I woke up Monday morning to catch the end of a radio interview about our knowledge of Canadian history. It woke me up in a hurry.
In a recent survey, most respondents could not identify prominent figures from Canadian history. A photo of Tommy Douglas, who came out number one in a recent television survey of important Canadians, was recognized by only 19 per cent of those polled in the survey. Yukoners fared better; 31 per cent recognized the photo of the father of the Canadian Medicare system.
I think that the point of this exercise was to demonstrate that Canadians are ill-informed about our wonderful country.
I had some contact with this issue when, some years ago, I was given the task of sponsoring an essay contest for kids in the local high school. The topic: “What my Heritage Means to Me.” It was a big deal, with prizes and awards, and so forth.
I had a hand in reviewing the submissions, from which I learned that students didn’t have a particularly clear idea of what our, meaning gold rush, history was all about. Stereotypes of drunken miners with gold pokes, and fallen women doing the cancan were the common themes connected with the history of the gold rush.
Although some of the essays were well written, I was both appalled and disappointed by how little gold rush history the students actually knew. I’m sure that most students’ knowledge of other aspects of Canadian history was equally ill-formed.
While riding in a taxi in Edmonton a few years ago, I queried the driver about Klondike Days and the Klondike gold rush. He assured me that the long line of men carrying heavy packs up the Golden Stairs, over the Chilkoot Pass, happened just outside of Edmonton.
Fortunately, Edmonton doesn’t celebrate Klondike Days any more.
I suppose that I’m sensitive to these kinds of misunderstandings of our history, and I’m certain that my readers can cite their own personal encounters with this kind of misunderstanding. Still, it is rather irritating.
If we don’t know our history, goes the old adage, we are bound to repeat the mistakes of the past, so wouldn’t it behoove us to pay attention to our history?
This is where the schools come in. It is argued that a good foundation in history would benefit us all.
The Dominion Foundation, which describes itself as a “national charitable organization that seeks to create more active and engaged citizens through a greater knowledge and appreciation of the Canadian story,” produced a report card on Canadian History as taught in Canadian schools. It is just one forum where the teaching of history is discussed.
In their report card, the foundation gives a failing grade to four provinces for their lack of treatment of Canadian history at the high school level: Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, as well as the Northwest Territories.
The Yukon has fared better than most. In fact, the Dominion Institute gave the Yukon the second highest rating for its inclusion of history in the curriculum. Yukon students are required to take social studies in both Grades 9 and 10.
The Yukon curriculum, they state, covers Canadian history from 1500 to 1914, and they note that “aboriginal” history is well covered.
As well, the curriculum addresses skills and requires students to write and do research. Use of primary source documents, like diaries, newspapers, and photographs, the ability to systematically gather information from a variety of sources, and critical thinking are all important the getting the most out of history.
A little bit of first-hand research and critical thinking can come in handy when it comes to history.
Nations often create their own form of national creation myths, which are embedded in the history and are viewed as a tool for creating national identity and unity.
The Americans do it with the story of Plymouth Rock, and the first Thanksgiving. They do it when they commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin birthplace, which was built long after he died.
We Canadians have our identity framed in the national dream (the Canadian Pacific Railroad).
Nazi Germany attempted to rewrite German history to support the notion of Aryan origins.
A few years ago, Jed Bush, the brother of President George W., attempted to have an official history of the state enacted in law. It made me wonder, if one questioned the factual nature of such a history; would it therefore be illegal or worse yet, treasonous, to question the facts as stated in statute?
I shudder when I imagine an official history, enshrined in law, never changing.
Clearly we have to be knowledgeable enough of our history to protect it from enslavement by such manipulation.
The need for critical reasoning is extremely important, for as James Loewen, well-known American historian and sociologist, pointed out in his provocative book, Lies my Teacher Told Me, American high school history text books have been laundered, distorted and sanitized to the point where students can hardly be expected to learn, understand, or enjoy history. Could that happen here in Canada?
Was history strictly a WASP narrative? According to Loewen, you would form that conclusion by reading the majority of American high school history textbooks. It’s as though textbook publishers are afraid to tackle any aspect of history that is the least bit controversial.
Is it any better in Canada? Let’s hope so. Canada is slowly coming to recognize the diversity of ethnic and cultural groups that have contributed to the development of our nation.
It’s really important that we not only read the history, but that we use some analytical skills to help us understand what our history can tell us about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.
But first, we have to educate ourselves.
Care to answer these questions about our own Yukon history?
Who are George Carmack and Skookum Jim, and why are they important to the Yukon?
Who was George Black, and what was his contribution to Yukon history?
Can you name three events in Yukon history that have played a significant role in the formation and development of the territory as we know it today?
Can you name two prominent authors whose careers have specific connections to the Yukon?
Can you describe what happened to the Princess Sophia, and what that meant for the Yukon territory?
Who was Dawson City named after?
What is the significance of the ice patches in the mountains of the southern Yukon?
Who was Kwad y Dan Ts’inch, and why is he important to First Nations?
Anybody care to tackle these historical questions?
If you want to check out what the Dominion Foundation report card says about the Yukon, or test your own knowledge of Canadian history, Check out this website: dominion.ca
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.