Ontario’s Canadian history curriculum remains a confusing mess

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in the Hamilton Spectator, June 6, 2024
Ontario’s Canadian history curriculum remains a confusing mess

More than 25 years ago, renowned Canadian historian J. L. Granatstein published a scathing book claiming that most students in Canada received an inadequate education in Canadian history. Granatstein noted that most provincial curriculum guides presented only a fragmented version of Canadian history, and that most provinces did not even require high school students to take a dedicated Canadian history course.

Sadly, according to a new analysis of Ontario’s history curriculum guides, things have only gotten worse in Canada’s largest province. In short, curriculum guides remain a confusing mess.

For example, students in grades 1 and 2 are not taught any Canadian history but instead focus on broad themes such as the roles and relationships of people in society and how community traditions (such as holiday celebrations) have changed over time. This is a missed opportunity to ensure that young students acquire foundational knowledge about their province and country.

In Grade 3, students learn about the communities that existed in Canada between 1780 and 1850. Unfortunately, there’s little content specified in the curriculum guide. There’s no expectation that students will learn about any specific individuals or events from this period, nor is it obvious why this specific historical era was selected.

Things get even more confusing in Grade 4 when Ontario students are taught about early societies from 3000 BCE to 1500 CE. In other words, after spending a year comparing their lives today with those of Canadians living from 1780-1850, they suddenly jump back to study ancient civilizations, which makes it harder for students to put people, places and events into proper historical context.

To make things even more confusing, the Grade 5 curriculum focuses on the expeditions of early explorers such as Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain—two years after students studied what daily life was like in the colonies founded by these explorers. Meanwhile, the Grade 6 social studies curriculum is a bizarre hodgepodge of topics and issues where students “explore the experiences and perspectives of diverse communities in historical and contemporary Canada, including First Nations, Metis, Inuit, and settler/newcomer communities, such as the Jewish community.”

Fortunately, the grades 7 and 8 social studies curriculum guides appear more historically coherent. Grade 7 students are taught about Canadian history from 1713 to 1850, while the Grade 8 curriculum focuses on the period from 1850 to 1914. But unfortunately, the specific learning outcomes in the curriculum guide are so broad that teachers can do almost anything with them.

For example, students are expected to “describe significant examples of cooperation and conflict in Canada during this period.” While the curriculum guide suggests some examples (e.g., increasing resistance among Indigenous people to being educated in residential schools), nowhere does it specify what content teachers must cover to develop a sensible historical understanding. It’s left up to individual teachers to decide what their students will learn.

Once students get to high school, only one required course covers Canadian history—Canadian History Since World War I, which is required in Grade 10. Most of the outcomes identified in the curriculum guide are overly broad and open to various interpretations. Stating, for example, that students should be able to “describe some key social changes in Canada during this period” and “describe some key economic trends and developments in Canada during this period” still leaves much open to the teachers’ interpretations.

Most problematically, the Grade 10 curriculum only covers Canadian history from 1914 to the present. Even if students learn a lot about that period, the Grade 10 curriculum guide does not cover anything prior to 1914. While the curriculum writers may assume that this material would have been adequately covered in earlier grades, the vague outcomes in these grades mean that may not happen.

Clearly, there’s little reason to believe that Ontario students receive an adequate grounding in Canadian history. Should J. L. Granatstein ever decide to publish an updated edition of his book Who Killed Canadian History?, he may point to the Ontario government. The province’s students deserve better than the historical mush they receive today.

Subscribe to the Fraser Institute

Get the latest news from the Fraser Institute on the latest research studies, news and events.