At Last, An Honest ‘Look At Canada’

At last, an honest look at Canada

By Adam Chapnick
The Ottawa Citizen
November 13, 2009

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenneys new citizenship guide, Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Canadian Citizenship, is a welcome achievement. For the first time in our history, individuals seeking to become Canadian citizens will be provided by their future government with a reasonable, balanced assessment of the national past. Having studied the comprehensive document, I believe they will be better prepared for the realities of Canada today than the millions of immigrants who have come before them.

While Minister Kenney is promoting the new publication as a radical break from the sorry, misleading pamphlet last revised in a significant manner by the Liberal government of Jean Chrtien, the history of the document predates the former prime minister by nearly 20 years. Indeed, both of Canadas significant political parties deserve a share of the blame for the embarrassment that came before.

What used to be known as A Look at Canada began in 1977 as an oversized map of the country, complete with short commentaries on various aspects of the national economy and landscape. It was first published by the office of the Secretary of State, before eventually becoming the responsibility of Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Over time, the map evolved into a more thorough pamphlet, and it was modified and reissued by the Mulroney Conservatives as well as their Liberal successors.

A Look at Canada was produced in response to the revision of Canadas citizenship act in 1977. It became the de facto study guide for aspiring citizens when a formal, written admissions test was introduced shortly thereafter. Its greatest weakness at the time, and until just recently, was that it appears to have been designed to introduce future citizens to collective Canadian aspirations, as opposed to national realities.

As a result, particularly in its most recent incarnations, A Look at Canada celebrated our countrys alleged commitment to global environmentalism (in spite of our economys historical reliance on the unsustainable exploitation of our natural resources), our United Nations peacekeeping heroics (even though Canada has an extensive, and noteworthy, war-fighting past), and the prosperity of our indigenous communities (in spite of the continuing struggles of Canadas native peoples over the last 200 years).

Kenneys new edition recognizes that Discover Canada does not need to deny the countrys past, nor does it need to convince readers of its attractiveness: individuals who read the guide will have already expressed their intention to become Canadian citizens. Rather, then, Discover Canada must provide future Canadians with a historically accurate sense of who and what preceded them: our accomplishments, our challenges, and our prospects for the future. And it does so.

Celebrating our history of parliamentary government, the achievements of the Canadian Forces, the success of individual Canadians in sport, the arts, and medicine, and Ottawas ambitious effort to incorporate immigrants of a variety of religions and ethnicities into the national fabric without ignoring the challenges of racism and discrimination, aboriginal poverty, and a resilient separatist movement in Quebec is an eminently responsible way to introduce potential citizens to the society that they have applied to join.

Kenneys encouragement of efforts to send copies of the new guide to schools across the country is another excellent move. Education is a provincial responsibility, but it is unfathomable that native born Canadians might graduate high school without the knowledge our government believes is necessary to acquire the privilege of Canadian citizenship.

Nonetheless, more still needs to be done, and it must begin at the highest levels. Not only should every MP and public servant receive a copy of the booklet, each of them should be challenged, if not obligated, to take (and pass) the citizenship exam themselves.

It is hardly too much to demand that members of Parliament and those who serve them have at least a basic sense of Canadas past. Moreover, it is only by exposing the political elite to how little they know about their countrys history that they will be mobilized to seek creative means of restoring its rightful place in high-school curriculums across the country.

Second, Kenney should convey a round table of provincial ministers of education to begin a national dialogue on the importance of national history to our future prosperity. The release of Discover Canada is an ideal impetus to that discussion, particularly at a time when provinces are asserting greater responsibilities for immigration policy.

Finally, Kenney should refrain from promoting the new document as a partisan Conservative initiative. Understanding our countrys past is a national imperative too important to become a victim of the childlike diatribes that comprise Question Period today. Kenney should reach out across party lines for endorsement of the new document to his credit, the advisers who helped produce Discover Canada were not all partisan Conservatives and thereby ensure that the commitment to history that his government has introduced is not sacrificed by its successors in the pursuit of political gain.

Canada is, and should be, bigger than any partisan agenda. Having taken an admirable first step, it is now up to Minister Kenney to reaffirm his commitment to the future.

Adam Chapnick is deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College.