Thursday, July 02, 2009

Happy Birthday Canada – Who Are You?

Another year has come and gone, and Canadians everywhere celebrated our nation’s birth yesterday. But just how Canadian are you?

Not that you have to prove your love of the Great White North by feasting on greasy back bacon, watching your favourite ice hockey team whip an American franchise, nor have made love in a canoe – as ex-Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau may have done according to some Canadian urban legends.

Pierre who?

That’s the real test of loyalty to one’s country these days, according to many media outlets – knowing the proverbial who’s who of your country’s famous faces. Every Canada Day, newspapers, and radio and television statio

Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro and Canadian...Image via Wikipedia

ns across the country report our failings in identifying famous citizens.

Although everyone should know who their country’s current leader is – because the things he or she says or does can impact your life – it is questionable whether or not this sort of knowledge really makes you any more or less a good citizen.

However, when school kids can’t identify Canada’s first Prime Minister (Sir John A. MacDonald), don’t know what our country’s capital city is (Ottawa), and don’t know why our official languages are English and French (in large part due to the War of 1812), then the alarm bells should ring.

Although histories of countries around the world show us frail human beings making the same mistakes throughout time – such as America creating another Viet Nam when they invaded Iraq – we need historical knowledge to move onwards.

Having a sense of where we came from is important in figuring out where we are going -- it provides us with a sense of place, a sort of home-base from which to look out on and make the countless choices we are faced with in our daily lives.

Today’s children are tomorrow’s business, economic, social and political leaders.
But how can these kids lead, without knowing where we’ve been before? How can today’s children be prepared to make the everyday decisions affecting our nation, without that sense of place?

When I was a kid, growing up in suburban Toronto’s high school system, I didn’t really think history was all that important. How could something that happened in the past really affect me today?

But then I got smitten by the history bug, thanks to my first-year Canadian history professor in university Irving Abella. I remember getting to class early, so that I could get a front row seat, as “grandfather Abella” told us a story about something that happened a very long time ago.

That was how I saw him and that class, just like a grandfather telling his grandchildren a story around the wooden stove about their great relatives. Professor Abella was an elderly man, had a long grey beard, salt and pepper hair, and strode into that university lecture hall with all the energy of a young man – only to curl up towards his podium, and tell us eager students all about our past. Professor Abella told us what happened way back when, and most importantly, he related it to the world today.

We need more grandfather (or grandmother) types teaching history in today’s schools. I’m not saying only seniors need apply, anyone of any age can tell us where we’ve come from. But what we do need are people who can see the value of historical knowledge in today’s world. We need historians that can put the past into a modern day context for our kids, so that our kids come to appreciate that knowledge and embrace it.

And for that to happen, today’s history teachers must have that sense of place, the home-base from which to look out on and take historical events and make them real to today’s kids.

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