“The Debate on History Education in Quebec”, in New Possibilities for the Past : Shaping History Education in Canada, Penney Clark (Ed.), Vancouver, UBC Press, 2011, p. 81-96.
In a book that caused quite a stir when it first appeared, the French historian Marc Ferro said that history was under surveillance. How better to characterize the critical activity that since April 2006, has been unleashed against efforts by the Quebec Ministry of Education (MEQ) to transform the national history course previously offered to high school students into a history and citizenship education course. The term “unleashed” is not exaggerated here. It properly conveys the magnitude of the reaction provoked by the ministerial decision to have young Quebecers acquire a broader and more complex comprehension of the Quebec historical experience, with a view toward building the Quebec of tomorrow. As the opponents to the state’s initiative see it, the contemplated reform of the national history course had a quite different and utterly reprehensible goal: undoing the existing corpus of historical references underlying young Quebecers’ historical consciousness. Hence the need, felt by those protesting the new history curriculum, to represent the MEQ’s decision as a Trojan horse leading to the possible dismantling of a collective identity. Such a curriculum, one critic noted, would lead to nothing less than the “tranquil denationalization of Quebec’s identity.”
This research helps us reflect on how to teach history to youth. We know to which extent, over the past twenty years, the historical thinking paradigm has influenced academics and teachers. Without diminishing the important contribution this intervention has made in teaching history, we need to acknowledge that historical thinking is not easily implemented in the concrete context of the curriculum or classroom.
We have arrived at this conclusion by examining a subset of students in Quebec’s mandatory History and Education to Citizenship course who, in principle, have been introduced to historical thinking methods. It appears from their submissions, however, that even after learning about historical thinking, students continue to adhere to canonical visions of Quebec’s past; a past that’s binary, simplistic and divided. Of course, it is possible that the historical thinking paradigm was not fully applied in the classroom and therefore these responses have nothing to do with its putative failure to fulfill its promise. It is equally possible, however, that the strong voices supporting this paradigm under-estimate a number of significant realities:
Youth develop their understanding and vision of history outside of the classroom as much, and often more, than inside the classroom.
Youth quickly forget most of what they are told or learn in class.
The grand national narratives remain a ready-to-use framework or template for young people diligently searching to make sense of the past that allows them to live efficiently in society (or at least pass the exam!).
” […] To the question: “If you had to tell me what Quebec history was all about in one sentence, what would you say?” student Alexandre Thibault responded: “The invasion of Indian lands by French people and the subsequent invasion by English people.”
Fellow students Alex Miller-Pelletier and Mariana Racine-Mendez saw Quebec’s history as a struggle for identity.
“Since the Plains of Abraham war, French people have felt the oppression of English people,” they said.
Létourneau found that young anglophones are half as likely as francophones to have a positive view of Quebec’s history.
He said that he believes it’s time we move past the simplistic, black and white script. […]”
“Some fear that the new curriculum may only emphasize a troubling trend uncovered in a novel 10-year study by Université Laval historian Jocelyn Létourneau. The scholar asked high school and university students to sum up the history of Quebec in one phrase. He found that while students may not have all the facts, dates and figures, they are clearly marked by an overwhelmingly negative view of the Québécois saga — one defined by endless struggle and repeated defeat.”