Alberta’s Little History War

From Chris Champion, the Conservative staffer I worked with developing the Canadian citizenship guide, Discover Canada, and who is playing a similar role with respect to the Alberta education curriculum, providing context for the controversies over the proposed approach:

JASON KENNEY, SWORN in as Alberta Premier on Apr. 30, should not only cancel the revised social studies curriculum drafted under Rachel Notley since 2016. He should scrap the extant 2005 curriculum too, and do what he can to shift the teaching philosophy behind it.

Kenney re-entered the History Wars with finely-calibrated counterattacks in 2016-17, renewed this year on Feb. 16, against “social engineering and pedagogical fads.” He should now bring forward the reserve guns.

Mandatory testing to the end of Grade 12 is laudable and should continue. The deeper problem lies in the current thematic approach to history and civics, in which a series of disjointed topics displaces sequential narrative. As against narrative history, too difficult for most academics, the teaching establishment prefers “‘issues-centred,’ interdisciplinary Social Studies courses,” beloved of two of Kenney’s antagonists, University of Alberta educationists Lindsay Gibson and Carla Peck. But even they admit that educators have been “over-privileging thematic approaches and disregarding chronology.”(1)

Thematic history is lazy, dispensing with the need to juggle sequence and analysis and put people and events in context. True understanding absolutely requires narrative, a discipline that forces teacher and student to interpret and explain, as they should be able to do both orally and in writing (but most of course cannot). A bundle of isolated topics — last week women’s suffrage, tomorrow divestment from Israel, next week Oka — half-fills the student’s head with random happenings, creating the illusion of insight, whose only glue is the social-justice temperament that left-wingers equate with good citizenship.

Just look at the “themes” of 2005. Grade 4 socials is about “analyzing various actions taken to address historical injustices.” Say again? This implies that current fads of the left are the engine of history, turning 9-year-olds into little SJW’s. In Grade 5 it’s “examining Canadian identity,” an inappropriate, post-secondary sociological approach. Grade 7 covers “origins, histories and movement of people” (dry social history). Grade 9 offers “a few isolated topics in Canadian history” such as the Indian Act and local Treaties. It gets worse, with “multidisciplinary investigations” of “globalization” in Grade 10, “nationalism” in Grade 11, and “ideology” in Grade 12. The problem is not that this stuff is, as Notley asserted, “out of date”; it is too up to date: it’s a curriculum designed by a committee, it would seem by some childless educratic clerisy.

It’s deadly stuff! When Kenney accused Notley’s experts of omitting military history, her minister countered that wars would continue to be studied in the context of “ideology.” But that’s the problem. To reduce war to a byproduct of ideology is reminiscent of Lenin’s deterministic “highest and last stage of capitalism.” 

Nor should “Nationalism” be taught as a tedious “-ism” with sermons about equality, discrimination, and the menace of ideology. Instead, tell the story of Cardinal Richelieu putting the state ahead of the church; of Napoleon, his wars, and the nations’ backlash. Tell the romance of Bolívar and the South American Republics; Garibaldi vs. the Pope in the Risorgimento; or, more ominously, Bismarck and German unification. Teach that ideas have consequences; that peace comes at a high price; that all of this lay in the background when Canada was cobbled together and mounted its own make-or-break colonial adventures in the West. “Ideology” be damned!

‘A.J.P. Taylor believed that if you sacrificed narrative, you opened the floodgates to laziness, for it was no longer necessary to take enormous pains organising a moving structure into which everything fitted’

— Paul Johnson

The ongoing fad is that we need “more” First Nations “perspectives.” Far from being new, this must date from at least the 1970s if my own repetitive West Vancouver experience with oolichan, cedar masks, and trickster stories is any guide. The plug must be pulled on the deplorable agitprop of the “KAIROS Blanket,” which brainwashes children into thinking  of themselves as “settlers” stealing the land — the kind of “truth and reconciliation” that is not evidence-based but relies on “knowledge keepers” to “foster truth.” The scientific tradition is that truth is discovered and authenticated. By contrast, the “truth” of Indigenous Elders sometimes contradicts the evidence.

Thematic history seems ideally suited to transmitting left-wing dogma. Is this fair to students? Better to equip them with the great stories and give them a key life-skill by the end of high school: the capacity to think critically about men and ideas and their place in history, as opposed to imposing sterile doctrines of race and “gender.” As my old Latin teacher was fond of saying, “He who marries the Spirit of the Age will be a widower in the next.”

If more proof were needed that educational approaches are in crisis, it is that today’s publicly-schooled millennials have negative impressions of the role of capitalism in history. They seem never to have been exposed to the idea that markets are probably the only system that has ever lifted the mass of people out of poverty. Instead the kids accord high notional support to — of all things — socialism.

Talk about turning the clock back! Oddly that is what CBC Edmonton reporter Alexandra Zabjek now accuses Kenney of doing in Alberta Views magazine. She sees a conspiracy to “grow the privatization movement … to encourage more Albertans to educate outside the traditional public system.”(2) But surely it’s an overly-powerful public monopoly that should be made a thing of the past.

The CBC fired a dud rocket when they called for a “focus on competencies” and “inquiry and discovery — not just the dissemination of information and recall of facts.”(3) Yet contrary to the CBC, one has the impression that facts and recall have been passé for decades.

They shouldn’t be. Elementary-age minds are sponges for memorizing poetry, stories, songs — and yes, dates. Canadian children have a right to know our stories, and by heart. Elementary graduates should also take home with them their own compendious time-line of European and North American history with hand-coloured maps and drawings, from something like 2500 BC to 2000 AD. This could be a project begun in Grade 4 and attentively improved and revised up to the end of Grade 7. Canadians especially need Classical, European, and US history because North American societies are offshoots of Europe’s, particularly those of Britain and France. Of course there is value in other cultures but we can never truly appreciate or evaluate foreign cultures without first knowing our own.

When it comes to content, part of the solution may be to film Ted Byfield’s Alberta in the Twentieth Century, an illustrated series of twelve oversize books, published between 1991 and 2006, that is already approved for use in schools. It’s a comprehensive analytic narrative of the Province in the context of historians’ debates and Canadian and world history. As Byfield told me when he recruited me in 1994 to work on Vol. 5, his dream was that the set would one day become a Ken Burns-style documentary like “The Civil War” on PBS. I’m sure the books could be spun into a few compelling Netflix dramas too, if competent directors can be found.

Once filmed, the documentary could be required for mandatory testing, perhaps in Grade 11. Watch Episode one at home, discuss with your peers, take a supervised test at school. Test the teachers while you’re at it. If you fail, you get to watch the video again and retake until you pass with 85%. Watch Episode 2, repeat. This alone would increase students’ knowledge of the past and provide counterbalance to the prevailing, politicizing social justice tendency that has already gone too far.

— C.P. Champion


C.P. Champion: ‘New’ citizenship guide shows Liberals are the copy cats

Chris Champion, the Jason Kenney staffer with whom I and my team worked with closely  in 2009, provides useful background and understanding of the Conservative’s approach.

My account of the process and issues can be found on pp 20-25 of my book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism – relevant excerpt here.

While Discover Canada was a vast improvement on the somewhat insipid previous guide (A Look at Canada), with DC’s references to the role of the Crown and historic wrongs and injustices, one can have differing opinions as to how “readable, balanced, inclusive” it is. The absence of mentioning the equality rights of the Charter is but one example.

It is telling that, following the introduction of the new guide and related citizenship test, pass rates fell from the (overly) high rate of 96 percent to 83 percent (2010-13), in part  given that the guide and test questions were written at a more advanced level than the formal requirement of Canada Language Benchmark 4.

Lastly, it should come as no surprise to Chris that the change of government would result in a change to the guide. In discussing some of the language and content of the guide, I raised the concern that the guide would not survive a change of government and my consequent advice for more neutral language (and in some cases content).

That being said, I share some of his fears regarding a guide with a weakened sense of how Canada came to be, but prefer to defer more detailed commentary and analysis until  I have read the new guide:

It is no surprise that the Trudeau Liberals intend to replace the Conservatives’ citizenship test study guide this year for Canada’s 150th, or more likely sometime next year, or whenever it’s ready. The only surprise is that it’s taking them so long. After all, there’s very little about it that needs to change. Indeed, the whole idea of changing it, and the ideas they’re including in it, are borrowed from more original thinkers.

Back in 2008, the Conservatives had the idea to create a readable, balanced, inclusive, highly-varied, all-colour guide that showcases Canada’s diversity and values, our history’s triumphs and disasters, including the First Nations experience.

Jason Kenney, the then-minister of citizenship, had the insight that immigrants would welcome the opportunity to learn from a good civics primer that provided a non-boring overview of Canada’s history, warts and all.

I had a front seat in this process, since I was Kenney’s citizenship policy director at the time. Without (I hope) boasting, everything in the book, every word and every spread, photo placement, and caption, crossed my desk (as well as others’, of course, including those of my brilliant colleagues, Alykhan Velshi and Howard Anglin). We consulted Canadians of all political persuasions on it, like former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, NDP historian Desmond Morton, and former Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor Lynda Haverstock, who was also a former Saskatchewan Liberal Party leader.

André Pratte, the former editor of the liberal Montreal paper La Presse (who was subsequently appointed to the Senate by Justin Trudeau), endorsed the Tories’ guide, Discover Canada, as “a fine piece of work.” One immigrant from Sri Lanka told us, “I was always proud to be Canadian. But this was the first time anyone told me why I should be.”

The previous guide, A Look at Canada, authorized in the 1980s and unaltered until 2009, contained only a brief paragraph on constitutional monarchy and one on Remembrance Day. Immigrants were left wondering what sort of country they were joining, apart from knowing it was a “nice” place. Citizenship was a right that entailed few clear responsibilities, beyond recycling plastics and paper. Thanks to Kenney’s initiative, applicants for citizenship began learning about the pageant of Canada’s past, including the historic achievements of women, blacks and the disabled.

For the first time, immigrants began learning about the steps that were taken to abolish slavery in Canada in 1793, the wartime imprisonment of Ukrainians, the relocation of Canadian Japanese, the Chinese head tax, residential schools abuse, and the rejection of Jewish refugees in the 1930s.

The notion that Discover Canada contained “too much” about the War of 1812 is a red herring. One recent article said Conservatives added “increased detail” about that war. In reality, we upped the coverage from zero to one paragraph.

The Liberals are being disingenuous when they say respect for treaties with First Nations will be “mandatory” for citizens. In fact, treaties are between First Nations and the Crown, not citizens. It is the Crown (meaning the Government of Canada) that must respect treaties. Yet, in the Liberals’ topsy turvy illogic, it will be “mandatory” for citizens to respect treaties, but “respecting the human rights of others” will be merely “voluntary.”

By the sound of it, the new text will read like Quotations from Justin Trudeau: “Canada has learned how to be strong not in spite of our differences, but because of them.” This platitude was already amply and more informatively manifested in the Conservative version.

More important than merely reproducing bon mots is the need to explain why. Why is Canada a successful society, why do we enjoy “ordered liberty,” and why do we have “unity in diversity,” as Kenney often said in his speeches. Immigrants seeking the freedom and order of Western societies like to be told why. The United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and the Netherlands all improved their citizenship guides around the same time as we did.

The Tories’ guide was an effort to show that our tradition of rights and freedoms was not born of the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Pluralism in Canada is deeply rooted in history and laws — a “tradition of accommodation” founded on English tradition, including the Magna Carta of 1215, the Royal Proclamation respecting native rights in 1763, and the Quebec Act of 1774. The guide recognizes that the early centuries of relations between natives and newcomers were largely positive thanks to “strong economic, religious, and military bonds in the first 200 years of coexistence which laid the foundations of Canada.”

What matters is not the mere fact of diversity but why it has worked in Canada. Will the Grits be able to come up with a better explanation? Will they attempt any explanation at all?

Source: C.P. Champion: ‘New’ citizenship guide shows Liberals are the copy cats

ICYMI – the Duck: The maple leaf flag embodies Canada’s national amnesia | C.P. Champion

Historian and former CPC staffer Champion on the current and former flags (under former Minister Jason Kenney, the Red Ensign was displayed at some citizenship ceremonies if memory serves me correct but the Conservative government declined to provide it more official status as Champion recommends):

There is much to celebrate on Canada’s 150th, and there will be no shortage of Canadian flags fluttering about. But the maple leaf flag is also the perfect embodiment of our national amnesia.

Unlike Canada’s original flag—the Canadian Red Ensign—the maple leaf tells no story of our country. The Red Ensign, by comparison, vividly embodies Canada’s rich history, inclusive of First Nations, the fleur-de-lis, and the diversity represented by Scottish, English and Irish symbols.

This history dates back much further than 1867. Canada’s traditions were shaped by the first colonists, the Conquest of 1759, the policies of Lord Dorchester, the resilience of His Majesty’s new French Catholic subjects, generations of American and British immigrants, and First Nations who prospered in the pre-Industrial era and understood themselves as proud, though cautious, allies of the King.

Jon Fogg, Saint James Marine operator, left, and his daughter-in-law Wendy Fogg, unfurl the original Canadian Red Ensign flag that flew over the S.S. Keewatin. Darren Calabrese/National Post

When these old colonies were reimagined and set on a new footing in the 1860s, four distinct Provincial shields were combined on the Red Ensign, which was flown by Sir John A. Macdonald. Lord Stanley, the governor-general, and Henri Bourassa, a French Canadian nationalist, both recognized the Red Ensign as a distinctive Canadian flag. After 1921, the flag bore the shield from Canada’s new coat of arms.

When Canadian soldiers took Juno Beach on June 6, 1944 (D-Day) they carried this Canadian flag ashore. Through Normandy and the Netherlands, between the Maas and the Rhine, under the Klever Tor at Xanten, in liberated Nijmegen, Arnhem, and Groningen: as the Reich flag was lowered across Western Europe, the Canadian flag was unfurled among the banners of victory. In 1945, there could be no doubt that “Canada had a flag,” as John Diefenbaker later said, “a flag ennobled by heroes’ blood.”

The Red Ensign was replaced by the red maple leaf in 1964, recommended in the sixth report of a parliamentary committee, voted for by 178 MPs in a discordant House of Commons, and implemented by a minority government led by a jittery Lester Pearson. Why the jitters? Because the old flag was so popular. As Senator Marcel Prud’homme, an M.P. in 1964, told me in 2007: “You see, we had to kill the Red Ensign” — so that the fledgling maple would have no rival.

Many celebrated the new dawn. The late Lt. Gen. Charles Belzile, who witnessed the maple’s raising for the first time while serving as a young soldier in Cyprus in 1965, told me: “It sure looked pretty good against those green hills!”

But the new flag also had its critics. Historian Marcel Trudel warned in 1964 that Canada’s new flag had “no historic significance” and was “a lamentable failure.” “I am convinced, for my part,” he said, “that any flag, if it is to be truly significant, must contain or represent the symbols of the nation or nations which contributed to establishing the country.”

First Nations leaders were strongly attached to the old flag. James Gladstone, a Blood (Kainai) appointed to the Senate in 1958 said: “Personally I do not want to see any other flag flying but the Red Ensign.” Many chiefs had received a Union Jack as a ceremonial seal on treaties: “Under these symbols of justice, we feel safe. Take them away from us and it will be another sign that we are not safe.”

While the national flag is obviously here to stay, Ottawa should accord the old flag official status as “The Canadian Red Ensign.” It should fly permanently alongside the Canadian flag at the National War Memorial — after all, it’s the flag our soldiers actually fought under. It should fly at war memorials everywhere, and at obvious locations such as the Canadian War Museum grounds. And finally, a Red Ensign should wave permanently above the East Block of Parliament as a symbol of our heritage of freedom.

Source: Beyond the Duck: The maple leaf flag embodies Canada’s national amnesia | National Post

Tory History and Its Critics | The Dorchester Review

A good overview on the Canadian “history wars” from C.P. Champion who was my counterpart in Minister Kenney’s office during my time working on citizenship and multiculturalism issues. Champion provides insight into the conservative historical narrative along with a strong  critique of how Liberal governments shaped their historical narrative to their political interests.

Margaret MacMillan’s The Uses and Abuses of History discusses how government’s routinely choose the historical narrative that suits their political and other interests, reinforcing Champion’s point. The themes that governments choose to emphasize in their historical narrative or de-emphasize reflect  political and policy choices. The Conservative government chose to emphasize certain themes of the traditional narrative (e.g., history, military, Crown) and downplay others related to more recent history (e.g., social safety net, human rights, culture), valid political and policy choices. Future governments may choose differently, although hopefully not reverting the insufferable lightness of A Look at Canada, the previous citizenship guide.

One last point. I play a cameo role in the article, given my role in Discover Canada. As readers of Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism will know, this work did challenge my preconceptions and Champion’s article would have been helpful to me and my colleagues had we had it before starting Discover Canada. Champion is correct in his sequence of events, the first draft was prepared by officials. I can see why he interpreted my account (p.24 of my book) differently but that was not the way it was intended.

Tory History & Its Critics | The Dorchester Review.