Thursday, July 05, 2007

American Legends

In my final year of highschool I took an elective course in American History. Our excellent instructor, Al White, one of the finest teachers I ever had the privilege of learning from, began the first day of class by giving us a pop quiz: ten questions on American history and then, rolling up the world map, he revealed to us ten more questions... on Canadian history.

Almost everyone in class scored 7/10 or better on the American history questions. However, most of us where lucky to be able to answer even 3 of the Canadian history questions. This after 12 years of education in Canadian classrooms! How was it that we all knew who discovered America and when the American Revolution was won and who the first president of the United States was - but almost no one knew who had been the first prime minister of Canada?

The answer of course, is "the media". We Canadian kids had spent a lifetime reading about American history (and mythology) in books, comics and magazines. We had seen it referenced in cartoons, television and movies. Being a one-tenth-size neighbour to the United States, Canadian kids are awash in American media. And America has a knack for mythologizing its historical figures that makes learning about them very appealing to kids. Canada just doesn't do that.

A couple of months ago there was a report that, as recently as the 1930's, the United States government had a plan in place to invade Canada. Conspiracy theorists up here believe that such a plan still exists. As I learned in my American history course some 25 years ago, why bother?

*You can see these images at full size in my American Legends Flickr set.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Trying again...

    You know, a few years ago I had a Canadian college student working as a national park volunteer for me. She was extremely bright and articulate, and everyone thought quite highly of her.

    Imagine my shock at her reply, then, when I wished her a happy Canada Day on July 1, and conversationally remarked, "This is the day your federation was established, right?"

    What does she say? "I don't really know. They didn't teach us much Canadian history in school."

    Okay, I can understand not going too deeply into the details of the Mackenzie Bowell government (though I love the name) but not getting around to the meaning of the national holiday?

    And here I thought coverage of history was abysmal in the 'Merkin educational system!

  3. Ha! Many thanks for confirming my observation, ranger bob.

    There are plenty of Canadians who spend a lot time wringing their hands and filling the airwaves of radio talk shows over this situation... but I have come to accept it.

    Whatever it is that makes us proud to be Canadian (and believe me, we ARE proud), its not a sense of historical commonality or admiration for great Canadians who came before us.

    I don't blame the education system - I blame our media industry for being only to happy to pick up the rights to rebroadcast and reprint whatever they can from the States instead of fostering a vibrant homegrown pop culture milieu.

    They would, of course, respond that they are simply giving the people what they want.

  4. Hi Leif,
    I think that you would find the same thing today if you were to do that "test". It's a product of living right beside the US of A.

    On a positive note, one year of Canadian history is a compulsory course for gr 10s in Ontario.(Meaning that they have to pass the course as a requirement of graduating high school).

  5. C'mon, admit it guys, America's awesome. Ha ha...seriously, I find all this fascinating. I do have to agree with your statement, Leif, that Canadians are very proud. For the past 3 years I've been going to the Ottawa Animation Festival, the sense of Canadian pride is so clearly evident throughout the entire week I'm there. NFB has a strong presense as well as Canadian filmmakers. Geez, after a week of this, I end up wanting to pack my bags and move North just so I can make my short film.

    Sorry about the media thing. We Americans tend to be very boastful about our country.