Discover Canada Errors

13 11 2009

I’m posting some quick thoughts about the Discover Canada handbook.

I was struck by the fact the authors of this pamphlet decided to focus on abstract rather than practical knowledge about life in Canada. The citizenship test and pamphlet in the UK assesses knowledge of historical facts and political institutions, but it also tests practical knowledge, such as the emergency number or how to pay a gas bill.  In contrast, the Discover Canada document betrays the ivory tower origins of the people who worked on it.

I respect the academics who worked on this document, including Jack Granatstein, Margaret MacMillan of St Antony’s College Oxford, and fellow WordPress blogger Janet Ajzenstat. I like the life of the mind, but I’m also down to earth.I pride myself on my ability to socialize with people in a wide variety of occupations and do an ever-growing number of practical things with my hands. I’d like to think I’m a better academic for stepping outside the ivory tower every now and then.

I say this to explain why I am so appalled by certain parts of this document. This document suggests that it was written by people who are totally out of touch with modern-day Canadian popular and political culture. It’s a document for people who meet Prince Charles more frequently than they pump their own gas.

I listed the consultants on this document in an earlier post. They include a variety of academics, a former governor-general, a retired army officer, the spouse of a former governor-general, civil servants who work for Rideau Hall and other individuals drawn from the elite of various branches of the public sector. I don’t think any people who have had careers in the private sector (net taxpayers) were consulted. The consultants are mostly people who live and work in Ottawa or who have lived there in the past.

This document’s version of Canada is distorted by the Ottawa-centric and anglophile biases of its creators. Among other things, Discover Canada is dripping with the colonial cringe and monarchism so typically of upper-middle class “intellectual” Canadians. The document is replete with references to the Queen and Canada’s British heritage, etc. One feels tempted to pronounce the word tomato tomAHto just reading it. The ghost of Vincent Massey stalks the land.

It would have been nice had the document been vetted by a randomly-selected group of Canadian adults. The result would probably have been a much greater emphasis on practical knowledge. The document would have been less politically correct. In fact, maybe we should investigate using a Wikipedia-type process to write a real guide for new citizens. A more widely distributed process would be best way of coming up with a statement of consensus values in modern-day Canada.

Section 1. Inaccuracies in the History Section (Non-Exhaustive List):

“Cartier heard two captured guides speak the Iroquoian word kanata, meaning “village.” By the 1550s, the name of Canada began appearing on maps.”

This is misleading because it presents a disputed theory as fact.

“At the time of Confederation, the vote was limited to property-owning adult white males.”

Simply not true at all. Newfoundland had manhood suffrage—there was no property qualification. Moreover, the last provincial election in Nova Scotia before Confederation was also on the basis of manhood suffrage: all male British subjects over 21 were allowed to vote, regardless of their wealth or property.  No statute in British North America prohibited Blacks from voting provided they fulfilled the other criteria. Natives near Brantford Ontario voted in federal elections until the 1890s.  The Chinese were disenfranchised well after Confederation.

“The “Roaring Twenties” were boom times, with prosperity for businesses and low unemployment.”

True in the US, not really true in Canada. Sadly Canada experienced in the prosperity of the United States in the 1920s to a very limited extent.  The 1920s were tough for Canada because of the many barriers to cross-border trade, even before Smoot-Hawley kicked in.

Important Omissions from the History Section (Elephant in the Room Department):

There is no mention of the two conscription crises, or the fact the Great War set Quebec at odds with English-speaking Canada.

There is nothing here about gay history and the dramatic transformation of Canadian attitudes to homosexuality over the course of the 20th century. This is something I talk a bit about in the first-year Cdn history survey course. This is an important bit of our history for immigrants to know, especially those who come from non-Western countries (the vast majority nowadays).

Section 2. Questionable historical interpretations in the document.
“Canadian television has had a popular following.”

That’s not what the ratings say. Maybe this was true in 1955, when CBC was the only channel available in most of Canada. Maybe the guy who wrote Discover Canada doesn’t have cable.

“Canadian society today stems largely from the English-speaking and French-speaking Christian civilizations that were brought here from Europe by settlers.”

This is really debatable. Canada is more of a Western country than a Christian one. (Serbia and Ethiopia are parts of Christendom, but they aren’t part of Western civilization). It is more accurate to say that our civilization, based as it on railways and jet aircraft and so forth, is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment.
“The great majority of Canadians identify as Christians. The largest religious affiliation is Roman Catholic, followed by various Protestant churches.”

Yeah, for census purposes. But immigrants should be informed that this is now a predominantly secular country. They need this fact to understand the society in which they are living. The authors of the document have ignored our history, or at least a major theme in Canada’s 20th century history (secularization).

“Most Canadians were proud to be part of the British Empire.”

Debatable, since Gallup polls didn’t start in Canada until 1940. It would be more accurate to say that the political class, including MPs and newspaper writers, were strongly pro-British. The generally low enlistment rates in the First World War in small-town English-speaking Canada suggests that the average Canadian farmer was a North American who didn’t give a crap about the British Empire except insofar as it influenced the price of wheat.

Section 4. Comments on the Non-Historical Sections of the Discover Canada document.

1) Sports

“Canadian football is the second most popular sport. Curling, an ice game introduced by Scottish pioneers, is popular. Lacrosse, an ancient sport first played by Aboriginals, is the official summer sport. Soccer has the most registered players of any game in Canada.”
By which statistical measure is “Canadian football” the second most popular sport in Canada? No way! The authors of this section must have been on crack appear to have grown out of touch with Canadian culture in the decades since the advent of cable TV. Most young Canadians are unaware of the existence of the CFL. If they watch football at all, they watch the NFL or U.S. college football—or Toronto FC. Few of my students would be able to name three CFL teams, but they could all name a dozen NFL or professional baseball teams based in the US.

2) One of the defining things about Canada is that it is automobile-based society. This fundamental fact about Canada goes unmentioned here. Outside of the CBDs of the largest cities, one must have a car and driver’s licence to be a fully functioning member of society. The centrality of the car to Canadian life should have been stressed in Discover Canada, perhaps with a sentence reading “In Canada, it is expected that all able-bodied men and women will know how to drive a car”. Too many immigrant women are trapped in their homes because they don’t drive.
3) My major disappointment with this document is that the authors chickened out and refused to deal with the issues of arranged marriage and inter-ethnic marriage, a big issue for 2nd generation immigrants.  To be fair to its creators, the document did contain the following statement regarding gender equality:

“In Canada, men and women are equal under the law. Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, “honour killings,” female genital mutilation, or other gender-based violence. Those guilty of these crimes are severely punished under Canada’s criminal laws.”

Criticizing spousal abuse is relatively uncontroversial. As someone who has heard immigrants from backward cultures say truly appalling things, I would have liked the document to have gone further. Perhaps it should have included a statement about contemporary Canadian sexual mores:

“In Canada, most people meet their life partners through a process called ‘dating’.  Parents are expected to respect the romantic choices of their adult children. Because you are now living in a modern society, it is probable that your children will marry someone of a different ethnicity and religion. Intermarriage had been an important theme in Canadian history for centuries, which is why many Canadians are of some sort of mixed ancestry. Modern Canadian society does not attach a positive value to female virginity or having an intact hymen. Virginity at marriage is nowadays regarded as, at best, neutral. It is normal for both men and women to have had a variety of sexual partners before marriage. In Canadian society, homosexual children are increasingly accepted by their parents. If this makes your uncomfortable, you may wish to leave Canada. P.S., if your daughter doesn’t want to wear a headscarf, you shouldn’t make her.”

Now that would be a “muscular” citizenship guide. This guide is anaemic and, in its own way, far too politically correct.

Christopher Moore has more on this. Historian Jerry Bannister also has some thoughts. For press commentary, see here, here, and here.



10 responses

14 11 2009
Jerry Bannister

The list of experts is certainly revealing. I’m not sure what we should call the handbook; it seems to be an odd hydrid of state heritage, public history, and federal politics.

I was a bit surprised to see the Globe and Mail endorse it so unreservedly, but their emphasis on Canada’s history and personalitiesoffers a clue. Another clue is provided in today’s editorial, which trots out a new version of their argument that the Governor General should be selected by the companions of the Order of Canada.

After issuing a curious call to arms — “This country can do better” (wasn’t a federal politican recently panned for saying the same thing?) — the Globe pours new wine into an old elitist bottle: “We suggest using a non-partisan body modelled upon the Advisory Council of the Order of Canada.” To provide political legitimacy, they throw in the kitchen sink of the Ottawa establishment, listing everyone from the Chief Justice to the President of the Royal Society of Canada as participants in the appointment process; however, the plan is not much different from the 1991 version.

So it’s perhaps no surpise that the Globe’s editorial board was so enthusiastic about an official history that has such impeccable establishment credentials.
In a culture where John Ralston Saul, of all people, can safely rail against the country’s elites as if he were not part of the Ottawa establishment, it’s unlikely that the Globe would see anything wrong with the politics behind the new handbook.

Jerry Bannister

14 11 2009

Jerry, John Ralston Saul is about as Ottawa Establishment as they come!

This link to a story about historical errors in the UK citizenship test was just sent to me by someone in the UK. I’m reposting it here.

14 11 2009
Adam Crymble

You make an excellent observation in this post:

“maybe we should investigate using a Wikipedia-type process to write a real guide for new citizens.”

So, I’ve created a wiki and added the text from the “Canada’s History” section of the document. I encourage you and your readers to feel free to edit as you see fit. Once everyone has had an opportunity to add their input, I will pass along the result to the Canadian government as a recommendation for improving the guide.

The wiki is located at:

You can add to, subtract from, or make any changes you like.

It’s one thing to disagree with a government policy and another to do something about it, so here’s our chance as historians to have our say.


14 11 2009

Fantastic idea! But how can you ensure that it doesn’t get too long? A word/page limit would force people to make some tough cdecisions about what it worth including in the guide but is necessary. The guide that is wiki-improved should be the same length as the beta version the government published on 13 Nov.

P.S. I’m not certain that this document really represents government policy, if by government we mean “the Harper ministry”. The Minister, for whom I have personal respect, probably signed off on the approval of Discover Canada along with a dozen other documents he had had skimmed while talking on a Blackberry e. That’s how govt works. Ministers are ultra-busy. Besides, I can see an Ignatieff govt publishing the same document. Indeed, had Ignatieff not left academe, he would almost certainly have been asked to be a consultant for this. Fits the profile.

17 11 2009
Discover Canada: Historians respond to Canada's new citizenship guide |

[…] Andrew Smith, historian at Laurentian University, has been the most critical, accusing the pamphlet’s authors of being “totally out of touch with modern-day Canadian popular and political culture.”  Among other more minor critiques, he slams the document for ignoring the polarizing effect of the World Wars on Canadian society (especially the conscription crisis) and the dramatic shift in Canadian society during the twentieth century towards secularization and acceptance of homosexuality. […]

27 11 2009
Andrew Cohen on the New Citizenship Guide « Andrew Smith’s Blog

[…] test in the Ottawa Citizen. He is much more positive in his assessment of the guide than I am, but he also points out its many curious omissions. He points out that there is no mention of Prime […]

12 12 2009
George Buri

Your contention that Canadian football is an unpopular sport based upon anecdotal evidence is no better than the sort of assumptions you criticize. Take a trip to Alberta, Saskatchewan or Manitoba and I can guarantee the CFL will be far more popular than the NFL. Furthermore, recent television ratings for the CFL have demonstrated that it is objectively, the second most watched sport in Canada.

4 01 2010
Quebec Culture Lessons for Immigrants « Andrew Smith’s Blog

[…] posts, I have spoken about the federal government’s new citizenship guide for immigrants, Discover Canada, and have linked to historian Jack Granatstein’s opinion piece on immigration policy.  […]

4 01 2010

As a disillusioned academic, it was refreshing to read your comments about the citizenship document (Discover Canada). While I am not sure I am 100% in agreement, I definitely concur with you about the backward assumptions and statements made by other (I am [a non-monarchist] Brit PR) immigrants, particularly regarding sexuality. I would add that there is no mention of the immigration from the US post revolution to Upper Canada and Nova Scotia (not all are British, French and Aboriginal). I will be back to read more. Thanks!

28 05 2010
Nona Hendrix

If only more people could read this.

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