Dismal result

Today, we would consider some elements of the early education system in this province “primitive” or simply “quaint,”a relic of a distant past that is now chuckled at. In the early part of the 20th century, educators taught such items as: “How to serve one’s town or village” (Grade 6), or “How each individual may serve his country and prosper” (Grade 7).

In fact, instruction in citizenship was given a high standing in the education system. The belief from that earlier time was summed up by Education Minister R.S. Thornton, following the passage of legislation in 1916 that for the first time made public education mandatory to age 14: “We are building the Canada of tomorrow and our common school is one of the most important factors in the work.”

In a 1918 editorial in the Western School Journal, M.W. Wood, wrote that: “Every country and every people has consciously or unconsciously its national aim, which shows itself in the history of the people, dimly or brightly, sometimes clearly seen and closely followed, and the mental attitude of the people towards this National Ideal is expressed and recorded in history.”

Teachers back then did have some “quaint” ideas of what exactly was meant by teaching history, such as promoting “King and Country” and instilling pride in the “British Empire,” but this was meant in the context of the times. Alongside things British, Canada’s history also had a place of prominence. It was expected that a student — even those who only attended elementary school — were to be well-versed in Canadian history as a basis for being good citizens.

Certainly the system had its flaws, but it sure beats the heck out of what we have today. At least in that bygone era, Canadian studies — including government and institutions — was taught throughout a student’s school years. Today, Canadian history is mostly ignored in Manitoba with the exception of a social studies course in elementary school and one credit given in high school. At one time, the Grade 11 high school Canadian history course was under threat. It was only because of a public backlash that the former Conservative government withdrew the proposal to end teaching Canadian history in high school.

The lack of Canadian studies in schools is reflected in the most recent Dominion Institute National Citizenship Exam, conducted by Ipsos Reid, which found that six in 10 Canadians failed a 21-question mock citizenship exam similar to the one that immigrants take prior to becoming citizens. On the other hand, 70 per cent of first-generation immigrants passed the simple quiz. The recent result is even more dismal when taking into account that 45 per cent of Canadians failed the test in 1997 — Canadians’ knowledge of their country is getting worse over time instead of better.

“The findings of this 10-year benchmark study suggest that we are becoming a nation of amnesiacs who lack basic knowledge about the country’s past, its democratic institutions and practices, and the physical geography of Canada (another area stressed in the early decades of the education system, but now apparently no longer important),” said Rudyard Griffiths, co-founder of the Dominion Institute, which promotes an understanding of this nation’s past and promote civic literacy.

“It has long been understood that one of the key indicators of the health of a highly-diverse democratic society such as  Canada is the level of civic knowledge its citizens share. Our study suggests not only do many Canadians lack the basic knowledge required to participate in society as informed citizens but that our society is growing rapidly, including younger age groups.”

It is apparent that having some form of Canadian history within the school system allowed Manitobans to buck the national trend and actually have a higher percentage pass the test — 58 per cent.

Answering the questions properly only involved a very basic understanding of Canada and its institutions. For example, only 16 per cent could name the four provinces that originally entered the Canadian Confederation on July 1, 1867— the defining moment for the creation of a new country in the New World. For the record, they were Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. 

In another example, only 38 per cent were able to name the four federal parties represented in the House of Commons, compared to 78 per cent in 1997. For the record, the parties now represented in the House are Liberal, NDP, Conservative and Bloc Quebecois.

Is it any wonder that voting in Canada has been in freefall in recent years?

Jack Jedwak of the Association for Canadian Studies said “that knowledge of Canada leads to greater citizen engagement and a greater sense of empowerment. For example, much of the attention directed at improving knowledge of Canadian history over the past decade is related to the view that in the absence of such knowledge the capacity to make informed decisions about Canadian issues is undercut. Hence it is presumed that such knowledge will contribute to a greater ability to meaningfully participate in public life and benefit from a greater degree of ... trust or confidence which are seen as keys to a healthy democracy,”

His study showed that a knowledge of Canada correlates positively to greater rates of voter turnout.

The Dominion Institute has recommended that each province and territory help to organize a national citizenship exam for all high school students and that successful completion of this exam be a requirement of high school graduation. 

Another recommendation is for the federal government to explore the creation of a new passport program that would give new applicants and Canadians renewing passports, the opportunity to voluntarily take the citizenship exam; successful completion of the exam would result in a reduced passport fee.

At the time when citizenship was taught in schools, Adelia Sanford, writing in the Western School Journal, said teachers should remember that they are “training the citizens of tomorrow,” and that history and geography lessons give these future citizens “a knowledge of the past,” while at the same time inspiring “an interest in the present.” 

She said such lessons enable Canadians to understand what tomorrow will bring.

More importantly, such lessons inspire citizens to “help their country to face the future intelligently and prepared.”