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In Search of Usable Pasts: Debating History, Citizenship, and Politics in Ontario’s Classrooms, 1960s to the Present

Brent Brenyo

*Think-Piece Prepared for the Wilson Institute Workshop, “Doing History in Precarious Times,” July 2019*

The Ontario Canadian and World Studies Curriculumstates that Grade 10 History is designed to allow students to appreciate Canadian heritage and identity in all its diversity and complexity. The objective is to prepare them to fulfill their role as informed, responsible, and active citizens.[1]Yet, the reality is that the Grade 10 history program has failed to do so. Nowhere is this more evident than in its inability to prepare students to understand and participate in today’s political debates concerning historical commemoration and remembrance. Such acrimonious and often evidence-free debates reveal that there are multiple, and even competing, interpretations of Canada’s history and identity. Yet in the classroom, the subject of Canadian history is still, despite all the empirical and theoretical historical work of the past five decades, generally presented to students as a collection of facts, strung together in a loose nationalistic narrative, imparted to the students via a textbook account elevated to the status of undisputed truth. Whose version of history? Whose narrative? Whose values and interests are incorporated in that narrative? All these remain unexamined questions. In the absence of a historiographical dimension, students cannot grasp the sharply contrasting political conclusions many Canadians draw from history.[2]

The real-world consequences of this neglect are serious. Confronted with issues ranging from Indigenous land claims to the future of the Canadian constitution, students have no meaningful way of placing them in their appropriate historical contexts. The teaching of Canadian history could be used to demonstrate to students that there can be multiple and legitimate interpretations of historical figures, issues, and events; students could be made aware of the profound present-day consequences of this diversity of historiographical paradigms. History, after all, is in part the search for usable pasts to validate and legitimize, or to critique, contemporary action and policy. By neglecting this dimension of the real world of Canadian history, high school teachers do their students a disservice.

Consider the following example. In March 2017, Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak mounted a defence of the residential school system for Indigenous children. She set off a political firestorm. Beyak lamented that the “good deeds” of “well-intentioned” religious teachers have been overshadowed by negative reports documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC.) “I speak partly for the record,” she said in the Senate, “but mostly in memory of the kindly and well-intentioned men and women and their descendants – perhaps some of us here in this chamber – whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part.”“Mistakes were made at residential schools,” she acknowledged, but they should not overshadow the schools’ achievements. Some Canadians supported and some condemned her version of history. “I am a bit shocked, senator, that you still hold some views that have been proven to be incorrect over the years, but, nonetheless, I accept that you have the right to hold them,” said Senator Murray Sinclair, formerly the TRC’s chief commissioner. Media mogul Conrad Black declared Beyak “correct.” Barring a few bad apples, “most of the teachers in those remote schools were dedicated people who believed in what they were doing and were trying to prepare their charges for full participation in Canadian life.” Most of the children had been rescued from “desperate and hopeless squalor,” as part of a 400-year-long project of transforming the “barbarous and underpopulated territory of Canada into a G7 country.”Nonetheless, the Conservatives removed Beyak from her Senate Committee position, and subsequently kicked her out of caucus, after she refused to take down racist letters from her web-site.[3]


‘Danger: History Under Construction’ could be a warning sign posted on vast tracts of the public sphere in Canada today. Working within a master narrative of colonization as civilizing progress, both Beyak and Black were enunciating a conventional interpretation of Canadian history. Their critics were vociferously challenging it. For both sides, history has become a zone of contention in twenty-first-century Canada. Distinct groups of Canadians search out usable pasts to help influence present-day politics and future realities. There are material, psychological and cultural stakes involved in such struggles.  Being aware of the interpretive nature of history, and alert to whose version of history is being told and why has become very important—for all present-day and future Canadian citizens.

Many contemporary teachers, informed by the ‘historical thinking’ paradigm favoured by many educators, best exemplified by the school of Peter Seixas, try to avoid such controversies. By and large, this approach eschews the study of historical narrative and its often partisan political uses. Yet, however laudable in some respects, the “Historical Thinking” paradigm has inadvertently confined students to the bland, consensus approaches of textbook history, with which it has come to an implicit cohabitation agreement.  In particular, the paradigm’s preoccupation with ‘competencies’ sidelines one indispensable ‘competence’: the achievement of grounded historical insight, which alone would allow for meaningful participation in debates over such issues as bilingualism, foreign policy, or residential schools.

Historiography – the study of the emergence of differing historical schools and methods of interpretation – reveals the dynamic nature of historical study. By being aware of different historical narratives or accounts, and critically appraising them, students can gain a more thorough and nuanced understanding of Canadian history and of the discipline of history itself. Although multiple narratives complicate our understanding of this past and are not easily reconciled with each other, students need to be aware of this fact of interpretive diversity. Historical narrative is used to frame the past – including the past that is presented in their textbooks and is so often framed as an unproblematic “truth.” Historians and those who study history do not always agree, and there are differences of interpretation and opinion. Multiple historical narratives exist, some more credible than others. Young citizens are owed an understanding of them.

By understanding historiography – both as the methods of the discipline of history and the body of work on a particular subject – students can develop the ability to investigate historical claims by assessing the evidence used to arrive at them.  Not all historical narratives are equal. Some are better evidenced and better researched, with core arguments that are more compelling and logical, that others.  In order to determine the validity of different historical narratives, students need to understand the historical method.[4]By presenting multiple narratives and points of historiographic contention to students, and allowing them to analyze such views critically, students can develop their own capacity to assess the veracity of particular historical accounts. Especially in the internet age, they should be wary of what they read or what they are told, able to consider historical narratives in light of the interests and demands of the narrators, and critique those seeking to advance a particular agenda at the expense of historical accuracy and truthfulness. Such a truly critical ‘historical consciousness,’ one unafraid to apply the lens of history to itself, is, in a heterogeneous country like Canada, indispensable to informed citizenship — by which I mean not just an individual’s formal status under the law, but his or her active, informed and virtuous engagement with other citizens in the public sphere.

This piece looks at the ways the friends of Canadian high school history have analyzed its troubled career over the past half-century. There is more to this exercise than a trip down memory lane. From the 1960s on, such history-friendly critics have diagnosed a serious, even terminal malaise afflicting the teaching of high school history in Canada. Some have anticipated my own position, which is to incorporate into high school teaching competing and even contradictory interpretations rather than promulgating a dated and improbable consensus. Retrieving this critical legacy from the condescension of posterity allows us fresh perspectives on how the friends of high school history today might shape their own responses to its seemingly near-terminal twentieth-first-century state.

In brief, one extracts from this legacy of informed and critical commentary a dual diagnosis: (a) clinging to a nation-building narrative, even one seemingly devoted to inclusivity, has failed to promote either an interest in the subject or an understanding of its centrality, at a time when the very concept of ‘Canada’ itself has been interrogated, with (b) the practical consequence that any sustained notion of high school history as the indispensable prerequisite for informed democratic citizenship has also languished. This paper argues that only by turning to critical historiography and making it an integral part of teaching can education for an historically-informed citizenry be reinvigorated.

Multiple historical narratives and accounts can arise as historians and others search for usable pasts. Historians, influenced by the pressing concerns of their time, respond by analyzing the facts of the past in accordance with the needs of the present. This is why narrative is of upmost importance. It is historical narrative, woven by historians as they respond to the pressing issues of their time, that provides explanatory power to history and gives it historical significance. The implications of competing narratives for the teaching of history are profound. Despite the importance of narrative in providing explanatory power to historical events and exposing students to different perspectives, it has largely been shorn from Ontario’s history textbooks. The only narrative with staying-power has been the nation-building narrative. A sceptical appraisal of its survival would take due notice of the fact that both the school system and the kinds of history it has traditionally favoured share a goal: that of having students internalize loyalty to the state.[5]History teachers interested in being something more than purveyors of a state-sanctioned official story have their work cut out for them.


The earliest textbooks approved for use in Ontario’s high schools presented a master narrative of Conquest, Colonization, and Confederation – essentially a rough outline of today’s still Whiggish nation-building narrative. In many respects, ‘Canadian’ history meant ‘British’ or ‘European’ or ‘Imperial’ history; Canadian history in our modern sense was largely missing down to the 1920s. Egerton Ryerson, Superintendent of Schools for Upper Canada, commissioned one of the earliest Ontario history textbooks, J.G. Hodgins’s Geography and History of British North America(1857) which, as one commentator notes, downplayed any conflict between French and English Canadians and helped initiate a long-standing tradition of blandness.[6]In 1895, W.H.P. Clement’s authorized textbook History of a Nationaimed to direct the reader’s mind to “the federation of the provinces under the British North America Act of 1867, hoping in this way to unite the various currents of provincial history into the broader channel of the Dominion.”[7]G.U. Hay’s The Public School History of Canada in 1902 was organized around such venerable themes as “A Half-Century of Conflict,” “The Struggle for Responsible Government,” and “The Confederation Movement.”[8]

In this model of high school history, the overall goal was Canadian unity. It was Whiggish in tone and celebrated the advancement of the nation and its citizens through the forward march of progress. H.J. Cody, Ontario’s Minister of Education remarked in 1918 that history was “the great vehicle of patriotic instruction” – by which he meant one that was Protestant, politically conservative, and based on Anglo-Saxon racial superiority.[9]Shorn of Cody’s candid Imperialism, vestiges of his patriotic state-building approach persist to the present day. A survey of high school history textbooks circa 1950 by historian José Igartua reveals that this predominant narrative in history education continued to emphasize the British identity of Canada, patronize if not denigrate French Canada, and offer up simplistic depictions – often caricatures or stereotypes – of Anglo-Canada’s ‘other Others.’ In George Brown’s Building the Canadian Nation, authorized for use in Ontario from 1945 to 1959 and revised three times, it was claimed that “the Indian was attached to his superstitions, to his belief in magic, to his feasts and ceremonials which were often no better than wild orgies.”[10][10]The French habitant was said to have “had few ambitions but he enjoyed life, [and] his interests centred around his family and his church. He knew and thought little of the outside world. His home was in Canada and he loved the land on which he lived. This was his strength.”[11]Both groups were in stark contrast to the Loyalists, who “brought with them qualities and ideas which were toughened by hard experience. No country could have asked for pioneers more likely to succeed.” Indeed, “many of their descendants have shown the same high qualities of leadership, and it is no wonder that the Loyalist tradition has left in Canada an indelible impression.”[12]The different characterizations of French and English and their respective worldview was raised again in discussion of conscription during the First World War. French Canadians supposedly could not understand the sentimental attachment of English speaking Canadians to Britain because “for generations they had been almost completely isolated from Europe, and were far less in touch with world affairs than were the majority of English speaking Canadians” – a highly ill-informed stereotype.[13]In 1958, a new edition revised the official story, but only slightly: now the conquest of 1759 was “a terrible shock,” which gave rise to French Canadians’ narrow preoccupation with la survivance.[14]

Canada: A Nation and How It Came to Beechoed many of Brown’s themes. Authorized in Ontario schools from 1952 to 1959, it was an adaptation of historian A.R.M. Lower’s Colony to Nation. Released originally in 1948, it went through multiple printings and a second edition in 1958. Once more ethnic stereotypes prevailed. The ‘English’ and ‘French’ were juxtaposed: the first possessed “the city man’s commercial point of view,” the second “the country dweller’s.” The English “insisted on ‘progress,’ while to the French, who wanted nothing so much as to remain as they were, English ‘progress’ often seemed like mere commotion.”[15]Arthur G. Dorland’sOur Canadapicked up this refrain: “Canadienslacked a tradition of popular government and free enterprise’ and the seigneurial system ‘sapped individual initiative…it has left its mark on French Canada down to the present day.’”[16]As for Indigenous peoples, they had in North America attained a “much lower stage of cultural development than those of Mexico.” Indeed, they could be compared the ‘Ancient Briton over sixteen hundred years before Christ.’”[17]

Of course, Ontario was not the only province to use history for such nationalistic purposes. In Quebec, the history education programme was long dominated by the narrative of la survivance, which has as its main focus the survival of Catholic French Canada within Confederation. While Ontario and Quebec differed in the narratives they emphasized, both had in common the use of history for identitarian purposes and a disregard for rival, potentially destabilizing alternative versions. The result was that “Anglophone and Francophone students learned two ‘sharply opposed views’ of Canada’s history, with all the predictable political consequences.”[18]

It was this style of textbook history that came under sustained fire from the 1960s on. Numerous groups protested how they were depicted in history textbooks or criticized their exclusion and invisibility in high school history. Whose history was being taught – and why? Such protests were not altogether new; they had been made intermittently by agrarian radicals, socialists, feminists, trade unionists, peace activists, regionalists and other social critics for decades.[19]   But the critiques of Whig nation-building that started in the 1960s had, it seems, much more serious and lasting consequences.

High school history, which glossed over conflict and dissent in favour of promoting unity, was ill-equipped to address such challenges. The unquestioning and passive version of citizenship promoted by history texts, mired as they were in an uncritical British nation-building narrative, could not help students make sense of the issues and events unfolding around them, especially in a decade in which the Empire was plainly disintegrating. And the history curriculum in Ontario was particularly unprepared to handle the tumultuous quarter-century after 1965, as a host of social movements sought their own ‘usable pasts.’ The subject’s position in the system was downgraded, from five years as a required course in the curriculum in 1960, to two in 1968, and down to just one in 1971 (where it currently remains). The subject of history saw a marked decline in other provinces as well.[20]It seemed as though a discipline of inquiry incapable of instilling national unity was no longer a priority in secondary education. The subject was downgraded. In its place would emerge a ‘skills’ based approach that tried to avoid politics altogether.

How exactly did history teaching get to this point? One important answer was provided by Bob Davis in Whatever Happened to High School History? Burying the Political Memory of Youth, Ontario: 1945-1995 (1995). Davis taught social science at Atkinson College, York University, and history at the Steven Leacock Collegiate Institute in Toronto. His book detailed the decline of high school history during his 35-year history teaching career from 1960 to 1995. He argued that, from the 1960s to the 1990s, the emphasis had shifted from content to ‘historical skills,’ which were increasingly defined narrowly as marketable commodities.

Five things helped this happen, Davis argued: the post-1970 erosion of Canadian independence, a waning faith in historical progress, challenges from excluded groups, competition from television, and the new global capitalism (evidenced by new trade agreements that, along with Quebec’s independence movement,  “undermined one of the traditional cornerstones of mass history teaching in Ontario.”)[21]  Davis added that “the chief actors and winners in the traditional history canon have been white, European, bourgeois and male. This monopoly has been challenged, but not much shaken, from the 1960s to the 1990s by women, immigrants, aboriginals, people of color, Third Worlders, labour and youth.”[22]The old history consensus was dying — evident in “the growing obsolescence of a history program based on the traditional ‘national histories’ which have been undermined by the new economic outlook of transnational corporations”[23]— but what would take its place? Davis feared that history teaching’s new future encompassed imparting skills useful for transnational corporations. His study – sprawling, occasionally opinionated, still indispensable[24]– constituted a pioneering analysis of the new forces undoing Canadian history in late-twentieth-century secondary schools.

One important theme Davis did not fully develop was the growing sense in the 1960s that “limited identities,” not colony-to-nation consensus, were the most promising historical subjects. Starting in the 1960s, consensus history was challenged by the women’s movement, organized labour, movements challenging existing federalism (Quebec’s Quiet Revolution followed by movements of Western and Atlantic regionalism), immigration and multiculturalism, and so on. Historians were not oblivious to these changes. They sought out new approaches to Canadian history which did not necessarily have to be confined to the history of the nation-state. One historian emphasizing this approach was Ramsay Cook. Cook considered class, region, and ethnicity to be his main categories of analysis. Book after book had appeared on disunity as “the great Canadian problem,” he wrote, adding: “But it may be that the frame of reference is wrong. Perhaps instead of constantly deploring our lack of identity, we should attempt to understand and explain the regional, ethnic and class identities that we do have.”[25] This approach, resonating with many historians, suited a fast-changing country. University of Toronto historian J.M.S. Careless captured Cook’s ‘limited identities’ thesis with an article in the Canadian Historical Review. In this treatment, the quest for ‘national unity’ through history came to appear almost quaint. Commenting on Canadian historiography, Careless wrote: “We may be somewhat past the colony to nation epitome of the Canadian story… There are the good guys and the bad guys, the unifying nation builders and their foes: though the trouble is that the characters often change hats…”[26] Rather than indulge in such chest-puffing exercises in nationalism, should historians not focus on region- rather than nation-making? Or perhaps, the latter could only happen on the basis of the former?[27] Careless’s call to action spurred on a new generation of historians who wrote about region, class, ethnicity, and so on.

Careless’s work – published in 1969, after the zenith of high school history in Ontario – was very much a reflection of the tumultuous events of the past decade. History was becoming a more contentious (and crowded) field of research. Numerous groups of Canadians discovered that they were products of interesting histories. Many used their interpretations of history to consolidate their own identities and make demands upon the state. Not only was Canadian historiography moving beyond the traditional nation-building narrative, it had opened up new vistas for reflection on what it meant to be Canadian. Many new and sometimes clashing narratives were brought to the forefront. Categories of analysis like ethnicity, gender, class, and region challenged the idea of an easily definable group of ‘modern Canadians.’ Among professional historians, there was some alarm over what seemed the limitless politicization and fragmenting of history.

Yet insofar as it was shaped by textbooks, which for many busy teachers was necessarily the case, the teaching of high school history continued to be based on the nation-building narrative. Textbook writers tried, in an ad hocway, to address the demands made by women, labour, and racial and ethnic minorities.  Cosmetic, not substantive, modifications were made to the old nation-building model. Multiculturalism was construed as colourful clothes and exotic cuisines; gender enlightenment demanded cleaning up sexist language, adding a page or two about women; and so on. But the nation-building narrative was left more or less intact.

For Davis, writing in the 1990s, risk-averse textbook writers had sidelined and even erased history’s hard questions: “reflecting a trend of softening this or that emphasis to respond to certain political pressures […] This trend intensified in textbook writing over the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and produced mountains of dull books which were so cautious they often literally made no sense.”[28] Rather than address political protest over history education, or acknowledge the historical roots of contemporary conflict and confrontation, textbook writers safely opted for consensus over conflict.[29] In their hands, history was both saccharine and silly – both cut off from the urgent problems of the present and generally regarded as irrelevant to their solution.

Despite advances in Canadian historiography, Ontario’s authorized history textbooks continued to reinforce the nation-building narrative. More social history was incorporated — but contemporary issues such as second wave feminism, multiculturalism and biculturalism, youth revolt, Indigenous rights, and the ‘New Democracy’ of the 1960s proved difficult to “include” in a Whiggish nation-building narrative, raising as they did profound questions about the nature of Canadian liberal democracy. Provincialism was also strengthened, as both Western alienation and Atlantic regionalism posed challenges to Canadian unity. There was a widespread sense of malaise over the ability of a national history to unify Canadians and instill a reasonable sense of pride about the country’s history. History in high school declined as what many considered its raison d’être– the creation of a well-informed citizenry – also foundered. This was reflected in the fact that the 1960s was the last decade during which English-language Canadian history textbooks produced for the Ontario market were still used across English Canada.[30]Now the country seemed too divided for that.

A few voices in the 1960s and 1970s cried out against this decline. The National History Project, headed by A.B. Hodgetts, released a report on civic education in Canada in 1968.[31]This report was the result of a privately-sponsored study, published in cooperation with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. It resulted from a two-year fact finding investigation into the teaching of Canadian history, social studies, and civics, throughout all ten provinces. From this pan-Canadian perspective, history’s crisis was plainly not just Ontario’s problem: What Culture? What Heritage? issued a scathing indictment of the teaching of history across much of Canada.

The study emphasized civic education, defined as the influence of formal instruction in developing well-informed viewpoints on the part of young Canadians.[32]The National History Project’s focused on History, Social Studies and Civics – “Canadian Studies” – because it was in such fields that civic education took place.[33]According to the report, such fields were stagnating. And this was especially the case with History, “the main academic subject through which political socialization is meant to take place.”[34]

Free societies, the report argued, thrive on the dynamic tensions arising from their diversities. Resolving them could be a creative national experience. Consensus history, predicated on a sense of how fragile the country’s identity was, swept such tensions under a carpet of conciliatory prose — with the result that Canadian history was, among students and the public at large, held to be profoundly boring. Even though “practically every development of our history aroused opposing points of view and controversy,” they were “almost completely ignored in the classroom. Canadian history in our schools is a shadowy, subdued, unrealistic version of what actually happened… a too-nice, straightforward, linear, dry as dust account of uninterrupted political and economic progress.”[35]Striving to preserve Canadian unity, high school history texts instead encouraged Canadian passivity. They led students to imagine a linear, conflict-free Canadian narrative without the country’s citizens ever having made consequential, often painful and divisive, choices.[36]  Genuine civic education had been hobbled as a result, with damaging results for democracy itself. For if “dissent is part of our lifeblood,” official attempts to minimize it in the teaching of history meant students would never learn of the “inevitable differences of opinion that have always been and will continue to be an essential part of free societies.” They would not acquire an understanding of the ways in which “a stable democracy also requires a minimum ability among its citizens to resolve a conflict with tolerance, understanding and knowledge of opposing viewpoints. Without this ability, the tensions in a free society may cease to be dynamic and become destructive.”[37]

Added to Hodgetts’s indictment of bland consensus history was an acute diagnosis of its conceptual incoherence. Canadian classroom history was often experienced as a collection of unrelated, undigested and unimportant facts. While the report did not prescribe how exactly the subject could be redeemed, it did hint that close attention to rival narratives might provide one very promising avenue. Because “conflict and opposing viewpoints are an inherent part of history,” the contrasting interpretations “of the past by different historians and by successive generations is another essential element in the study of history.”[38]  Yet, the report lamented, historiography—attentiveness to the general frameworks within which historians worked and to the writings of those historians themselves—played a negligible role in Canadian high school history. “Not one of more than seventy authorized textbooks, and no official publication of any kind, makes the slightest reference to the fact that successive generations of Canadian historians have rewritten the story of our past, reflecting the problems and interests of their own times,” the report complained. “As might be expected, therefore, we did not observe a single class throughout the whole of Canada that even mentioned, let alone used, these important aspects of Canadian history.”[39]How could one aspire to understand modern Quebec, for example, without reading such historians as Garneau, Groux, and Brunet? Or English Canada without Martin, Innis, and Creighton? Hodgetts’s lament from 1968—coming from a seasoned and respected high school educator—is one that echoes loudly more than five decades later.

In addition to its call for more attention to historiography, the report advocated a transformation of history through its incorporation into a more broadly-defined field of Canadian Studies. Not only history’s subject matter, but also its pedagogy, called out for transformation. It was lamentably the case that “the teaching methods being used in the great majority of the Canadian studies classrooms in all provinces are not good enough….This fact must be frankly faced.”[40]Yet, Hodgetts conceded, the practical obstacles in the way of any thorough-going reform were formidable. Modest professional standards were set by faculties of education, teachers colleges, academics and teachers. The report’s research had revealed that “most teachers do not receive or take enough post-secondary school academic courses to become proficient in Canadian studies.”[41]In addition, the respondents clearly revealed that they had no desire to pursue further postsecondary education. Who would be willing to obtain a Masters without having a four-year honours degree? Many Canadian studies teachers were simply not sufficiently trained to do a competent job teaching history. Hodgetts found that 28 per cent of all respondents had taken no academic course of any kind in Canadian history, 52 per cent had taken only one such course on a half or full year basis; and of the remainder only 4 per cent had what might be fairly described as specialized training in this subject.[42]Furthermore, 79% of respondents were enrolled in, or had graduated from, a general arts or integrated education course. Less than 10 per cent of the practicing teachers were first- or second- class honour graduates in a four year honours arts programs. Most teachers had a scant knowledge of source materials other than the authorized and woefully deficient textbooks.[43]Provincial bureaucracies, faculties of education, teachers’ colleges—all were at fault.[44]Many were content with mere competency—but that was hardly enough.

For good measure, the report also criticized university courses and historians. Academic historians did not make history exciting, neglected the study of history after 1918, focused narrowly on constitutional and political history, did not relate history to the present, and evaded historiographical discussion.[45]Most historiography was introduced only to graduate students, which meant high school teachers never encountered it. Moreover, academic historians, once convinced they shared much with their fellow teachers in high schools, had now spurned their erstwhile comrades: “The academics have slighted the special needs of the teaching profession, while the faculties of education have become ingrown, frequently oblivious to the wider society, over concerned with methods divorced from a philosophical approach to subject matter, and therefore prone to swing uncritically on the pendulum of change.”[46]Even the schools specifically designed to train teachers were grossly inadequate: there was “an almost universal feeling across Canada that a great deal of the course work in faculties of education and teachers’ colleges is a sheer waste of time, something to be passively endured because it is the only way to enter the profession.”[47]

Hodgetts was not the only one critical of the precipitous decline of high school history. Professor Geoffrey Milburn of the Faculty of Education at Western University also appraised the current state of history education in Canada. His Teaching History in Canada (1972) was comprised of sixty readings and was arranged around eight themes that were identified to be relevant to teachers and curriculum theorists at all levels of education. Some of the themes were theoretical, others more practical. All dwelt upon some of the major problems facing the nation’s history teachers in both elementary and secondary schools. As suited a book focused on Canada, Milburn extensively used the work of Canadian writers, many of whom offered verdicts as critical as those of Hodgetts.[48]

Milburn highlighted some of the fundamental problems facing history in schools. He astutely recognized that history is influenced by two powerful masters, the discipline and the state, often pulling “in different directions,” with one perhaps demanding “greater uniformity,” the other “a variety in approach.” History as a subject might be overburdened with expectations from curriculum committees “that scholars are reluctant to support.” On the other hand, some historians seemed “unwilling to recognize the state’s claim that the school must serve social purposes which take priority over intellectual objectives.”[49]Milburn dwelt upon aspects of history teaching that had been the source of much controversy, such as the absorption of history into social studies courses, the continuation of different versions of the past in English-and French-speaking provinces, and the relationship of studying history to contemporary affairs. History in the classroom of the future – if indeed there wasto be any history in that classroom – would have to be critical, relevant to contemporary problems, and courageous.

In the same volume, John Eisenberg from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education noted the urgent, life-or-death challenges facing history in high schools. Students, politicians, and teachers cried out for courses that spoke directly to present-day realities. How could history in Ontario schools, so obsessed with great individuals, distant battlefields, and arcane details, answer their demand? In part, by programs including Third World materials, emphasizing the social and the economic, and addressing urgent issues, social, political, moral.[50]Lewis Hertzmann from York University took much the same tack. Looking critically at Alberta, where history had been subordinated to social studies since the 1930s, he critiqued the failure of that province’s curriculum builders to understand the nature of history. In the name of exposing students to the most up-to-date progressive pedagogy, they disregarded the fact that “history has been healthfully aerated for over half a century by contact with all the social sciences, by anthropology no less than economics, psychology, and other branches of knowledge.” They dreamt of an unimaginably comprehensive “social studies” beyond the capacity of any teacher to understand, let alone teach. “To be coherent as a study, history must remain history, not social studies,” Hertzmann concluded. “Each of the social sciences, let it be remembered, has its own useful technical vocabulary, set of assumptions, and technical modes of operation. All make sense within their respective disciplines. But to mix them haphazardly, as has been done in the Alberta programme, is to invite incoherence and chaos.”[51]  Hertzmann was not defending the historian’s turf for venal reasons. He honestly and ardently believed that a classroom freed from the content and conceptual frameworks of history was a cultural tragedy.

Teaching History in Canada held out some hope for history education in Canada. Gerald Walsh noted that history textbooks had improved in some Canadian provinces since the mid-1960s. The better textbooks did not set out to support a preconceived point of view.[52]Walsh singled out histories written by professional historians in eastern Canada and singled out for praise those of Ontario, PEI, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, which he liked because they had adopted a strategy of “limited interpretation” and eschewed the old Whig stories of Inevitable Progress. On the other hand, Quebec’s history texts came in for a particularly scathing critique for being “distorted by the undue emphasis given to the Church and religion.” They gave students something closer to a morality play than a rational attempt at historical inquiry.[53]

Teaching History in Canada also included an excerpt from Hodgetts’s What Culture? What Heritage?– an indication of the earlier report’s cachet. Of the two works, Hodgetts’s report was the more heavily publicized, with historian Jack Granatstein labelling it a “most devastating attack on the teaching of Canadian history in the primary and secondary schools.”[54]Yet, for all the good reviews it received, What Culture? What Heritage? ultimately did not transform history teaching in Canada. It was a sign of the times that, when the Canadian Studies Foundation in 1970 came out with Teaching Canada for the 80s, co-authored by Hodgetts and Paul Gallagher,[55]history received short shrift. Perhaps its authors had come to a sharper appreciation of the labyrinthine structures governing curriculum in Canada and the increasingly herculean challenge confronting anyone who wanted change in the Ontario (and Canadian) classroom.

In retrospect, another of the underlying reasons for history’s marginalization lay in the ascendancy of the Human Resources (HR) approach to secondary education in the 1970s. The demand for skilled labour outpaced supply from Ontario’s schools, colleges, and universities. HR, geared to meeting the needs of employers, became a mantra in many professional circles.  Human capital — ‘technical innovation,’ ‘knowledge,’ and ‘expertise’ – came to be seen as a prerequisite to continuing prosperity. More highly educated people meant more productivity. Education was a form of investment, the classroom an engine of capital accumulation.[56]

The passion for skills was intensified by the publication of psychologist Jerome Burner’s The Process of Education(1960). Bruner claimed that new findings in educational psychology revealed that students were capable of learning the fundamentals of any discipline: “any subject [or discipline] can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.”[57]His theory rested on the assumption that all disciplines shared inherent structures that could be the basis of teaching.  One need not obsess about the particularities of any particular discipline.[58]The new emphasis was to be placed, not on historical content, but on the study of ‘concepts’ and the ‘mode of inquiry’ of disciplines in general.[59]A skills-based approach was particularly attractive because it had the advantage of not requiring textbook writers, educational consultants, and teachers to deviate too far from the norm of the nation-building narrative or tackle the controversial new advances of Canadian historiography. A skills or concept approach also had the added benefit of being applicable to any and all history courses. Teachers were freed from any requirement to master history as a form of disciplined inquiry.  The focus on the skills and concepts of history meant that as long as teachers understood them, they could apply them to any course, as long as they adhered to the textbook.

Since the “content” they provided was, evidently, no longer needed or valued, academic historians ceased to play a key role in history education in Canada. It must be said many of them were already overburdened. The turn to limited identities had opened up vast new areas of research. With a new intensity, academic historians, operating under the emerging dictate of publish-or-perish, also confronted bourgeoning populations of university students. By the end of the 1960s, such historians had largely ceased to write textbooks for use in elementary and secondary schools.[60]The study of education was, at the same time, becoming more and more academically specialized. Professors of education, rather than of particular disciplines, came to predominate in faculties of education.[61] Such new specialists “were often neither historically trained nor even sympathetic to history: their backgrounds were in other disciplines or in educational studies […] they saw subject-matter as simply a vehicle for the attainment of objectives.”[62]Approved textbooks began to take on a new form. Their front matter no longer contained a preamble outlining a vision of history. Now they often began with lists of teaching objectives.[63]

From the 1960s onwards, then, history education became the concern of teachers and educationists, not professional historians. Osborne puts it well: “The problem was that curriculum theorists and developers wished to put the concepts front and centre. Students were to learn the concepts, to understand them and apply them, in the sense that they learned arithmetic tables, because in this way they would learn skills that would be useful throughout life.”[64]Historical research and historical content, of the types undertaken by academic historians, no longer seemed a necessity, even in ‘History’ courses. Bruner and his increasingly influential disciples came to predominate in the field of history education, with an overall approach that was, to put it baldly, hostile to history. (Bruner himself proclaimed, “We are bound to move toward instruction in the sciences of behaviour and away from the study of history.”)[65]The shift from historians to educationists contributed to a divide between content and skills in history education, with the educationists in many cases ignoring the debates in the contentious field of history. The effects of this pedagogical turn are still with us today.



The mid to late 1990s were years of self-reflection on the part of historians and history teachers. As a school subject, history declined even more markedly. History had seemingly lost the ability to unify Canadians through appeals to patriotism and citizenship. The Quebec referenda of 1980 and 1995, and the regional divisions captured by Cook and Careless in their ‘limited identities’ approach, showed that ‘Canadians’ did not constitute a homogeneous people with a coherent national identity. Calls for a return to a single national narrative – inclusive, acceptable, inspiring – now sounded like throwbacks to a more innocent age. Historians, teachers, and educators all reflected on the decline of high school history. How and why had the subject of history become so degraded? What could they do to rectify the situation?

In 1995, coinciding with the publication of Davis’s suggestive manifesto, Ken Osborne brought out In Defence of History: Teaching the Past and the Meaning of Democratic Citizenship.Osborne taught for twelve years in the Winnipeg school system before becoming a member of the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba. His blend of teaching experience and academic expertise allowed him to mount a spirited defence of the necessity of history as a school subject. Osborne claimed that the decline of high school history since the 1960s had been accelerated by the discipline’s overwhelming self-absorption.  Because historians had not offered a persuasive defence of their own discipline – essentially, they said that one should learn history because it is history– the subject had been increasingly supplanted by seemingly more relevant or useful courses in social studies or current affairs. “If history’s place in the curriculum is to be restored, or even merely preserved, …persuasive and acceptable arguments [must] be found in its defence,” Osborne argued. “The best arguments of this sort, both philosophically and politically, are those which establish the connection between history and citizenship.”[66]True, he conceded, “citizenship” was a word with many meanings, some of them dangerous, but “properly understood … it means neither ideological nor institutional conformity, and especially not when used in its democratic sense.”[67]As Osborne meant the term, “citizens” were individuals forming a “community of equals who govern themselves,” with a “right to choose their governments, to make their voices heard, to play a role in politics, to enjoy certain social benefits and legal protections. At the same time, they are expected to obey the law, to pay their taxes, to play by the rules, and so on.”[68]Osborne identified three essential elements of democratic citizenship. First was a sense of identity with some wider community, usually defined as the nation; second, a set of rights and entitlements, such as the right to vote and to be represented; and, third, a corresponding set of obligations, such as obedience to the law. Here was a concept of democratic citizenship, and history could play a key role in sustaining it.

Attentive to the ways citizenship had been denied to vulnerable minorities, Osborne did not shy away from the shortcomings of liberal democratic polities. He insisted that citizenship and struggle were inextricably linked, as citizenship and its corresponding rights always had to be fought for and watched over. In “History, Citizenship, and Schooling,” Osborne highlighted how history had once been used to create a new spirit of unified Canadian nationalism, as witnessed by the many nation-building textbooks. According to Osborne, implicit in this emphasis was the assumption that the nation-state was the most natural and most desirable form of political organization. (It was also assumed, notwithstanding challenges from Quebec and the First Nations, that Canada was indeed, or could become, such a nation-state.) In this narrative, anything that could be shown to contribute to the building of the nation was duly validated and commemorated. Anything that did not was either condemned or disregarded. Unity above all else was stressed. Canadian history was, in its inspiring essence, the story of the federation. Central Canada was its leading protagonist, with Québécois, First Nations, and the regions only entering the picture when they joined Confederation or menaced it. Osborne found this perspective limiting. It was incumbent upon schools to teach students “about the different perceptions of Canada held in each region.”[69]By disregarding such complications, the consensus version of Canada promulgated in most textbooks was very Whiggish: “History was whatever shaped and led to the present. And, as one would expect, the present was seen as a pretty desirable place to be.”[70]

By the 1990s, this nation-building narrative had become a victim of its own success. It pacified students with its apparent omniscience, ‘common sense,’ and complacency. With “all the authority of narrative,” it created the impression that “this was the way things happened but that they could have happened in no other way.” Without any historiographical debates, without any tussles over interpretations, history was presented as “the story of what happened, plain and simple.” By and large, Osborne complained, “textbook narratives were not designed to be questioned. They were intended to entertain, to excite, but above all to instruct. Their very form reinforced the perception that history was a body of information to be learned. By and large it was something before which a student stood powerless.”[71]

The harsh irony was that, in the name of encouraging responsible, engaged and participatory Canadian citizenship, such an approach stifled it. One of the primary advantages of history, for Osborne, was that it enabled individuals to think for themselves and understand the human condition. It meant seeing “the world as it is” and thinking about how to get “from one state of affairs to the other. This is what makes the study of history an ideal preparation for democratic citizenship.”[72]The reduction of history to a set of inconsequential if uncontroversial facts could only undermine its democratic vocation.  “By and large, … most people seem to have abandoned the idea that a working knowledge of the history of one’s country and of the world of which it is a part is essential to effective citizenship, and especially so in the case of democratic citizenship,” Osborne noted.[73] More radically, one might say that a citizenry unconscious of most of its country’s history, including the empirical content of that history, is not much of a citizenry.

Osborne sought a new framework for Canadian history that would teach students both about Canada and about the world in which it is a part. This approach, which tended to thematic treatments while not losing sight of chronology or content,  could encompass the new insights of social and cultural history and demonstrate to students that ordinary people are “subjects not objects of history… In this way, social history can make a powerful contribution to the enhancement of democratic citizenship.”[74]The new advances of social and cultural history could be put to work in the education of citizens.

It was an inspiring and challenging prescription – perhaps too challenging for many working history teachers. Even those with advanced degrees in history might have found themselves hard-pressed to address many of Osborne’s topics, unless they were content to do so superficially. True, “the world is increasingly interdependent and interconnected.” But could students be brought to a profound understanding of this reality? Could the average teacher, confronting a world of glaring inequality, instill in students a thorough knowledge “about the history of the expansion of European power throughout the world; know the history of imperialism, its rise and fall; … the current links between the developed and developing world?”[75]The agenda of a teacher committed to his ‘citizen of the world’ approach would be daunting. And, of course, all such challenges would become more taxing in a Canadian history course. That said, any forward-looking program of regenerating Canadian history in our transnational age will have to reckon seriously with Osborne’s visionary program.

Educators were not the only ones commenting on the crisis facing history in high schools. Even professional historians waded into the debate. Michael Bliss and Jack Granatstein were two of the most prominent. They lamented the ‘sundering’ and ‘fragmentation’ of Canadian history, which they believed mirrored the fragmentation of Canada. They called for a return to national history, albeit one that incorporated some of those groups earlier sidelined in the nation-building narrative.[76]Of the two, Granatstein most explicitly addressed the state of history in public schools in his influential book Who Killed Canadian History? (1998). He was alarmed that the subject of Canadian history was on the cusp of disappearing from high schools across the country. (Such seemed to have been its fate in Ontario in the wake of the purportedly progressive Hall-Dennis report.)[77]While things seemed better in some provinces, such as Manitoba, they were worse in others, where Canadian history had essentially vanished from the schools. In addition, some provinces allowed students to substitute a social studies for a history course, which meant in all likelihood that history would be taught episodically if at all. According to Granatstein, it was the confusion over what version of history would be taught to students that accounted for why there was so little history taught in the schools. Education ministers and school board officials were flummoxed by the question, “Whose history?” Instead of picking one among many histories, they might simply conclude it was better “to offer none at all.”[78]Granatstein thus linked the fragmentation of Canadian history to the current problems facing the subject of history in high school. The “Limited Identities” of Cook and Careless had borne bitter fruit. Now, he complained, “it was not the nation that mattered, but ‘smaller, differentiated provincial or regional societies’; not Canadians as a whole, but the components of the ethnic mosaic; not Canadians as a society, but Canadians in their social classes. Canadians formed a complex pluralist society, and in that lay our strength.”[79]

Granatstein argued that students should be exposed to their national history on the grounds that it would bind them together and provide them with the cultural knowledge and capital they needed to participate fully in society. Much like Osborne, Granatstein saw history as a means to promote civic engagement. “History has a public purpose,” he proclaimed, “in creating Canadians who know where they want to go in the coming years because they understand where they have been.” History, if “written and taught properly,” was not mere “myth or chauvinism,” but was “about understanding this country’s past and how the past has made our present and is shaping our future.”[80]Appalling episodes in Canada’s past should be acknowledged; but the country’s achievements should not be denigrated. Multiculturalism, anti-sexism, anti-racism, all running amok, had led Canadians to overlook their own heritage and believe they had no culture worth defending.[81]

Granatstein was frank in his assessment of how history was being taught in schools. Provincial ministries laid down the requirements for textbooks and were responsible for ruthlessly vetting them. The result? The “blandest of mush.”[82]Granatstein believed that history had to move beyond memorization and recitation (even though he also stressed the importance of knowing basic facts and being able to recall them). Rather, history was more about the assessment of evidence: “Students must learn how to interpret documentation, understand narrative, evaluate conflicting perspectives and do research. Those techniques have relevance in every other aspect of education and life. But skills, however important they may be, are not and cannot be made a substitute for content.”[83]And two of the important skills that students should acquire were those of assessing differing interpretations of similar evidence and of placing Canadian events in their national and international context.

Many of Granatstein’s recommendations focused upon the political machinery of education.  He believed that there should be a minimum of three years of compulsory history in the public schools, and a further three courses in high school. He called for national standards in history, which necessitated a central role for the federal government in education and paralleled similar calls in the United States.[84]Had his recommendations gone forward, the bickering over educational jurisdiction, classroom authority, and political ramifications would have been deafening. In retrospect, it is difficult to identify one key constituency in Canada’s vast and complicated educational network with an interest in furthering his agenda. As was the case with Davis and Osborne, Granatstein seemed condemned to offering unrealizable prescriptions, especially in an increasingly neoliberal climate stressing “skills” and “competencies.”

Each one of these three analysts had his own distinctive remedy for high school history’s ills, but all three believed in going beyond the “fragments” to something bigger. They all noted that historiography could be used to accommodate multiple narratives and differing accounts – even histories that were “oppositional” to the nation-building narrative. While they had their own political affiliations (Davis and Osborne on the left, Granatstein on the right), they all agreed that an accurate grasp of Canadian history should undergird Canadian citizenship. Instilling in citizens a critical grasp of the fundamentals of Canadian history would give them an indispensable introduction to the real world of citizenship in a democratic liberal order.

Granatstein, Osborne, and Davis all proffered sage advice to stimulate history education, but their various prescriptions were almost certain to be neglected in an age prioritizing marketable ‘skills’ or ‘competencies.’ That paradigm advised educationalists that Canadian history, without much intrinsic value in itself, might at least provide incidental training in imparting empirical and analytical research skills. (So, of course, might many other subjects). So it was that these critics’ analyses won public acclaim in the short term, probably made some difference in the medium term, but failed to arrest the steady long-term transformation of high school history in an emergent neo-liberal order.


Partly in response to the imperatives of that neo-liberal order, partly recoiling from the  “history wars” that erupted in Canada and internationally in the 1980s and 1990s, partly absorbing postmodern trends in pedagogy, new scholars emerged at the turn of the twenty-first century offering a new way of thinking through the problems of teaching high school history. Peter Seixas in particular came to be identified with a renewed focus on the foundations of history education in Canada. His influence on history education in Canada has been profound.[85] In 2001, he was awarded a Canada Research Chair and established, at the University of British Columbia, the Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness. Later that year the ‘Theorizing Historical Consciousness’ conference was held, resulting in Theorizing Historical Consciousness (2004). Over the course of the next several years, Seixas developed his conception of historical thinking, culminating in the establishment of the Benchmarks of Historical Thinking in 2006, renamed the Historical Thinking Project in 2011, which subsequently became the focus of the Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness. It has been this approach to history education that has come to dominate the teaching of history in many Ontario high schools.

InThe Big Six: Historical Thinking Concepts(2013), Seixas and Tom Morton valuably outline six distinct but interrelated historical thinking concepts – Historical Significance, Primary Source Evidence, Continuity and Change, Cause and Consequence, Historical Perspectives, and Ethical Dimensions – through which students might attain an understanding of historical events and processes (or “habits of mind” or “competencies.”) Each concept is broken down into ‘guideposts’ to structure student learning. And criteria are provided as to how individuals might demonstrate a limited understanding or a powerful understanding of each concept, which can be measured as an indicator of student progress.

Seixas and Morton succinctly highlighted the key problem confronting the teaching of history in schools: “As educators, we have been content to tell stories about the past and to have students tell them back in essays or, in the creative history classroom, in projects and skits. This approach does not aim high enough.”[86]The science curriculum does not work this way, they perceptively noted. Students learn about the scientific method and do increasingly complex experiments so they can understand the basis of scientific claims. Why should history not follow suit?

The most fundamental problem in the discipline of history, according to Seixas and Morton, resided in the relationship between the historian and the past upon which he or she was focused. Existing in the present, such an historian was attempting to understand that which no longer exists. Hence this historian was compelled to make choices “in order to draw coherence and meaning from an infinite and disorderly past,” above all the choice of a lens or lenses through which to see and interpret that past. “History is created through the solutions to these problems. It takes shape neither as the result of the historian’s free-floating imagination, nor as the past presenting itself fully formed in an already coherent and meaningful story, ready to be ‘discovered’ by the historian,” they argued. “Rather, history emerges from the tension between the historian’s creativity and the fragmentary traces of the past that anchor it. Historical thinking is the creative process that historians go through to interpret the evidence of the past and generate the stories of history.”[87]Seixas and Morton had evidently been reading their Hayden White and R.G. Collingwood, and their implicitly ‘postmodern’ sensibility paid maximum regard to the active imagination of the historian and minimum regard to the possibility of an ‘objective’ reality with which all meaningful and lasting historical constructions must reckon.

Conspicuously underplayed in their idealistic approach was historiography, i.e., the assessment of all the Canadian writers and thinkers who over the past century have dwelt upon the Canadian past. For more than this generically-described and subjective “historical thinking” is at work in actually-existing professional history-writing. Paradigmatic formations in the historical community affect how groups of historians (in fact, all who seek to grasp the past in any formal discipline) go about their work. Just as there may not be one “philosophical method” uniting the works of Aristotle, Nietzsche, and Confucius, there might not really be one mode of “historical consciousness” uniting the thinking of all who consider the past. Rather, it may be important to grasp the historical frameworks within which particular social groups of such people work.

So when Seixas and Morton write that historians “are like directors of a play. Too often, our students see only the play. We want them to peer backstage, to understand how the ropes and pulleys work that make the play possible,”[88]they have missed a crucial point.  Grasping both the play and the staging techniques enabling its performance requires a familiarity with the context within which that play was conceived, the audience for which it was intended, and the theatrical tradition to which it contributes.  And this point might apply as well to a critical understanding of the “Historical Thinking” school. It has often proceeded as though it were initiating a brand-new conversation about high school history teaching. There is something ahistorical about an approach that in effect rarely stops to consider the work of the people who pondered similar problems before it arrived on the scene. ‘Historical consciousness’ sometimes seems ironically ‘unconscious’ of its own genealogy.

Their substantive neglect of actually-existing historiography leads advocates of the approach to a wholesale eviction of mnemonic politics from their account. However understandable this strategy might be in a neoliberal age fixated with marketable skills and convulsed with endless culture wars, such a neglect of the politics of history-making can only leave students perplexed when, on leaving their classrooms, they encounter militantly differing interpretations of the historical figures, events and issues they have encountered within them.

And historical education as a necessary ingredient of citizenship education is similarly downplayed. If the point is to learn historical thinking, why be preoccupied with any one (national, local or world) aspect of it? What is the importance of subject matter? And why should students learn anything about Canadian history? If students are going to learn about ‘skills’ without a consideration of the context or the content of the subjects to which those skills are applied, perhaps students would be better off learning about such skills in more directly remunerative STEM subjects? Why should provincial educational bureaucracies pay attention to history, when the case for its direct economic benefits for employers is at best a fanciful one?Seixas and Morton do not explicitly link their intervention into high school history to citizenship education—which is still the most cogent defence of the subject’s precarious existence in the high school curriculum.[89]

This downplaying of the citizenship/history education relationship is paralleled by their inattentiveness to questions of historical content. Only through a study of the subject matter of Canadian history can students be made aware of multiple narratives and accounts about it. For example, one cannot argue meaningfully about the rights and wrongs of residential schools without detailed understanding of the policy and its measurable outcomes. To be fair, Seixas and Morton do argue that “the six historical thinking concepts make no sense at all without the material, the topics, the substance, or what is often referred to as the ‘content’ of history.” They add: “Just as the concepts make no sense without historical content, historical content cannot be truly understood as anything other than a series of disconnected bits of data to be memorized without a grasp of the historical thinking concepts.” They note that the Battle of the Plains of Abraham still “occupies a key place in the story of French-English relations in Canada, a narrative that continues to be a live issue for us today.”[90]This is a persuasive and cogent insight, one that sometimes is lost in writings inspired by the “Big Six,” which sometimes seem to operate in a content-free context.

Nonetheless, the paradigm misses one vital question of content, which pertains to the historiographical schools that have shaped, and continue to shape, historical understandings in Canada. Historical Consciousnessand similar texts do not tell us much about the implications of choosing one narrative over another. Why should it matter that a battle in 1759, for instance, is presented in starkly contrasting ways? Although it is fleetingly acknowledged that historians disagree sharply with each other on important questions,[91]the authors do not explore in any depth why it is necessary for students to understand that the narratives they encounter in the classroom, and which are up and running in shaping their everyday worlds, are often in conflict with each other – and for explicable, deep-seated reasons.      In short, their sense of history is sociologically and historically impoverished. History seems, on their telling, a minor field of inquiry dominated by people pursuing merely antiquarian interests. It might provide some handy thinking skills useful in more important spheres, but exactly why one should pursue this round-about path to the acquisition of basic research skills is left unclear. That history might be a far more foundational ground upon which all human beings live and have their being is an underexplored possibility.

Seixas and Morton do not examine in any detail why conflict can exist between historical narratives, even though they acknowledge that the significance of historical events and figures can vary over time and from group to group. Historical significance is constructed in relation to today’s concerns: “The issues of contemporary life and culture shift over time, and therefore historical significance cannot be fixed and unchanging; it must shift over time as well.”[92]  Setting to one side whether “historical significance” exists in this transcendental ahistorical sense, and the calmly consensual atmosphere in which it is imagined such ‘significance’ is awarded or denied,  the authors have here grasped a seminal point. They leave its implications unexamined.

For how should this clash of interpretations and ideologies and cultures (to put a more realistic spin on their consensual language of “shifts” and “variations”) be represented in the classroom? It is here that the missing component of historiography as a vital element of ‘Thinking Historically’ is felt most acutely. When students confront debates over remembrance and commemoration, when the idea of “collective memory” is challenged by starkly contrasting “memories,” should they be encouraged to fall back on their pre-existing notions of the “proper” (i.e., nation-building) narrative, or challenged to understand the competing frameworks and the politics underlying them?

The politics of remembering and responding to the past is loosely touched upon in the Historical Thinking concept called ‘The Ethical Dimension,’ wherein Seixas and Morton discuss ‘contemporary history’ and ‘collective identities.’ However, since the Historical Thinking Concepts approach prioritizes skills, the political debates surrounding historical knowledge and its uses are sidelined. In the chapter dedicated to the Ethical Dimension, for example, Seixas and Morton use the term ‘contemporary history’ to alert students to the possibility that they might share an obligation for the past, depending on how far back the past in question is. Events “connected to people alive today” who “identify with the heroes and victims of the recent past” impose responsibilities. Those that are “simply too distant to inspire the kind of ethical engagement we have been discussing” do not. “If no one remembers them well enough to feel wounded or triumphant, then our responsibility to respond to the crimes and victories of the distant past is diminished.” (They concede nonetheless that collective identities stretching back over a long time period may “generate a responsibility to respond even when the crime or victory occurred long before contemporary history.”)Thus “the potency of these events allows them to be mobilized and retooled for contemporary political ends. To the extent that groups today tie their identities to people injured or victorious in long-ago events, we have motives for tangible forms of remembrance. Coming to terms with the past often takes the form of reparations or restitutions.”[93]

This is a truly question-begging formulation. To what extent does an “obligation to the past” exist? Who oversees the honouring of this obligation? From whose perspective are such responsibilities to be ascertained? What happens when one group’s time-line – say, respecting the centuries-long “event” of the European colonization of Canada – calls out, in their opinion, for a sense of collective moral obligation, whereas for another group, it pertains merely to “ancient history” that has no bearing on people in the present? What happens when one group’s victory is another group’s loss? Can competing narratives about the same event or the same personage coexist? If so, how does their competition with each other affect remembering and responding to the past?

And here the authors bail.  Silent for the most part about their own paradigmatic assumptions, they refuse to provide criteria upon which plausible answers might be produced to the questions their own formulation has aroused. They eschew a study of narrative and its uses because they want to avoid becoming embroiled in the politics and protests over subject matter. They avoid the politics of the past – or rather, they prefer to keep their politics out of sight. Students are invited to “peer backstage,” but they are not encouraged to grasp the place of that stage within a wider socio-economic order. They are not encouraged to explore the frameworks that make certain sorts of plays performable and others unthinkable, certain time-lines ‘actionable’ and others ‘irrelevant.’

None of this critique disparages the practical pedagogical usefulness of the ‘Six Concepts,’ three of which – Historical Significance, Primary Evidence, and Historical Perspective – might readily lend themselves to historiographical treatment. As students learn how primary source evidence is used to make a historical claim, and begin to grasp how to find, select, contextualize, interpret, and corroborate sources for an argument, they can learn how to make evidence-based inferences about these sources. On this basis, they can then assess claims to historical significance. Of course, they will also need to examine the diverse perspectives held by historical figures and their worldviews, and the historians who have written about them, so they can better understand historical events. Since multiple narratives or accounts inevitably exist in a pluralistic society, students should understand and consider their impact on shaping Canada as an ongoing political project. If history is to be used for citizenship education – which is at best an understated element of the Historical Consciousness paradigm[94]– students should be able to determine for themselves how to best remember and commemorate the past. To evaluate historical claims they will encounter beyond the classroom, students must, in short, engage with historiography.

An even more fundamental problem entailed in the Historical Thinking paradigm is the fact that Seixas and Morton do not define “ethics” or differentiate among different ethical frameworks. In essence, we find an intense moralism but not a reasoned defence of it. Kantian ethics differs from the ethical utilitarian thought of many liberal theorists, both of which in turn differ from the themes stressed by a number of other schools, each of which can be subjected to historical inquiry.The Ethical Dimension Concept of Historical Thinking which they defend is unencumbered by anything like a coherent defence of the “concept.” We seem to be reduced to a simple statement about what is right and what is wrong, both of them reflections of a supposed “common sense.”

Seixas and Morton provide one example to highlight how different accounts elicit contrasting ethical judgements. They compare an excerpt from Hakim Adi’s 2011 article, “Africa and the Transatlantic Slave Trade” with a contrasting narrative of the slave trade in J. Steven Wilkins’s 1997 biography Call of Duty: The Sterling Nobility of Robert E. Lee. Seixas and Morton show how Adi offers an ethical judgement on slavery, which is based on his interpretation of the historical record.Adi writes that, of the perhaps almost 11 million people subjected to chattel slavery in the Atlantic World, fewer than 9.6 million “survived the so-called middle passage across the Atlantic, due to the inhuman conditions in which they were transported, and the violent suppression of any on-board resistance. Many people who were enslaved in the African interior also died on the long journey to the coast.”[95]As Seixas and Morton explain, such phrases as “inhuman conditions” and “forcibly transported” condemn the slavers and highlight the dehumanizing effects of slavery. In comparison, Wilkins’s verdict on the slave trade is much sunnier: “Slavery, as it operated in the pervasively Christian society which was the Old South, was not an adversarial relationship founded upon racial animosity,” he claims. Thanks to the Christian faith, which preached the “unity and companionship of the races,” here was a system characterized not by “contempt, but over time, mutual respect. This produced a mutual esteem of the sort that always results when men give themselves to a common cause.”[96]Seixas and Morton rightly conclude that Wilkins’s interpretation of slavery, which figures in his overall heroization of General Lee, implies that “today’s claims that racial injustice occurred must hold little water.”[97]

Yet, missing from their evaluation is any consideration of Wilkins’s position within Lost Cause historiography or the ways in which he uses partial evidence to bolster his politically-charged conclusions. Nor do they venture any assessments of the extent to which chattel slavery figured centrally in the economic and political history of the Atlantic World, eliciting support from such eminent apostles of liberty as John Locke, giving it a painful place in the history of the liberalism that so shaped America.  They are content to leave their examination of these narratives with the simple implicit conclusion that slavery was ‘bad’ and Wilkins’s ‘interpretation’ of it deficient.

And it is telling that, instead of engaging with the professional historical works on slavery and its complications, they deal with a work of fiction juxtaposed to one of strictly amateur history-writing. Theirs is a form of “historical consciousness,” it seems, that is content to neglect most history as it has been explored by professional historians – in this case, by all those who have revolutionized our understanding of slavery and capitalism. Engaging with this debate within history and among historians would give students a chance to compare and contrast the works of amateur and professional historians. It also might have added needed nuance to Seixas and Morton’s own contention that the “Jim Crow system” was “dismantled in the American South within the past generation.”[98] On another, more critical reading, one advanced by a number of historians of race and racialization, Jim Crow lives on in many a penitentiary and inner city.[99]Seixas and Morton ultimately use Wilkins merely as a ‘straw man’ rather than dwelling upon the charged debate about modern slavery as a historical social formation and much of contemporary racism as its legacy.[100]

Nowhere is their avoidance of questions of historical tradition and historiographical context more obvious than when they are explaining another Historical Thinking Concept – Thinking about Evidence. Seixas and Morton present the work of historian Keith Thor Carlson, author of The Power of Place, The Problem of Time (2011), who wrote about the Sto:lo peoples who have for centuries occupied the lands surrounding the lower reaches of the Fraser River. Carlson had worked for some years as a research coordinator for the Sto:lo Nation, and in this particular book, he explores the history of Sto:lo social relations, cultural change, and the historical meaning of Sto:lo identity ask the question of whether they constitute a single Sto:lo Nation throughout the region, or if their identities are more tied to local places. Seixas and Morton remark, the issue is of “immediate, contemporary relevance,” since it bears directly upon the issue of who can “legitimately represent” this First Nation in land negotiations with the federal government.[101]Here they have ably selected a closer-to-home example to illustrate the problems of evidence.

Yet this example also confirms that the Six Concepts need to be supplemented by a seventh: acute awareness of historical schools and historiographical traditions shaping our contemporary world. While Seixas and Morton explore how Carlson corroborated and interpreted the primary sources he consulted, they do not return to the contested political implications of his research. The Sto:lo peoples organized this research project in order that they might present a coherent voice to Indian Affairs. Alertness to the search for usable pasts (in this case, pasts offering rival justification for representation of the First Nations in negotiations with the federal government about rights and land title) and the use of historical narrative for political ends helps us grasp the dynamic and contested nature of historical knowledge, as well as the specifics of this particular development.

As Hodgetts and Osborne both forcefully argued, a familiarity with historiography – the frameworks, methods, and networks governing the work of historians – reveals much about the dynamic nature of historical study.  It can used to promote history for citizenship education. And it is of particular significance if history in high schools is still regarded as a preparation for informed citizenship.  By being aware of different historical narratives, and by critically appraising their empirical and logical soundness, students can gain a more thorough and nuanced understanding of Canadian history as well as the capacity to evaluate the validity of some accounts in comparison with others. Although multiple narratives complicate our understanding of the past and are not easily reconciled or synthesized with one another, students cannot and should not be shielded from this reality if they are destined to be informed citizens in the divided country they do in fact inhabit.

This critique of Seixas and Morton — which essentially turns on the three questions of their neglect of historiography, their diminished sense of historical education’s tie to active citizenship, and their vagueness about their own commitment to one school of ethics over others — has been foreshadowed by other writers. H.E. McGregor forcefully criticized the Historical Thinking Concepts for its lack of attention to “the historians’ positionality, changing identity/ies and their own historicity,” and the role of place in “making and remaking our stories.”  He particularly noted how little they paid attention to “the practices of suspending opinion, showing humility, and asking self-reflexive questions in the encounter with the epistemological (and other forms of) difference.”[102]Osborne has also highlighted more general problems associated with the framework, namely “its attitude towards knowledge, which it variously ignores, takes for granted, or treats as instrumental to the attainment of historical thinking […] Knowledge is an important component of citizenship and, if so, whether some kinds of knowledge are therefore more important than others.”[103]Indigenous scholar Samantha Cutrara has underlined the extent to which it presupposes a “settler grammar” in the study of the past, in effect “denying the space for Indigenous epistemologies in the study of the Canadian Past,” with the effect of “lessening the space available to develop the respect, openness for truth, and room for relationality needed to develop relationships of reconciliation.”[104]And, writing from a similar perspective, Michael Marker points out that there is a yawning epistemological and political divide between Indigenous historical epistemologies—with their emphases upon oral traditions and the circular nature of time, “relationships between humans, lands, and animals,” and “knowledge of the local,” among other things — and the Historical Thinking approach.[105][105]

In response, Seixas has raised the specter of an unlimited relativism, but a more pertinent point may be that all such challenges arise in part because the Historical Consciousness school has ignored the fundamental challenge of historiography, including understanding itself historically in a specific political context.[106]The hard-and-fast rules given to students, with the “Big Six” becoming a veritable bumper-sticker slogan, ignores the complexities and evolving nature of the discipline of history. Ultimately, the evolving methods of the discipline, the position of the historian as mediated by the time in which he or she is working, and the goals the historian seeks to further — are all ignored. In their neglect of the actual context of historical work and the frameworks informing it, the Historical Thinking Concepts paradigm verges on an atheoretical ahistoricism.

As Canadian history fragmented in the turn to ‘limited identities’ and the nation building narrative was assailed, an emphasis on neutral-sounding “skills” offered political cover and also helped people avoid the arduous task of revising (if not overhauling) curriculum and textbooks. The advent of the Historical Consciousness paradigm did not in fact fundamentally change the venerably Whiggish nation-building of Canadian textbook history. The demands of various groups were accommodated, to a point. But there was no fundamental structural change in the nation-building architecture of the average history course. In effect, we presently have a form of high school history that attempts to conciliate bothersome minorities, while the onwards-and-upwards grand Canadian narrative marches imperturbably on. An attempt at depoliticization — if that is how Historical Consciousness might be fairly construed — has not in fact shielded Canadian history from politics. It has, in a sense, made the “Canada” of the traditional classroom histories that much stronger, because it has seemingly and effortlessly absorbed all such subaltern challenges.


It would be fatally easy at this point to slide into a lament for a lost paradise of history instruction, now lost forever in a hyper-politicized and polarized twenty-first-century world. Our cursory survey of this subject from Tomkins to Seixas negates any such nostalgia. Not many contemporaries would wish to return to the histories of the Victorian Age of High Imperialism. In the internet age, the memorization of dates and details, against which generation upon generation of students protested, seems less functional than ever it did. The ‘progressive’ ideals of child-centred education and the ‘New Left’ notions of magnifying the voices of the excluded will not and should not be replaced by the rote learning of scripts dedicated to valiant heroes. Such Golden Age nostalgia would neglect the realities of politics in today’s classrooms.

History’s politicization — or ‘weaponization,’ in the twenty-first century’s more pungent phrase—cannot be regarded as isolable problem fixable by ignoring the historical myths and symbols and narratives that have the capacity to move millions.  However off-putting it may be, especially for teachers fearing irate parents and disgruntled school boards, history is, and is likely to remain, highly politicized. Merely the decisions about which narrative to highlight and which to marginalize, which questions to ask and which to side-step, whether or not to use words like “genocide” or “racism” or “oppression,” constitute political choices.

In 2000, in reaction to the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, political scientist Thomas Flanagan, star member of the right-wing Calgary School of intellectuals and confidante of Stephen Harper,  published First Nations, Second Thoughts. Flanagan challenged what he calls the ‘aboriginal orthodoxy’ to which the Report supposedly stands as a monument. He disputed what he took to be this orthodoxy’s core contentions: that “aboriginals differ from other Canadians because they were here first,” enjoy an inherent right to self-government, constitute nations, legitimately aspire to sovereignty, and rightly champion readings of land-surrender treaties that mean “something other than their words indicate,” i.e., an ongoing relationship between nations.[107]If this orthodoxy is not checked, Flanagan warns, the country we once knew will be “redefined as a multinational state embracing an archipelago of aboriginal nations that own a third of Canada’s land mass, are immune from federal and provincial taxation,… are able to opt out of federal and provincial legislation, and engage in ‘nation to nation’ diplomacy with whatever is left of Canada.”[108]Flanagan bears evidence in such a passage to the power of history in the classroom, since even in the United States, he evidently acquired as a youth and now defends as an adult a vivid master narrative about the triumph of civilization, settlement, economic growth and liberalism. This narrative has been long hegemonic in Ontario history-writing and history-teaching, imparted to students at least since the Victorian heyday of Egerton Ryerson.

It is relatively easy to decide that Wilkins’s 1997 unprofessional biography of Robert E. Lee, of which Seixas and Morton make so much, should not be used in the high school classroom, primarily on the grounds of its amateurish use of evidence and its ahistorical treatment of race and racialization. But do Flanagan’s views—a more refined version of the narrative inspiring Senator Beyak’s comments on residential schools, with which we began—have any place there?  Unlike Wilkins, Flanagan is a well-established prize-winning academic. Yet, one feels safe in predicting that, for many of the followers of the Historical Consciousness paradigm, the answer to this question would be an unqualified ‘No.’ Yet, from the perspective of an approach that places a greater priority on historiography and the public uses of history — on the ways in which the past is reconstructed, debated, revised, instantiated in some practices and refused in others—the answer might well be ‘Yes: But Proceed with Caution.’  With due historical contextualization, and with scrupulous regard for primary and secondary evidence, Flanagan’s work could be introduced to high school students as an influential statement of a robustly liberal world-view, one that is, plainly, far from extinct today, among politicians, historians and the general public.  The many debates aroused by the contemporary ascent of the Indigenous agenda belong in the classroom, referring as they do to some of the core questions confronting any young Canadian citizen.

Similarly, the ardent debates that have erupted over the past five years concerning statues, particularly those to John A. Macdonald, likely belong there, too — once again, once they are placed in a broad, critical, historiographically-informed context. Most Canadians, ardent if unconscious believers in the Great Man Theory of History, still believe Macdonald should be commemorated as a heroic founder of Canada.[109]Yet, in August, 2017, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, responding to the TRC’s recommendations, urged school boards to rename buildings that bear Macdonald’s name, partly because celebrating the prime minister was based on an “incomplete version of Canadian history” and partly because retaining the name conflicted with the Association’s goal of supporting “positive learning environments” and  “safe and healthy schools for all of our students.”[110]The teachers seemed, in correcting one heroic over-simplification, to be championing another: the casting out of a villainous ne’er-do-well. A more historiographically-informed approach might situate the Canadian ‘statue war’ by contextualizing Macdonald within the myths and symbols, the master narratives and interpretive schools, that over a century and a half nationalist historians have developed around him. By teaching students to historicize Macdonald, and themselves, such a strategy would transform a predictable slugfest into a genuinely ‘teachable moment.’ In that moment, students might encounter in memorable ways enduring realities about rival forms of “historical consciousness” to be found in Canada. This is not a recipe for endless and unmitigated partisanship—on the “history wars” model—but, rather, a call for evidence-based, logically-argued and subject-to-contestation classroom practices open to the multiple perspectives and interpretations championed by various groups in civil society.

Without fully acknowledging the fact, the “Historical Thinking” cadre are the inheritors of the work of past cohorts of intellectuals who have worried for more than half a century about the place of history in Canadian schools. They have registered some real gains. Yet any pedagogy that obscures or silences historical perspectives and interpretations important to large social or political groups in the country, in the name of an individualistic ideal of each student empathetically re-imagining the past in the name of an ill-defined liberal ethics, cannot provide us with an adequate response to today’s divided world. In its fervent but untheorized embrace of abstract liberal humanism, ‘Historical Consciousness’ seems incapable of grasping, let alone problematizing, itself as a moment in processual historical debates, in this case about colonization and ‘progress.’  And these are precisely the debates about which we should expect the young citizens of a democracy to have informed opinions.

Why did Canadian history decline in the high schools over the past half-century, to the point that some are today writing its obituaries? Drawing on the insights of Davis and Osborne, perhaps a contemporary answer would highlight the state’s waning conviction that it has any obligation to create informed and critical citizens (as opposed to enthusiastic consumers, compliant workers, and easily-manipulated voters). A new cohort of scholars, alert to the manifold ways historiography and history-making shape all representations of the past, inside the classroom and out, should reclaim the mantle of Hodgetts, Osborne and Davis, and inscribe “Education for Citizenship” on their banners — and keep their eyes on the prize,  the promotion of a more active and engaged and historically informed democratic citizenry.


[1]The Ontario Curriculum Grades 9 and 10: Canadian and World Studies, Revised 2013 (Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 2013), 9.

[2]The Ontario Trillium list contains the titles of textbooks authorized for use in classrooms by the Minister of Education. The textbooks named on the Trillium List are evaluated in accordance with the criteria specified in Section 4 of Guidelines for Approval of Textbooks. As of January 2019, the textbooks approved for Grade 10 History were Margaret Hoogeveen and Sarah Murdoch, Creating Canada: A History – 1914 to the Present(Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 2nd Ed., 2014); Michael Cranny and Garvin Moles, Think History: Canadian History Since 1914 (Toronto: Pearson Canada Inc., 2016); Julia Armstrong et. al., History Uncovered: Canadian History Since World War (Toronto: Nelson Education Ltd., 2014); and Jan Haskings-Winner et. al, Canadian Sources: Investigated(Revised Edition) (Toronto: Nelson Education Ltd., 2014).

[3]“Conservative senator defends ‘well-intentioned’ residential school system,” CBC News, 9 March 2017.; Conrad Black, “Conrad Black: Pull yourselves together, senators — Don Meredith and Lynn Beyak don’t deserve to be kicked out,” National Post, 17 March 2017.; Rahul Kalvapalle, “Andrew Scheer removes Sen. Lynn Beyak over ‘racist’ letters about Indigenous people,” Global News, 4 Jan 2018.

[4]For a discussion of the evolution of historical writing in Canada and the professionalization of the discipline, see especially Carl Berger, The Writing of Canadian History: Aspects of English-Canadian Historical Writing: 1900 to 1970(Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1976); Donald Creighton, Towards the Discovery of Canada : Selected Essays(Toronto: MacMillan of Canada, 1972); Carl Berger, The writing of Canadian history : aspects of English-Canadian historical writing since 1900, second edition(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986); Ronald Rudin, Making History in Twentieth-century Quebec : historians and their society, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997); Marlene Shore, ed., The Contested Past: Reading Canada’s History. Selections from the Canadian Historical Review (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002); and Donald Wright, The Professionalization of History in English Canada(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005). A useful introductory work for high school students is William Kelleher Storey and Towser Jones, Writing History: A Guide for Canadian Students (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[5]For a discussion of the origins of state education in the 19thcentury and the aims of school promoters, see: Alison Prentice, The School Promoters (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1977); Susan Houston and Alison Prentice, Schooling and Scholars in 19thCentury Ontario(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988); and Curtis, Building the Educational State: Canada West, 1836-1871 (London: The Althouse Press, 1988).

[6]George S. Tomkins, A Common Countenance: Stability and Change in the Canadian Curriculum (Scarborough: Prentice-Hall Canada Inc., 1986.), 88.

[7]E.T. White, Public School Textbooks in Ontario, (London: The Chas. Chapman Co., 1922), 64.

[8]Ibid., 65.

[9]Robert M. Stamp, The Schools of Ontario, 1876-1976, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), 105

[10]José E. Igartua, The Other Quiet Revolution: National Identities in English Canada, 1945-1971(Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press, 2006), 75.


[12]Ibid., 76.

[13]Ibid., 77.

[14]Ibid., 79.

[15]Ibid., 84.


[17]Ibid., 85.

[18]Ken Osborne, “Teaching Canadian History: A Century of Debate,” in Penney Clark, ed., New Possibilities for the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada, Penney Clark (Ed). (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2011), 61.

[19]Ken Osborne, “‘Our Syllabus Has Us Gasping’: History in Canadian Schools – Past, Present, Future,” Canadian Historical ReviewVol. 81, No. 3, (September 2000): 412.

[20]While many commentators on history education seek to present a pan-Canadian perspective, they must not be too hasty to impose a uniform pattern upon all the provinces and territories, in the absence of a sorely-needed pan-Canadian survey encompassing all of them. Education in Canada falls under provincial jurisdiction over education as enshrined in Section 93 of the British North America Act. For important studies of Manitoba pattern, see Ken Osborne, “One Hundred Years of History Teaching in Manitoba Schools. Part 1: 1897-1927,” in Manitoba History, No. 36 Autumn/Winter 1998-1999; Rosa Bruno-Jofré, “Citizenship and Schooling in Manitoba, 1918-1945,” in Manitoba History, No. 36, Autumn/Winter 1998-1999.

[21]Bob Davis, Whatever Happened to High School History? Burying the Political Memory of Youth: Ontario: 1945-1995,(Toronto: James Lorimer & Company Ltd., 1995), 14.


[23]Ibid., 15.

[24]Davis explains that his belief that the decline of history was attributable to the ‘loyalty-training’ of television was ‘purely a hunch,’ 61.

[25]Ramsay Cook, “Canadian Centennial Cerebrations,” in International Journal, Vol. 22, No. 4, (Autumn, 1967), 663.

[26]J.M.S. Careless, “Limited Identities in Canada,” Canadian Historical Review Vol. 50, No.1 (March 1969,) 1.

[27]Ibid., 9.

[28]Ibid., 49.

[29]They continued to conform to a tradition of blandness and uniformity. Textbook writers also did not deviate too far from the established norm, no doubt to flog their contracts to provincial bureaucrats.

[30]Igartua, The Other Quiet Revolution, 137.

[31]Hodgetts was also a textbook writer, whose own textbook, Decisive Decades: A History of the Twentieth Century for Canadians (1960) was a standard Grade 10 history text used throughout the 1970s. Two writers reflect that it was “one of the subtlest and most candid reflections available on Canadian history…the well-crafted text can only be ready in the twenty-first century with a sense of regret for the sharp decline in standards of historical understanding expected of secondary school students.” Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Great War (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016), 171; for similar praise, see Igartua,  The Other Quiet Revolution, 151-152.

[32]Some use the terms ‘civic education’ and ‘citizenship education’ interchangeably, whereas others use the former to refer only to civic education i.e. teaching students about the branches and levels of government, the legislative process, voting, the judiciary, etc. The definition supplied by Hodgetts is in line with the more encompassing term of citizenship education.

[33]A.B. Hodgetts, What Culture? What Heritage? A Study of Civic Education in Canada (Ontario Institutes for Studies in Education, 1968), 1.

[34]Ibid., 18


[36]This criticism was also raised later on by Ken Osborne who claimed that textbooks left readers with the impression that history could not have happened any other way. See Ken Osborne, In Defence of History: Teaching the Past and the Meaning of Democratic Citizenship(Montreal: Our Schools/Our Selves Education Foundation, 1995), 20.












[48]Geoffrey Milburn, Teaching History in Canada (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1972), xi-xii.


[50]J.A. Eisenberg, “Contemporary History Education: Factors Affecting Its Survival,” in Geoffrey Milburn, Teaching History in Canada (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1972), 143-4.He was particularly exercised by the provincial Ministry’s decision to prohibit moral education.

[51]Lewis Hertzmann, “The Sad Demise of History: Social Studies in the Alberta Schools,” in Geoffrey Milburn, Teaching History in Canada (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1972), 124.


[53]Gerald Walsh, “A Survey of Philosophies of History in Canadian High Schools,” in Geoffrey Milburn, Teaching History in Canada (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1972), 133.Even miracles, he complained were treated historical facts in such texts.

[54]J.L. Granatstein, The Canadian ForumVol. 48 (March 1969), 283.

[55]A.B. Hodgetts and Paul Gallagher, Teaching Canada for the 80s(Toronto: OISE, July 1978) 136 pp.

[56]Brian Titley and Kas Mazurek, “Back to the Basics? Forward to the Fundamentals?” in Brian Titley, ed. Canadian Education: Historical Themes and Contemporary Issues (Calgary, Detselig Enterprises, 1990), 114. Davis claims that the ‘skills mania’ was a response to the restructuring of capitalism since the late 1960s. Davis argues that the conventional wisdom of the decade was as follows “the needs of business and industry, will change so quickly and so often that schools must now switch from teaching certain bodies of knowledge to teaching students how to learn – and this switch will eventually solve the unemployment problem. That’s the true basis for the current skills mania.” See Davis, Whatever Happened to High School History?,63.

[57]Jerome Bruner, The Process of Education(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), 33.

[58]Stéphane Lévesque, Thinking Historically: Educating Students for the Twenty-First Century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 11.

[59]Osborne, “Teaching Canadian History: A Century of Debate,” 67.

[60]With regard to historians’ complaints about the bleak (albeit well-paid) drudgery of writing textbooks, Arthur Lower’s comment is apropos: “from it I learned that high-school textbooks must hew to a sharply marked line of convention, must not introduce new matter (except surreptitiously), and should include the old well-worn accounts, possibly taken from preceding books.” Cited, Igartua, The Other Quiet Revolution, 82.

[61]Osborne, “Teaching Canadian History: A Century of Debate,” 67.

[62]Osborne, In Defence of Canadian History, 52.



[65]Jerome Bruner, Toward a Theory of Instruction(Cambridge, 1966), 36.

[66]Osborne, In Defence of History, 10.

[67]Ibid., 11

[68]Ibid., 14

[69]Ibid., 36.

[70]Ibid., 18.

[71]Ibid., 20.

[72]Ibid., 27.

[73]Ibid., 28.

[74]Ibid., 125.

[75]Ibid., 36

[76]Michael Bliss, “Privatizing the Mind: The Sundering of Canadian History, the Sundering of Canada,” in Journal of Canadian Studies Vol. 26, Issue 4, (Winter 1991-92): 5-17.

[77]Living and Learning: The Report of the Provincial Committee on Aims and Objectives of Education in the Schools of Ontario, 1968. This required students to take only one history course in high school. For an illuminating discussion of the moment of Hall-Dennis, see Adam Josh Cole, “Children, Liberalism and Utopia: Education, Hall-Dennis and Modernity in Ontario’s Long 1960s,” Ph.D. Thesis, Queen’s University, 2015.

[78]Jack Granatstein, Who Killed Canadian History? (Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998),xi

[79]Ibid., 72.

[80]Ibid., 17.

[81]Ibid., 86.

[82]Ibid., 46.

[83]Ibid., 45.

[84]Ibid., 141.

[85]For an indication of the strong influence of the “Thinking Historically” paradigm among leading scholars, see Penney Clark, ed., New Possibilities for the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada(Vancouver and Toronto: University of British Columbia Press, 2011). As its back cover proclaims: “this volume advances the debate by shifting the focus from what should be included in history education to how we should think about and teach the past.”

[86]Peter Seixas and Tom Morton, The Big Six: Historical Thinking Concepts, (Toronto: Nelson Education, 2013), 3.

[87]Ibid., 2.

[88]Ibid., 3.

[89]True, Seixas argues that “disciplinary history provides students with the standards for inquiry, investigation, and debate. History taught through this approach exemplifies the liberal, open society and should prepare students to participate more fully in one.” Peter Seixas, “Schweigen! Der Kinder! or, Does Postmodern History Have a Place in Schools?” in P.N. Stearns, P. Seixas, & S.S. Wineburg (Eds.), Knowing, Teaching and Learning History: National and International Perspectives, 34.But this is only a tepid endorsement of history for citizenship education.

[90]Peter Seixas and Tom Morton, The Big Six: Historical Thinking Concepts(Toronto: Nelson Education, 2013), 4.

[91]They ask, for instance, “what do we do when two accounts of the same event conflict with each other?”Ibid., 5.

[92]Ibid., 23.

[93]Ibid., 178.

[94]The Big Six, focused intently on the procedural, offer only a tepid stimulus to history for citizenship education. Some of this limitation becomes evident in Stéphane Lévesque’s Thinking Historically (2008), which shows that some of the criticisms facing the Historical Consciousness school cannot be addressed within Seixas’s framework. See Stéphane Lévesque, Thinking Historically: Educating Students for the Twenty-First Century(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).

[95]Ibid., 174.

[96]Ibid., 175.

[97]See, for instance, William L. Ramsey, “The Late Unpleasantness in Idaho: Southern Slavery and the Culture Wars,” History News Network. such as Peter H. Wood, Clayborne Carson, and Ira Berlin have also condemned Wilson’s work as well, with Wood calling Wilson’s claims as spurious as Holocaust denial.

[98]Ibid., 177.

[99]See especially Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness(New York: New Press, 2012).

[100]See Eugene Genovese, The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation(New York: Pantheon Books, 1969); Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made(New York: Pantheon Books, 1974); Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese, The mind of the master class : history and faith in the Southern slaveholders’ worldview(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); and Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Fatal self-deception : slaveholding paternalism in the Old South (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[101]Ibid., 43.

[102]H.E. McGregor, “Decolonizing the Nunavut school System: Stories in a river of time”(Unpublished doctoral dissertation) University of British Columbia, as cited in Stephen Levesque and Penney Clark, “Historical Thinking: Definitions and Educational,” The Wiley International Handbook of History Teaching and Learning, Scott Alan Metzger and Lauren McArthur Harris, (eds.) (Wiley Blackwell, 2018), 129.

[103]Ken Osborne, “‘To the Past:’ Why We Need to Teach and Study History,” in To the past: History Education, Public Memory & Citizenship in Canada, Ruth Sandwell,(ed.) (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,) 125.

[104]Samantha Cutrara, “The Settler Grammar of Canadian History Curriculum: Why Historical Thinking is Unable to Respond to the TRC’s Calls to Action,” Canadian Journal of Education Vol 41, No. 1 (2018): 258; 254.

[105]Ibid., 261

[106]Seixas is aware of this criticism. He has conceded that his model of historical thinking has been accused of being “atheoretical, of omitting attention to the interpretive nature of history, of paying insufficient attention to the dynamic interrelationship of past, present, and future captured by the concept of historical consciousness, and drawing insufficient connection among six ‘independent historical thinking concepts.’”Peter Seixas, “A Model of Historical Thinking,” in Educational Philosophy and Theory, 49 (6), 593-605.

[107]Tom Flanagan, First Nations, Second Thoughts (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University, 2000), 6-7.

[108]Ibid., 5.

[109]A September 2018 Angus Reid survey suggested only one out of ten wanted Macdonald’s image and name effaced from public sites of memory:

[110]ETFO passes motion to rename buildings named after Sir John A. Macdonald, 24 Aug. 2017.