Canadian history lacking in Alberta schools

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Appeared in the Western Standard, April 15, 2023
Canadian history lacking in Alberta schools

Protesters are demanding that Sir John A. Macdonald School in northwest Calgary be renamed. They argue that Macdonald’s anti-Indigenous policies, particularly his support for residential schools, disqualify him from any place of honour.

There’s a good chance the protesters will get their way. The Calgary Board of Education recently renamed two schools whose former namesakes, Hector-Louis Langevin and Bishop Grandin, also played a key role in the development of residential schools. Clearly, the precedent has been set.

When asked about this issue, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith deferred to local trustees and made it clear that school boards have jurisdiction on school names. However, she did express concern about “erasing portions of our history” adding that “it’s important we understand the rights and wrongs that all of our prime ministers did. It’s part of our history.”

Premier Smith is right to be concerned. Removing the names of John A. Macdonald and other prominent Canadian leaders from the public square means that fewer people will hear about them and reflect on the role they played in the formation of our country. Reflecting on our history is important and school names are often a good conversation starter.

But the ongoing debate over school names risks overshadowing the much more important question of what’s happening within the schools themselves. Sadly, there’s good reason to doubt that students, particularly those in Alberta, are gaining a sufficient grounding in Canadian history.

Historica Canada is a charitable organization that conducts research on Canadian history curriculum and provides education programs across the country. In their latest history curriculum report card, Historica found that most provinces and territories were “struggling in efforts to provide a more comprehensive view of the country’s history.” The average score across Canada was only 67 per cent.

To make matters worse, Alberta came in dead last among Canadian provinces with a meagre 50 per cent. There are several reasons for Alberta’s poor ranking.

First, Alberta has only one mandatory course focused specifically on Canadian history—the Grade 7 course “Canada: Origins, Histories, and Movements of Peoples.” While aspects of Canadian history might be partially addressed in other courses, there’s no way that one Grade 7 course is sufficient to give students a solid grounding in Canadian history.

Historica also noted that this Grade 7 course focuses primarily on the 19th  century although some major 20th century events (such as the First World War) are covered. The report also highlighted the course’s lack of emphasis on social and cultural experiences, and the total absence of the history of residential schools. These omissions are obviously unacceptable, particularly since Alberta had more residential schools than any other province.

The lack of adequate Canadian history education in school is certainly not a new issue. Twenty-five years ago, renowned historian Jack Granatstein raised the alarm with his hard-hitting book, Who Killed Canadian History? where he excoriated the provinces, including Alberta, for failing to ensure that all students graduated with a solid understanding of Canadian history.

Unfortunately, many of Granatstein’s criticisms remain relevant today. Most provinces still do not require high school students to take a Canadian history course prior to graduation, nor do they ensure that students receive content-rich instruction. Obviously, students deserve better.

There are several things the Alberta government could do to address this problem. To begin, the province should make its Western Canadian History 20 course mandatory for all Grade 11 students. It’s not acceptable for this course to be only an elective.

In addition, the government must get serious about updating its social studies curriculum from K to 12. This includes clearly specifying the minimum history outcomes all students must meet and then holding schools accountable with regular standardized tests that assess student knowledge and understanding of Canadian history. It does not include micromanaging teachers in their classrooms or pushing students into political activism.

Debates over school names are a symptom of a much bigger problem. Unless students learn about Canadian history, we won’t be able to have an informed conversation about the names on our buildings.

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