Sing O Canada, or learn Canadian history? Students do neither in 2009

OTTAWA - Canada Day quiz: Which of these two school activities is more important to fostering national identity?

OTTAWA - Canada Day quiz: Which of these two school activities is more important to fostering national identity?

(a) Piping the national anthem over a rural elementary school's intercom for two minutes every morning, or;

(b) Teaching the fundamentals of Canadian history to high school students across the country as a requirement for graduation.

Conservative MPs on the floor of the House of Commons, bloggers and media pundits provoked a raging national debate this spring over the decision by a single school in rural New Brunswick to curtail the morning ritual of O Canada.

The furor drove Erik Millett, principal of tiny Belleisle Elementary, from his job and resulted in death threats against him. New Brunswick subsequently made it mandatory to sing O Canada daily in the province's schools, starting this autumn.

No fewer than five federal Tory New Brunswick MPs - including two cabinet members - publicly pounced on the anthem issue. No other party's MPs in Parliament intervened.

Contrast that with a national study this month by the Dominion Institute that found the teaching of Canadian history is woefully inadequate in high schools from coast to coast.

"This is a far wider issue," Marc Chalifoux, executive director of the non-partisan, charitable institute, said in an interview.

"This isn't about one school. It's about entire provinces and nearly every high school in the country. ... It would be nice to see it raised in the House of Commons, very much so."

Alberta and Saskatchewan, home to 40 federal Conservative MPs, both received Fs from the institute for failing to require a single history course to graduate.

Yet not one Tory MP raised the issue in Parliament.

Their silence was doubly perplexing because the absence of history education dovetails with a push by Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to improve what he calls "civic literacy" among Canadians - essentially the understanding of our national history and symbols.

"Education is a provincial responsibility and it's not for the federal government to dictate provincial curricula," Kenney, a Calgary MP, said in an interview.

"Having said that, as a Canadian I think it's ridiculous that kids can graduate in seven of our 10 provinces without ever having learned about Canadian history.

"It's almost like we're deliberately promoting a kind of historical amnesia."

Tory MPs during the Commons' final week before summer break used their speaking opportunities to raise subjects such as a 100-year-old bridge near Lethbridge, Alta., Saskatchewan's September centennial and the 50th anniversary of a disaster in New Brunswick.

There was even a friendly Conservative backbench question on education. But it had nothing to do with history shortfalls and instead highlighted government infrastructure spending at Quebec colleges.

So why did so many Tory MPs raise the anthem issue - which they repeatedly mischaracterized as a "ban" on O Canada - but not history teaching?

"In terms of political pressure, I think O Canada is an easy-to-grasp national symbol," explained Kenney.

"And frankly I suspect most people aren't even aware that Canadian high school curricula are so thin on Canadian history."

The school principal at the centre of the anthem storm says the debate was always misplaced.

"As Canadians we must realize that it is not our anthem or our flag that makes this country what it is. Every country in the world has a flag and an anthem," Millett told The Canadian Press in an interview.

"It's the underlying laws and values and rules and practices and democratic institutions that guide a country that are important."

Millett, having resigned as Belleisle principal, has taken a high school posting. He'll be teaching Canadian identity for four Grade 9 classes - an irony that doesn't escape him.

Historian Michael Bliss didn't mince words when asked to choose between anthem singing and learning the country's history.

Bliss called the Belleisle brouhaha "the worst kind of token symbolism."

"The real problem is curricular content, not getting up and forcing reluctant kids to mouth some words every morning. To take that seriously - as opposed to the much greater issue of the solid education of students - is to get your priorities all wrong."

Bliss said it "substitute(s) symbolism for content, and false patriotism for a serious attempt to strengthen the country."

The real issue is provincial jurisdiction over education, which should be a national objective, according to Bliss and other historians.

"The truth - and it can't be said too strongly or too often - is that the enemy of Canadian nationalism is parochialism."

MP Charlie Angus, the heritage critic for the federal NDP, was equally scathing.

"It was a very ugly witch-hunt," Angus said of Millett's treatment.

"It represents the worst of patriotism, the ugly face of patriotism. They wrecked that man's career."

Angus accused the Conservatives of "jurisdictional blurring" when it suits their partisan political interests.

"But now where is their commitment to providing resources to school boards, to the provinces, to build a national historical narrative? You don't hear from them."

Kenney said Heritage Canada does provide education material to provinces and is developing more.

But he showed no concern for the public pillorying of Millett.

"You know, if you needle Canadians enough you're going to find somebody who's actually pretty patriotic," said the Conservative minister.

"Most Canadians are patriotic but not demonstrable about their patriotism. But if you start deliberately undermining our national symbols, people don't appreciate that. So I think that's probably what happened there."

Except there's no evidence Belleisle school was deliberately undermining the anthem. In fact, federal guidelines say the anthem should not be legislated.

"There is no law or behaviour governing the playing of the national anthem; it is left to the good citizenship of individuals," says the web site of Canadian Heritage.

Rather, the principal tried to accommodate a parental complaint by playing O Canada only at monthly assemblies, which eventually raised the ire of other parents at the school.

"My staff and I broke no law, no rule, no guideline, no policy," said Millett.

"Not at the district level, not at the school level, not at the provincial level, not at the federal level. And yet the treatment I received was probably more severe than most child molesters receive, than most murderers receive. It was a shameful moment."

The final word goes to Bob Butt of the Royal Canadian Legion's dominion branch in Ottawa.

The legion wants the anthem played at Canadian schools, although it doesn't have a specific policy regarding the daily morning ritual - which happens unevenly even within local school boards, let alone provincially and nationally.

The legion is strongly lobbying at the provincial level for more history on the curricula.

"Obviously, one rings a bell with more people than the other. One is less esoteric than the other," Butt said of the anthem controversy.

"But if you don't learn your history, as has been said before, you're bound to repeat it."

 
 
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