A debate that surely won’t make history

Paul Wells on a heritage committee study and the politicization of Canadian history

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Sometimes Ottawa politics offers up a Rorschach moment. Something random happens and the various reactions tell a story. Last week the Commons heritage committee announced it would launch “a thorough and comprehensive review of significant aspects in Canadian history” that would extend lo unto the nation’s school classrooms. Your members of Parliament passed a resolution saying they would compare “standards and courses of study offered in primary and post-secondary institutions in each of the provinces and territories.”

This gave many observers frissons—of outrage or bold purpose, depending on their inclination. Education is, after all, a provincial responsibility under the Constitution. In Quebec, the government of Pauline Marois paused from its regular work of running the province’s economy into the ground so that assorted ministers could find microphones and declare they would never tolerate such an intrusion. In Toronto, National Post columnist Andrew Coyne congratulated the parliamentarians for abandoning at last the notion that we live in a federation where different levels of government play different roles.

Both the outrage and the kudos were premature. News of the committee’s decision broke on May 2. At their very next meeting, on May 6, the committee’s members voted unanimously to backtrack. There will be no federal study into provincial history curricula.

That’s not to say the heritage committee will ignore history, however. The motion, as amended, still gives MPs a mandate to examine just about every other aspect of Canada’s history, Canadians’ thinking about history, Canadian institutions that have something to do with history or may once have existed at some point in Canada’s history, or whose names may contain the letters h, r or y.

MPs will look at “how Hansard can be used as a means of preserving important witness testimony” as well as “the tools and methods available to Canadians to increase their knowledge of Canadian history.” They will “visit relevant national museums” and invite the National Film Board to “discuss their role in preserving important accounts of Canadian history.” There’s more. I’m actually giving you the exciting bits here.

One imagines the MPs staring in amazement on Tool and Method Day as some infinitely patient witness shows them a library card or a computer mouse. “The book opens from the front. Like this!” Oohs and ahs.

Guy from the National Film Board: “We’re a board that makes films about the nation.”

Scribble scribble scribble.

MP: “I’m sorry, could you repeat that? I didn’t catch the simultaneous translation.”

Pierre Nantel, an NDP heritage critic, has argued that the point of the planned investigation is to fill up the committee’s schedule with make-work so it can’t do anything substantive that might embarrass the government. Government MPs make up a majority on the committee, so Nantel’s theory is plausible. Committee members remain free to prove him wrong by coming up with something fresh and compelling. That would be a nice surprise.

The reason history provokes such tension is that history cannot be divorced from a set of ideas about how society should be organized. Of course the Parti Québécois doesn’t want the federal government interfering in Quebec schools, because the PQ wants to teach that the last three centuries in Canada have been a sack of woe. Of course the NDP doesn’t want Conservatives teaching history because the Conservatives want to tell tales of exploits in war. There would be less time to talk about Tommy Douglas. And of course a few kibitzers are eternally worried that our schools are teaching nothing at all. One favourite shorthand among the professionally outraged is that schools teach nothing but “victimization.”

My own experience with the fourth-grader and eighth-grader nearest to me suggests the curriculum in Ontario is actually pretty big on the classics. Names of provinces, their capitals, major resources and industry. Champlain, the fur trade, the Plains of Abraham, the United Empire Loyalists and Sir John A. There’s victimization here and there too, but in less insecure parts of the world, people don’t try to pretend that history is a constant march of victimless triumph. Even in Conservative Ottawa, abuse in residential schools, the Ukrainian famine and the Armenian genocide have all been commemorated by this government. I know the PQ would be amazed to learn that the expulsion of the Acadians is taught to English Canadian kids, and the hanging of Louis Riel too. What are they taught to think about such things? Actually, I’m delighted to report they’re given options and invited to debate them. As if history were open to interpretation. As if Canadians could think for themselves. Perhaps that’s the thought that upsets partisans so.

Can schools make our history come alive? Only up to a point. The dirty secret of Canadian history is that it’s actually not that exciting. Oh, it’s fine. We had perfectly intrepid explorers, perfectly interesting agriculture. History in most other places is a tale of slaughter on a scale that beggars imagination. Try telling a Russian that it’s Canadian teachers’ fault if Canadian history seems dull. How many died in the Battle of Kursk? A quarter of a million? We have to get our kids excited about the Winnipeg General Strike. It will never be easy. Such are the blessings we could count, if we would pause from our made-up debates to count some blessings.

For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at

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