Canada: Past imperfect

14th August 1998 at 01:00
For the second year in a row, the Dominion Institute has followed Canada's national holiday, Canada (formerly, Dominion) Day by releasing a poll detailing how little Canadians learned about their history in school.

Last year, only 34 per cent of Canadians passed a 30-question test. Two-thirds did not know that the nation was founded in 1867. Almost half failed to name its first prime minister (Sir John A MacDonald). Two-thirds of high school students did not know what happened on D-Day or what was being remembered on Remembrance Day.

Fifty per cent of Canadians failed this year's 20-question test, which according to Rudyard Griffiths, of the Dominion Institute, "was less heavily focused on history writ large than was last year's test". Most knew that the Montreal Canadiens have won the most Stanley Cups (an end-of-season play-off between the top Canadian and US teams) at ice hockey, and that country singer Shania Twain and grand prix racing driver Jacques Villeneuve are Canadian.

But 56 per cent could not identify the phrase "Peace, order and good government" which is to the Canadian Constitution what "Liberty, equality, fraternity" was to the French Revolution.

More than half of the 1,500 who took the test did not know that in 1848 Sir Louis-Hyppolite Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin "formed an alliance of reformers in Upper and Lower Canada" that brought responsible government to the Canadas and cemented the alliance between the English and the French - a point of some importance to Canada's present constitutional debates.

Furthermore, 68 per cent did not know that Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan (and not Bill Gates) coined the phrases "the medium is the message" and "the global village".

Radio talk-show and letters-to-the-editor outrage at the poor showing by 18 to 34-year-olds was not shared by education ministers, who refused to comment on the poll.

Ontario conservative backbencher John O'Toole responded to the Dominion Institute's recommendation that the provinces collaborate on the development of national history education guidelines by saying that "on a list of 20 priorities for this government, national history standards would be number 21".

The poll shows, according to Mr Griffiths, that the "pauperisation of history curricula across the country" has resulted in a shift in "Canadians' sense of identity from history and politics to [pop culture icons] Michael J Fox, Shania Twain and Jacques Villeneuve".

"Such weak glue," fears historian Jack Granatstein, author of Who Killed Canadian History and recently-a ppointed director of the Canadian War Museum, "cannot hold a nation such as this together".

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