The Inside Story on the Discover Canada Citizenship Guide

2 03 2010

In December, the federal government introduced Discover Canada, a new study guide for immigrants wishing to become Canadian citizens. At the time, I used this blog to point out some of the flaw of the historical sections of the guide. These flaws included factual errors and serious omissions. The guide says very little about the political history of Canada in the twentieth century and fails to mention such important Prime Ministers as Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, and Brian Mulroney! How you can pretend to talk about Canadian history without mentioning these figures is beyond me.  Moreover, the guide says almost nothing about the social history of Canada, which is even more distressing because many immigrants come from countries with radically different social histories. Last December, people noticed that there was almost no information about the history of divorce, abortion, and homosexuality in Canada. I think that it is important that an immigrant from say India, which decriminalized homosexuality in 2009, should know that Canada made the same move back in the 1960s.

Thanks to a story in today’s Globe, we know that material on these controversial topics were included in the original version of the guide and were edited out by the immigration minister, Jason Kenney.

Le Devoir has also carried this story. I’m curious to know what the reaction in Quebec to this story is, since Quebec’s classes for immigrants do indeed stress the rights of women and gays.

One hopes that John Baird, Mr. Kenney’s cabinet colleague, will speak up on this important issue. Baird arguably represents the mainstream in Canadian society far more than Mr. Kenney.

It is clear that the guide will have to be revised so that it reflects the values of Canadian society rather than a small clique of people who do not represent the values of ordinary Canadians. However, we should give some thought as the best process for writing a guide of this nature. It would be wrong for the guide to reflect the values of either the far right (monarchists or some Airborne Regiment veteran) or the extreme left (Quebec Solidaire types) or any other small group be they snow-mobile drivers, ice fishers, or pipe fitters . The guide should reflect the values of the mainstream, the majority.  Obviously we can’t put this guide to the people of Canada in a referendum for approval, but by using Wikipedia-style technology the federal government empower ordinary Canadians to have a voice in the making of this guide. The government should cap the length of the guide and then let ordinary Canadians debate what sort of values should be fitted into the available space.

Let me just say that I find it very curious that the Canadian Historical Association, which is supposed to speak for the historical profession in this country, has had absolutely nothing to say about the atrociously bad historical sections in the Discover Canada guide. The only reasonable explanation for the appalling silence of the Canadian Historical Association is that the organization’s offices are located in a building owned by the federal government and they do not wish to antagonize their landlord.

Discover Canada Citizenship Guide

18 01 2010

Late last year, I posted on the flaws of the Discover Canada guide for new citizens. Today’s Globe and Mail carries a story about how this document was edited.

Jack Granatstein on the New Citizenship Guide

28 12 2009

Historian Jack Granatstein has published some thoughts on Discover Canada, the federal government`s new citizenship guide, in the Winnipeg Free Press. He had this to say about the new guide. “It is a vast improvement over the 1990s study guide that was a vapid embarrassment. Presumably, a new citizenship test will flow from Discover Canada. It might even be a real examination that questions applicants about Canada’s liberal-democratic values — and helps entrench those values in new citizens.”

This is a good article, not least because it talks about the Bouchard-Taylor Commission and the Quebec debate about reasonable accommodation and Quebec citizenship. Too many English-speaking Canadians have ignored these issues. I agree that the Discover Canada guide is better than the old guide, but this isn`t saying much. Eating grass is better than eating dirt. I also like how Professor Granatstein said the new citizenship test “might” question applicants about Canada`s liberal, democratic, and secular values. He was right to introduce a note of qualification and caution here. I expect that the new citizenship will simply test a few random facts. It is hard to test someone`s value using a written test, since people can always lie about what they really think.

Moreover, the Discover Canada citizenship guide is largely value neutral and says very little about Canadian values. It is a recital of facts, many of which are correct. Professor Granatstein writes that the guide “even includes a flat-out condemnation of honour killings”.  Well, honour killings are such an extreme example of a behaviour inappropriate in Canada that coming out against this category of murder hardly takes much political courage.  Honour killings are also  rare. Islamic parents forcing their daughters to wear headscarves, on the other hand, is a really common problem in some cultural communities.  Adult children being pressured into arranged marriages or being disowned by their immigrant parents for being homosexual are other big problems. Unfortunately, neither of the two major political parties has the guts to write a REAL citizenship guide, one that would condemn such practices. Instead we get a watered-down guide like Discover Canada. It is a sad sign of how overly tolerant Canadians have become that a short declaration that honour killings are illegal was considered a bold move by the government! I kinda like the Dutch approach, which involves showing prospective immigrants a video that, among other things, shows two men kissing.

One last comment. Professor Granatstein said that “we need to consider carefully how we integrate them [immigrants] into our liberal-democratic and secular society…” I note that Granatstein uses the word society here in the singular. It might be appropiate to refer to British society or German society, but Canada is not a nation, as the House of Commons has itself recognized with a 2006 resolution. Quebec is a nation, which means that there are at least two societies, if not more, in Canada`s territory. The values, traditions, etc., of Quebec society are not those of  rural Alberta or even Toronto. For this and other reasons, I believe that the integration of immigrants is a matter best left to the provinces. The federal government has little control over what happens once immigrants are admitted into Canada. Education policy, employment law, whether there should be nativity scenes at city hall, etc., are firmly matters of provincial jurisdiction. Most residents of Canada have little contact with federal institutions aside from the Post Office. The provinces are where it is at.

Andrew Cohen on the New Citizenship Guide

27 11 2009

Andrew Cohen, Ottawa-based public intellectual

Andrew Cohen has published some thoughts on the new citizenship 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 Ministers after Sir John A. Macdonald. As he puts it, “Jim Balsillie (Research In Motion co-founder) and Dr. John A. Hopps (inventor of the pacemaker) are in, but not Mackenzie King or Lester Pearson. Peacekeeping is a footnote. The Golden Age of Diplomacy is ignored.”

Cohen is right to comment on the guide’s silences on huge swathes of Canadian political and diplomatic history. Any guide that is supposed to cover the recent political history of Canada but which leaves out the Prime Ministers and the names of the political parties is clearly not doing its job!  It would be unfair to ask prospective citizens to memorize all of the Prime Ministers, given that some of them were in office for very short periods. I confess that when I am lecturing to university students, I go over the Prime Ministers between Macdonald and Laurier rather quickly. Joe Clark and John Turner also get rather cursory treatment in my course for first-year students. I have to prioritize.  But surely being an informed citizen means knowing a little bit about, say, those Prime Ministers important enough to have international airports named after them. Most immigrants enter Canada through Pearson airport. Shouldn’t they know a few key facts about Pearson?!?!?

Cohen also mentions that “The Constitutional Wars are largely unmentioned, as is the FLQ. This is uncomfortable, but, if we can speak of domestic violence, why not domestic discord?” This is another major omission from this guide. This guide isn’t even good political history (it gets a key date wrong), and it also avoids any discussion of social history. The really big trends of post-1867 Canadian history (i.e., urbanization, industrialization, de-industrialization, secularization, the Demographic Transition) all go unmentioned, which is especially problematic when we consider that most of our immigrants now come from countries that are only have half modernized themselves.   This guide is terrible. Since it will have to be reprinted anyway to deal with the factual errors pointed out by Christopher Moore and myself, it makes sense to start talking about what sort of omissions should be recitified.

After reviewing some of the faults of this guide, Andrew Cohen describes it as “splendid”. I respect Andrew Cohen, but I am at a complete loss to understand how he could use the adjective “splendid” to describe this piece of crap. The fact the old citizenship guide was even worse and essentially ahistorical does not justify praising the new guide to the skies.

Check out Christopher Moore’s list of factual errors in DC.

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.

New Canadian Citizenship Guide

13 11 2009

The government has unveiled its new guide to Canadian citizenship, known in English as Discover Canada. The contributors who helped to write the guide include a number of academics, including several historians:

Dr. Janet Ajzenstat

Mr. Curtis Barlow

Dr. Randy Boyagoda

Mr. Marc Chalifoux

General John de Chastelain

The Rt. Hon. Adrienne Clarkson

Mr. Andrew Cohen

Mr. Alex Colville

Ms. Ann Dadson

Dr. Xavier Gélinas

Dr. Jack Granatstein

Mr. Rudyard Griffiths

Dr. Lynda Haverstock

Dr. Peter Henshaw

Dr. D. Michael Jackson

Senator Serge Joyal

Dr. Margaret MacMillan

Dr. Christopher McCreery

Mr. James Marsh

Fr. Jacques Monet, SJ

Dr. Jim Miller

Ms. Deborah Morrison

Dr. Desmond Morton

Mr. Bernard Pothier

Mr. Colin Robertson

Dr. John Ralston Saul

Organizations that assisted with the prepartion of the guide include: Canada’s National History Society; Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada (FCFA); Historica — Dominion * Institute for Canadian Citizenship.
I will post some thought about the historical section of the guide later today. These thoughts will include a list of the historical inaccuracies and serious ommissions I discovered.