In search of our history

As Canada approaches its 150th birthday in 2017, there will be lots of celebrations, commemorations, and looks back at this country’s history. Shirley Gervais’ concern is that today’s high schoolers will not be able to appreciate the celebration of Canadiana because of a dearth of history teaching in Alberta.

As Canada approaches its 150th birthday in 2017, there will be lots of celebrations, commemorations, and looks back at this country’s history.

Shirley Gervais’ concern is that today’s high schoolers will not be able to appreciate the celebration of Canadiana because of a dearth of history teaching in Alberta.

Gervais, from Benalto, has immersed herself in Canadian military history after learning about her father-in-law’s military experience, which included the Second World War Allied invasions of Sicily and mainland Italy.

She went to Sicily last year for an anniversary trip relating to Operation Husky, a monumental but little-known campaign that helped turned the tide during the war. There, she witnessed how appreciative locals were for the liberating Canadian forces 70 years prior.

“I’m pretty ashamed and pretty embarrassed. It’s unreal that we’re so envied by the world and we don’t even teach our history to our young people. I am ashamed,” said Gervais.

To right the wrong she sees, Gervais wants Alberta Education to institute a mandatory Canadian history course in the provincial high school curriculum.

At present, high schoolers must take one social studies course per year. Those classes incorporate Canadian and global perspectives and events relating to things like ideology, globalization and nationalism.

In 2009, the Dominion Institute slapped Alberta and three other provinces with an ‘F’ when it comes to teaching Canadian history in high schools, criticizing the province for making national history an “afterthought” in broad social studies classes.

Only four provinces — Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Nova Scotia — have mandatory Canadian history courses within their high school curricula. Two years before Nova Scotia made the course mandatory in 2002, only one per cent of Grade 12 students enrolled in the optional offering.

A recent survey by the Association for Canadian Studies found that most Albertans, and most Canadians, felt it more important to learn world history than Canadian history. Among age groups, it found that only those 65 and older thought it more important to learn Canadian than global history.

Canada is the focus of the Alberta social studies curriculum in Grades 2, 5, 7 and 9. In high school, Canadian history is presented during the study of broader ideas and events.

During the last curriculum update from 2007, a larger international focus was adopted for high school courses.

As one social teacher puts it, the breadth of the high school curriculum can make it difficult to delve deeply into any one historical period or event, but is designed to provide students with an understanding of the ever-globalizing world through the lens of political science, culture, geography and economy, as well as history. As a result, military history alone can be de-emphasized, though around Remembrance Day it often is the focus.

While Gervais and fellow campaigner Karen Storwick do want a greater focus on national military history in schools, Storwick suggests that thorough examinations of Canada and its military conflicts can be done within a complete history class. Storwick, who serves as director of the Mural of Honour project at Calgary’s Military Museums, regularly goes into classes to speak to students.

“The kids unfailingly come up to me and ask me why they’re not learning this in school. Their eyes are wide open and hungry for more information with tons of questions,” she said.

Storwick said political correctness led to historical conflicts between nations and ethnicities being removed from the curriculum during the last rewrite, and she said a Canadian concern with being seen as a combat nation has led to the de-emphasizing of a proud tradition of military service. Whereas Dutch students spend their school years tending to the graves of fallen Canadian soldiers in the country, Canadian students, said Storwick, can be complacent and fail to recognize the sacrifices made by our soldiers. And if today’s students are not taught history, she fears the next generation will have even less appreciation if taught by teachers who do not possess historical knowledge.

“Most Alberta parents, I think, have confidence in the school system and believe that their kids are learning everything that they should be learning, including history, and a lot of people are quite shocked when they realize their kids aren’t learning history. So I think it needs an awareness campaign,” said Storwick.

The campaign the two women will seek to emulate was spurred by one Calmar woman’s concerns about new methods in the provincial math curriculum that led to an online petition that has garnered over 14,000 signatures. A demonstration at the legislature followed, and the outcry forced Education Minister Jeff Johnson to assure parents that the basics would still be taught to young math students going forward.

The province is undertaking a curriculum redesign process for all subjects, with rollout as early as 2016. Gervais wrote to and received support from the local Catholic school board, but has found the bureaucracy around the provincial endeavour a challenge to navigate.

An Alberta Education spokesperson said members of the public can contact schools or school boards directly to provide feedback or suggestions for new curricula. The development on new programs of study is to begin next month, and after draft curricula are developed, public input will be sought.

Red Deer Public School District is involved in the process, which assistant superintendent Ron Eberts said will incorporate input from many sectors. While Eberts said it could be difficult to fit a mandatory Canadian history course into an already full curriculum, if there is a loud call for such an offering, he believes it certainly could be instituted.

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