Learning About Our History Is More Important Than Ever

June 15, 2020 Updated: June 15, 2020


In 1922, a prominent Canadian activist wrote a book titled “The Black Candle.” Ostensibly about Canada’s drug laws, “The Black Candle” contained many racist statements and portrayed visible minority groups, particularly the Chinese community, as a threat to Canadian society. To make matters worse, this person also promoted eugenics and strongly supported the forced sterilization of people with disabilities.

Did you know there is a statue of this person stationed prominently near Parliament Hill? Not only that, several schools are named after this person, including one in Calgary and another in rural Manitoba.

In light of this person’s racist views, are you ready to take down Nellie McClung’s statue and rename those schools?

Wait a second. Are we talking about the same Nellie McClung who championed women’s rights and helped women gain the right to vote in Canada? Yes, we are. It’s ironic that McClung, who so bravely fought against the anti-female prejudices and stereotypes of her time, was deeply prejudiced herself and promoted vicious racial stereotypes.

McClung is far from the only Canadian icon with a mixed track record.

For example, a prominent political leader wrote his master’s thesis on the alleged merits of eugenics. In his thesis, which is easily accessible online, this person classified people with mental disabilities as “subnormal” and advocated forced sterilization of the “mentally and physically defective.” He even recommended they be segregated from the general population.

Interestingly, today Tommy Douglas is revered as a progressive icon and as the architect of medicare. Not only are several schools named after Douglas, in 2004 the CBC dubbed him “The Greatest Canadian.” Fortunately, while Douglas never formally renounced his master’s thesis, he chose not to mandate forced sterilization after he became premier of Saskatchewan. It appears that a visit to Nazi Germany in 1936 made Douglas lose his enthusiasm for eugenics.

As with McClung, there is a mix of good and bad that we must weigh when evaluating Douglas. He was certainly far from perfect.

I could give many more examples. Wilfrid Laurier supported the racist Chinese Head Tax, William Lyon Mackenzie King forced Japanese Canadians into internment camps during the Second World War, and John A. Macdonald oversaw the creation of the disastrous residential school system for Indigenous children. Even revered icons from other countries, such as Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, expressed racist views that were widely accepted in their time but that we now know were wrong.

The reality is that it’s not hard to find serious flaws in pretty much all the men and women whom many of our buildings, streets, schools, and cities are named after. If our first reaction upon hearing about the bad things people said or did in the past is to remove their names from all monuments and institutions, we are going to have a lot of blank spaces across our country.

This does not mean we should gloss over their flaws—far from it. Rather, we must provide appropriate context so that Canadians understand both the good things and the bad things these people did. Updating the descriptions under their monuments and ensuring that students in school learn more about our history are good first steps.

Focusing on education is important because school is the one place where all Canadians, regardless of where they live, have a real opportunity to acquire the historical knowledge they need to think critically about these and other issues. The vast majority of students attend school and this is where Canadian history must be taught and learned.

Unfortunately, many educators downplay the need for a content-rich curriculum, particularly since information is widely available on the internet. Instead, they want students to focus on so-called historical thinking skills through thematic study.

However, while broad-based historical themes such as change, continuity, cause, and consequence are important tools for analyzing controversial issues, they are not sufficient. Themes and overarching frameworks are useless unless they are situated within a rich knowledge base. Acquiring this knowledge does not come naturally for most students—it must be deliberately taught.

The only way most Canadian students are likely to develop an appropriately nuanced understanding of both the achievements and flaws of our past leaders is to give them a solid grounding in Canadian history. This includes learning a lot of facts, reading primary sources, memorizing important names and dates, engaging in rigorous class discussions, and writing thoughtful essays.

In contrast, rushing to rename schools and take down monuments sends the unfortunate message that our history is something that must be hidden. We need to give Canadians more credit. It is entirely possible to honour someone for his or her past achievements while also expressing regret over the negative things this person said or did. History must focus on what actually happened, not on what we wish had happened.

Let’s not be too quick to take down a statue or to remove a person’s name from an institution. It’s always better to add to our history than to subtract from it.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.