Last fall, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario demanded that John A. Macdonald’s name be stricken from all public schools in the province. More recently, Halifax’s city council voted to remove the Edward Cornwallis statue that had stood downtown since 1931. Both decisions were vigorously debated at the time and public opinion remains sharply divided.
These are two separate events about two different individuals. Nevertheless, the underlying theme is the same. Both Macdonald and Cornwallis stand accused of crimes against Indigenous people. Macdonald played a role in the establishment of residential schools while Cornwallis offered a bounty to anyone who captured or killed a Mi’kmaq person. However, Macdonald and Cornwallis also have many defenders since both individuals made significant contributions to their respective communities.
In order to think critically about Macdonald and Cornwallis, we need to know a lot of facts. In Macdonald’s case, we need to know about the time period in which he lived, his role as prime minister, and the impact of residential schools on Indigenous people. People who know nothing about Confederation, Macdonald, or residential schools are unlikely to have anything useful to contribute to this discussion.
Cornwallis was the military officer who founded Halifax in 1749. Like many other British officers of his time, Cornwallis saw nothing wrong with killing Indigenous warriors if they supported the French and appeared to be a threat to British colonists. As with Macdonald, it is necessary to know a lot about Cornwallis and the circumstances in which he lived in order to offer an informed opinion about his legacy.
There is only one place where all Canadians, regardless of where they live, have a real opportunity to acquire the historical knowledge they need to think critically about these and other issues. The vast majority of students attend school and this is where Canadian history must be taught and learned.
Unfortunately, things are not that simple. Many educators downplay the need for students to memorize specific facts, particularly since information is widely available on the internet. Instead, they want students to focus on so-called historical thinking skills through thematic study. This is largely the approach of Dr. Peter Seixas’s Historical Thinking Project, which has significantly influenced K-12 Canadian history education.
However, while broad-based historical themes such as change, continuity, cause, and consequence are important tools for analyzing controversial issues, they are not sufficient. Themes and overarching frameworks are useless unless they are situated within a rich knowledge base. Thus, there is still a place for teacher-led instruction and textbooks that place events in proper chronological order.
Twenty years ago, in his book Who Killed Canadian History?, renowned Canadian historian Jack Granatstein sounded the alarm about the lack of proper history education in schools. Granatstein argued that students were being shortchanged by social studies courses that presented a fragmented version of Canadian history. He wanted a much stronger emphasis on content knowledge that included the memorization of specific dates.
“The teaching of this content must be based on chronology, the basic tool of history…. Too much teaching in schools today takes a module of history and puts it before students to be digested, without much awareness of how it fits within a larger context,” explained Granatstein.
Among the four Western provinces, only Manitoba requires all high school students to take a Canadian history course that puts key events in a proper chronological framework. While Saskatchewan has a mandatory Canadian Studies course for Grade 12 students, the course is primarily thematic in nature.
Even worse, Alberta and British Columbia do not mandate Canadian history at all. Instead, they offer social studies courses covering themes such as ideology, genocide, nationalism, and globalization. While these courses might be very interesting, they do not substitute for a rigorous and chronologically based Canadian history course.
The governments of Alberta and British Columbia are both in the midst of rewriting their curriculum guides. Unfortunately, all indications are that content knowledge will receive even less emphasis than it does now. As a result, students will likely continue to learn an inadequate amount of Canadian history.
If we want Canadians to think critically about people like John A. Macdonald and Edward Cornwallis, we need to ensure they know the history of their country. Critical thinking best takes place in the presence of content knowledge.