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Historians rewrite Canada’s citizenship guide

Academics take issue with the “Conservative” slant of the official guide to Canada.

BY KATRINA HEER | MAR 14 2012

When the contents of Canada’s official citizenship guide for immigrants changed in 2009 to include more military history with a greater emphasis on Canada’s monarchial ties with Britain, two University of Manitoba professors decided to produce a different version of Canada’s past, one that would embrace both triumphs and failures.

Their commentary – an 80-page collaboration called the People’s Citizenship Guide: A Response to Conservative Canada  – launched this past February at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg, Manitoba, making the bookstore’s bestseller list for that week.

The alternative guide aims to provide a direct response to Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship, produced by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. The latter is often used as a study guide by prospective immigrants.

The alternative guide is based on the research knowledge and interests in Canadian history, economics and sociology of its 11 contributors – all professors at universities in Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario.

“We all share a critical perspective on the vision of Canadian history that is currently being on offer by the federal government,” says co-editor Adele Perry, an associate professor who holds the Canada Research Chair in Western Canadian Social History at the University of Manitoba.

Discover Canada tends to focus heavily on the military, the monarchy and a celebratory view of Canada’s past, she says, leaving little room for questions of struggle and equality. The treatment and land dispossession of Aboriginal peoples is one such example that the alternative guide explores in detail.

“There are people who have worked to provide different versions of Canadian history which actually had a meaningful role for Indigenous people, and women, and people of colour,” says Dr. Perry. But in Discover Canada, these stories are replaced by “this sort of 1950s version of history which is about celebrating the awesomeness of the white man.”

The alternative guide opts, instead, to emphasize the contributions that both individuals and social movements have made in shaping our history, says co-editor Esyllt Jones, also an associate professor of Canadian history at U of Manitoba.

Their version closely follows the format of the government’s guide, with 10 sections covering such topics as citizenship, Canadian symbols and history. And while it shouldn’t be mistaken for a study aid, say the editors, the small book contributes to developing a critical discussion about history and the politics of citizenship.

Thomas Peace, a postdoctoral fellow in Native American studies at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, writes (at activehistory.ca) that the two guides can literally be read side-by-side: “There is significant pedagogical and civic merit to this exercise. Reading both books’ sections on trade and economic growth, for example, illustrates the political differences between these texts.”

Discover Canada, for example, describes postwar Canada as a time of “record prosperity and material progress,” with the world’s restrictive trading policies opening up under new world treaties like the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. For the comparable section, the alternative guide agrees that the postwar period was “a time of economic boom for wealthy nations like Canada,” while also noting that the Canadian economy “forms part of an unequal global economic system, a system which, shaped by the legacies of colonialism, continues to privilege industrialized nations over those of the global south.”

Dr. Jones, the co-editor, told University Affairs: “Our guide is not afraid to understand that Canada has evolved as a country, really out of people’s commitment to bettering the society. It was,” she says, “really an evolving process that involved sometimes a negative history. Things that we, as a nation, did wrong or aspects of our history that are dark, we really see those things as being important to where we are now and where we hope to be.”

The People’s Citizenship Guide is available for $14.95 from Arbeiter Ring Publishing.

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  1. James / March 19, 2012 at 07:59

    It is a common, but nonetheless incorrect, belief that we have “monarchial ties with Britain”. We don’t. Canada is entirely independent, and the Canadian monarchy is related to the British (and Australian, and Jamaican, etc) monarchy only in that one person combines the separate and independent roles of monarch of each country. The British government has no influence whatever over Canada, any more than the government of Barbados does. The monarchy has evolved far beyond any colonial role it had generations ago.

  2. Dr.Doinglittle / March 19, 2012 at 20:34

    Good grief. Just when you thought academic history couldn’t get any more ludicrous. This reminds me of those profs at Regina who protested there being a scholarship for children of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, calling it pro- imperialist.

  3. Bertrand / March 25, 2012 at 17:09

    Well, in fact we do have “monarchial ties” with Britain. The 1867 Constitution states as much: “The Executive Government and Authority of and over Canada is hereby declared to continue and be vested in the Queen.”

    It is true that the 1982 consolidated amendments prevent any laws passed in Britain, subsequent to 1982, from being effected in Canada, thereby effectively limiting those ‘monarchial ties.’ But they are still there.

    Canada is independent, but not quite in the way that you’ve suggested. We are not, for example, a republic that has entirely severed its ties to the British Monarchy.

    Whereas I am still apt to recognize the ongoing effects of colonialism in Canada today, I do agree with you that the monarchy does not occupy its colonial role in the same way that it did in, say, 1867.

  4. SC / March 26, 2012 at 13:31

    Thank you James for pointing out a very common misunderstanding of the monarchy’s role in Canada. The Queen reigns as the monarch of Canada (just as she is the monarch of Australia and Barbados, New Zealand and PNG, and many other realms). Whether one is pro- or anti- monarchy, people should know their facts well.

  5. Jon / May 17, 2012 at 17:15

    I’m not entirely sure why comments are focusing on Canada’s monarchical ties to Britain – which, yes, are still there and whether they enforce the right or not, the Queen’s representatives do have the constitutional power to override Canadian Parliament – but this guide goes far beyond this topic and raises a number of questions that Canadians new and old need to address, because the Canada presented in the new Canadian Government’s Immigration Guide (among many other forums…) is much different than the one I grew up with.