TORONTO – Some Canadians may not be sure on what date their country came into existence and may be sketchy about the opening lines of their national anthem, but a new poll suggests that hasn’t prevented them from feeling significant pride in the place they call home.
The online survey, conducted by Ipsos Reid on behalf of Historica Canada, found some striking disparities between what respondents knew about their country and the way they felt about it.
Positive sentiment ran high among poll respondents, with 80 per cent saying citizens ought to show more patriotism for their home and native land. The survey found 93 per cent of participants felt they had freedom of expression in Canada, while the same number felt the country was welcoming towards all cultures.
Survey participants also voiced strong agreement with statements that Canadians were polite (92 per cent), proud of their population diversity (86 per cent) and possessed of a sense of uniquely Canadian identity (86 per cent).
Poll respondents also gave Canada high marks for pride in their heritage, with 89 per cent identifying this as a national trait. But pride didn’t necessarily amount to knowledge of basic historical facts, the poll suggested, as 44 per cent of respondents could not name 2017 as the date of Canada’s 150th anniversary and 11 per cent could not pick out the opening lines of “O Canada.”
The Ipsos poll of 1,001 online respondents was conducted between June 17 and 19. The polling industry’s professional body, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error as they are not a random sample and therefore are not necessarily representative of the whole population.
While the survey results may appear contradictory at first glance, historians said knowledge of key dates doesn’t necessarily equate to lack of interest in Canada’s past. Historica Canada President Anthony Wilson-Smith lamented the fact that 1867 is not burned into the collective memory as the date of Confederation, but said the knowledge gap is not as alarming as it might have been.
The strong positive sentiments about national attitudes, traditions and character traits, he said, suggests Canadians are paying attention to the big picture even if they’re ignoring the smaller one.
“It’s not that Canadians are saying, ‘We don’t care about our country,’ ” Wilson-Smith said in a telephone interview. “Far from it. What they’re saying is, ‘ We feel great about where we are, . .. and let’s not worry about the details too much.’ Obviously our preference is people should know more about the details, but it would be a bigger issue if Canadians were disdainful of our country, if there was a lesser sense of who we are collectively.”
Some historians argue the knowledge gap around some national dates can be chalked up to Canada’s more regionalized approach to history education.
Mark Reid, editor-in-chief of Canada’s History magazine, said history lessons in the country’s schools focus largely on regional and provincial concerns while only touching on issues of national scope such as the First and Second World War.
Students in Nova Scotia, for instance, may learn plenty about the Acadian expulsion while learning little to nothing about the fur trade that would dominate discussion in British Columbia classrooms. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham would be taught very different in Ontario schools than they would across the border in Quebec, he added.
That emphasis on more local history has many benefits, Reid said, since it allows students to identify with events and places that shape their daily existence.
Reid argues the growing role of technology in the classroom helps animate those more regional discussions even further by engaging a new generation of scholars to get creative and think critically instead of simply learning by rote.
“The students today are getting a better history education, by and large, than we ever had before.,” Reid said. “I’m in my 40s and I came up in that generation of, ‘crack the book, read chapter seven and there’ll be a test on Tuesday.’ Today, teachers are taking technology and multimedia and making it super-innovative and super-fun for students.”
Assignments that send students out into the community to have conversations with people who witnessed history unfold, or to observe the interactions of different cultures, do more for historical education than memorizing a list of dates, he said.
Deborah Morrison, outgoing President of Canada’s History Society, agreed that local stories are key to keeping students engaged, but feels numbers like those published in the Ipsos poll reinforce the need to put those lessons in a national context.
Morrison concedes this can be challenging in a geographically vast and diverse country that can offer a variety of answers to even the simplest historical question. The date of confederation, she points out, can vary from province to territory depending on when each jurisdiction joined the country.
The key, she said, is for educators to connect the dots between regional events and the broader backdrop against which they unfolded.
“What we do need to do is start thinking about, in the context of that: ‘Why am I a part of Canada? How did we get connected to Canada? How can I make these other more distant places in my country; how can I have a greater sense of stewardship and connectedness to that?’”