A debate rages over how history ought to be treated in Canada. A key question seems to be “How should we respond when we discover that our leaders of the past have been guilty of misconduct and mistreatment of key elements of our population over the years – read indigenous people, people of colour, women. and LGBTQ? One misconception is that we cannot do anything about the past. It is true that we cannot change the past, but we can do something about it.
We cannot keep turning a blind eye to it. We know that this usually ends with those same evils continuing in our own time. As has been shown rather clearly in recent weeks, the abuse of those groups listed above continues apace, systemically. Sure, we no longer have residential schools, but indigenous people are deprived of safe drinking water and meaningful jobs that do not require leaving their communities, homes, and culture. It is true that we do not have actual slavery, but many people in Canada are condemned to poorly paid jobs which, in fact, leave them unable to extract themselves from their prisons of poverty.
What can we do? I will not try to answer this from every angle, but I will discuss that of which I have some knowledge – education.
I grew up in Essex County in southwestern Ontario. I studied the courses and texts that were approved by the then, Department of Education. In 1972, I became chair of the World Religions Curriculum Committee for Waterloo County, and it was then that I first learned of the Holocaust. I wondered how, after two history degrees, this important fact of history had eluded my awareness. Unfortunately, university courses tend to be extremely specific, and it was easy, simply by chance or interest, not to be exposed to that period of European history. But I was curious about why having studied Modern History in grade twelve that I was still ignorant of this part of our past. I dug up my grade twelve text and looked up Holocaust. I found one paragraph which gave no impression that the attempted extinction of an entire group of people was of the least significance.
I ended up teaching various history courses, from elementary to grade thirteen over my thirty years in the classroom. I do not recall ever seeing anything in any text about the residential schools or systemic racism in Canada, and of course I would not because texts are one of the ways we sustain the myth of our historical purity. Of course, we ought not to burden young minds with our sins, a.k.a., our truths. For the last ten years as a teacher of adults, I abandoned texts and created my own curricula. Yes, I purchased texts because my bosses and my students needed them, but I only gave texts out to the students who felt a need for that security.
So, what ought we to be doing? First, we must no longer hide the truth from our children. That means that texts and other in-class materials must deal with what really happened. If this does not happen, future generations will grow up thinking that Canada is some perfect place where horrible deeds, often associated with other nations, are never committed. School administrators and teachers must no longer avoid topics that make them uncomfortable. A key task here is to make sure that topics taught are presented in an age-appropriate format and style.
Parents also have a role to play. Help your children to be able to acknowledge the evils of our past. Do not make them feel guilty but help them to know that change is necessary and possible and that they have a role to play in brightening our collective future.
I grew up in a farm community that originated with the United Empire Loyalist migration in the late 1700s. It was almost one hundred percent white. I did not meet a person of colour until I attended Waterloo Lutheran University in 1963. My grandfather, whom I loved dearly, once told me that Native people did not use the land properly, He knew nothing of sustainability; he sent me out to spray DDT on the weeds along the lane. For him, duty was about killing weeds and raising useful food. My family spoke disparagingly of recent immigrants from Europe whose cultures they did not understand, let alone respect. I grew up ignorant of the truth around me.
Do not let that happen to our next generations, please!
I am the author of The Summer of the Ennead and I want to use this blog to engage readers in a dialogue about what this book means to me and what I think it has to say to others.