Published in the Montreal Gazette on June 27, 2010.
I can still remember, all these years later, the acute anxiety present in our hot and humid high school gymnasium when we wrote our Canadian History Junior Matriculation Exam. After every one was seated and the clock struck the requisite hour, the forboding seal on the large brown ministry envelope was broken before our youthful eyes, and the tests were removed. Exams were compiled on a pad then, and the invigilators would move down the rows detaching a copy from it for each ‘candidate’ – as students were so gravely styled at the time.
The examination paper itself was only six inches by twelve inches in size and, as I recall, contained six essay-type questions. Pupils were to select any five – at twenty points per answer. One question which I chose to respond to read something like this: “Trace the struggle for Canadian autonomy from the British Conquest of 1760 through to the Statute of Westminster of 1931.” There were at least a dozen historical developments to which references and comments had to be made, and in order for the candidate to be successful, he had to be actually familiar with them. One also had to know how to write.
Well, that was then, this is now.
The recent controversy surrounding this year’s Canadian History High School Leaving Exam caused me to reflect on my own lengthy vocation as a secondary school history teacher, a career that ended with my retirement in 2006. Over a period of nearly thirty-six years as an educator with the PSBGM/EMSB, I taught many adolescents, as objectively as I possibly could, the history of Canada. I also invigilated and corrected my share of end of the year ministry exams. In fact, to this day, I have in my possession a copy of most of those same government tests covering the period 1970 – 2007. They make for a fascinating and revealing study.
In scrutinizing them, the first aspect that is easily noticeable is the very size of the exam. Even by 1970, it had already become a six-page leaflet that, of course, could no longer be torn from a pad. However, by 2007, (the last one I have) the test had increased in size to an astonishing forty-two pages. This, in itself, is an incredible indictment of the government’s supposed preoccupation with environmental issues.
Yet far more captivating is the content, and how the subject matter evolved down through the years. Its rapid change might also help one better appreciate the present polemics. On the June 1970 examination, for instance, the first ten questions contained queries about Canada’s system and form of government, as well as the rights and duties afforded by citizenship. Contrast that with today’s pupils who receive essentially no instruction in civics whatsoever.
Interestingly as well, the 1970 Canadian History examination employed the word “Quebec” on just one occasion – a reference to the pre-Confederation Conference held in the Vieille Capitale in 1864. On the other hand, the word “Canada” was used repeatedly. Now, of course, it is quite different.
By the mid – 1970’s, some fine points began to change. In 1977, just seven months after the Parti Québécois first came to power, the official title of the French version of the ministry exam became “Histoire Nationale” and various questions of dubious construction and purpose began to appear. For example, question number forty-four from the June 1981 ministry exam:
“The fact that the Lévesque government:
- held public hearings before passing laws on the environment
- held hearings by the Minister of Education in connection with the ‘green paper’ on educational reforms
- held a referendum on the issue of ‘sovereignty-association’
is evidence of its desire to…..
A-interfere with the economy
B-consult the public on issues
C-promote reforms of the tax system
D-safeguard freedom of the press”
I hope you chose the right answer.
So by the early 1990’s, what had long been known as “Canadian History” was replaced by the very suggestive title “History of Quebec and Canada” – not the history of Quebec IN Canada but the history of Quebec AND Canada. Increasingly, references to Canada have taken on a biased tinge with the regular June reminders of the hanging of Louis Riel in 1885, the Conscription Crisis of 1917, the federal plebiscite of 1942, the October Crisis of 1970, the Night of the Long Knives in 1981, the failure of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990, etc.; in short, anything that in the eyes of those nationalist educators putting the examination together would make Canada look bad and, by inference, Quebec its victim.
Unfortunately, it would seem that today, among those nationalist pedagogues, we now have English – speaking sympathizers producing exams that have little to with the evaluation of objective history, and much to do with politics – and wasting paper.