies with immigrants; the founding of Ontario Hydro; or even the infamous Regulation 17 that banned the teaching of French in schools in this province, even as a second language (on the grounds that all Franco-Ontarians were "mentally defective.")

At the rate things are going, they'll next push the start date to 1945 -- so not only will the Holocaust be a non-fact, but so too will the Great Depression and the sad story of how the Ontario government colluded in the sexual and mental abuse of the Dionne Quintuplets.
George W Bush's entire raison d'être is he can count on Americans' ignorance of the world. He has also twisted some basic American facts as well, but a growing number of people in his country are finally realizing they're way smarter and know the truth. They remember the accomplishments as well as the drawbacks that came from the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the civil rights movement and the Great Society. And they're finding their voice again.

Canada's politicians succeed because they know that, on the contrary, we're ignorant of our history; that somehow medicare just happened and that certain presumed rights are in fact privileges. If we have any hope of getting our country back before it's destroyed, we need to learn about our triumphs and failures -- fast. We can start by making the learning Canadian history from the Vikings to today mandatory -- in every province and territory -- and encouraging kids to tell their parents the story of our country.

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