Quebec Exam is Bad History, Written in Bad English
Published by Emily Meloche on 2011-07-05
By Sam Allison and Jon Bradley, Special to The Gazette
In his book Who Killed Canadian History?, one of the country's foremost historians, Jack Granatstein, says: "Nationalism in Quebec is not propagated in a haphazard way by individual teachers. It starts at the ministry level and it permeates the textbooks." We can now add official history examinations to that. For over 20 years, Quebec has been producing dubious nationalist history in its compulsory examinations. The most recent exam for History and Citizenship Education (which replaced the old History of Quebec and Canada) avoids issues that are politically uncomfortable for nationalists and is an excellent example of bad history.
An essay question asks students to write about demographic changes that occurred in the 20th century in terms of immigration, migration within Quebec, and natural growth. In a telling omission, the consequences of Bill 101, which reduced Quebec's population and is recorded as the largest internal migration in Canadian history, are not to be considered by the students.
While this is supposed to be an examination in English, some of the documents are in French and historical English names have been changed to comply with Bill 101. L'Estrie in 1880 was in reality the Eastern Townships; and Rue Saint-Jacques, Canada's financial centre in 1920, was in reality St. James Street. In addition, the examination uses words that are not English. One question asks students to identify forms of cultural expression associated with currents of thought such as "agriculturalism" and "cooperatism." Neither the Google, Oxford, nor Webster dictionaries recognize these as words. Nonetheless, students have been taught them because they appear on the official curriculum and in the textbooks. These are only a translator's notion of English. This tells us something about the intellectual levels of those writing the text and exam. As Montreal writer Bill Weintraub used to say, it is difficult to write satire in Quebec because real life is so funny you can't be any funnier.
There has been virtually no fuss about the avoidable problems of bad English in the over 20 years of these exams. The Quebec-Canada entente has paid several hundred million dollars to Quebec for minority-language education. When will the Education Ministry actually start using proper English? When will the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages actually start criticizing the Quebec government for its indifference to English-language education?
But this examination is bad history for all students, not just English ones. For example, all should know as a recent historical fact that Bill 101 generated an exodus from Quebec. While many Quebecers may believe that studies of the province's history should promote a nationalist perspective, this is far outweighed by the right of all children to have a balanced view of our past. In the essay question, the ministry should have provided documents showing emigration that decreased the population. In addition, the demographic trend in the late 20th century was the flight to the suburbs, and not just urbanization as is claimed in the essay questions.
The examination is supposedly about history and citizenship education, yet is grounded on the notion of the Québécois as a nation. Citizenship must deal with more than simply Quebec citizenship. Local, Canadian and international citizenship must also be covered. Citizenship at the beginning of the 21st century involves plural identities, but thanks to the skewed and narrow nationalist focus, the only citizenship identity pursued in this course is a specific Quebec one. This notion has seeped so deeply into educational thinking that in 2010 the English school boards developed an entire exam based on the premise of "Quebec as a nation," entirely unaware that this has no basis in law or history.
Quebec has long trumpeted educational reform and independent thinking, but reality shows the opposite is true. Many advocate independent commissions to oversee the police and to investigate the construction industry. Perhaps the time has come to demand an independent commission to oversee the evaluation of education, especially history education, in Quebec. Nobody is guarding and holding accountable the nationalist educational guardians of Quebec.
Sam Allison is a recently retired secondary-school history teacher.
Jon Bradley is an associate professor with the Faculty of Education of McGill University.
People dressed in 18th century clothes take part in a parade at the Pointe-a-Calliere public market, a recreation of Montreal's 18th century outdoor market, in Old Port in Montreal on Saturday, August 28, 2010. The writers contend that the most recent exam for History and Citizenship Education avoids issues that are politically uncomfortable for nationalists and is an excellent example of bad history. Photograph by: Dario Ayala / THE GAZETTE MONTREAL.