Teaching the History of Quebec to English-speaking Children: A Teacher’s Journey

The following article was written by Perspectives II High School teacher John Commins following his participation in the Comité Elargi (2003-2007) that was responsible for vetting the most recent changes to Quebec’s History curriculum.

Pour lire la version originale écrite en français, cliquez ici.

First thanks for this opportunity and the thematic of the ENJEUX. My assumption is that the vast majority of you who will read this article are members of the French origin majority community, so I will be writing to you. I will try to describe what its like to teach history to English speaking kids in Quebec specifically and broadly what it is like being an English speaker who enjoys teaching Quebec history. Be aware that this work is my own; it comes from my personal journey and perspective. Keep reading and I guarantee this article will have a happy ending.

First lets talk about language, yes we have to this is Quebec! In Quebec I am referred to as an Anglophone. I hope that I am among the last generation that will be referred to as Anglophone. When English speakers are together they rarely if ever identify themselves as Anglophone, it is usually when the interlocutory is part of the French origin majority community that that designation is made. It is more striking amongst allophones, “ I am a what….. an allophone?”

diversityWhen identity is searched for amongst English speakers it’s usually ethnic. Irish, Greek, Italian, Jewish, Portuguese, sometimes Montrealer, Quebecer or Canadian and very rarely….English. This is the nature of the English speaking community in 2012. The English speaking community of Montreal is as diverse as any in urban Canada. When I am at my school the staffroom is comprised of teachers of Greek, Italian, German, Eastern European, Sri Lankan and Irish backgrounds, except for our Principal, Jacques Monfette, he is from Shawinigan and is French origin.

The turn to linguistic designations to describe what I would argue are concerns that are ethnic in nature, provides us with non-racial language that is becoming less and less productive. Lets be honest using linguistic terms to discuss ethnicity has become a way to avoid talking about ethnicity, and specifically the French origin community’s ethnic insecurities. After all at the end of the day I am also a francophone, and proud of it. I am also hoping the children of Law 101, after completing twelve years of scholarity in French would be considered francophone, if not what do these linguistic designations mean, do they only change with assimilation? If that is the case why won’t people say it?

When the PQ was elected in 1976, it was a necessary electro-shock for the English speaking community, including my 15-year-old self. It was a rupture with the past that would require English speakers to start recognizing that not speaking French was not only counter productive, but bordering on insulting. To be a full partner in the Quebec state, speaking French was now key, to be a full citizen of the Quebec state speaking French was necessary. The idea of what language you spoke at home was not, that’s been a more recent and troubling change amongst a small fringe in the nationalist community. Along with the new reference to Quebec’s “ historic” English speaking community, which is obviously an attempt to marginalize the English speaking community. With 94% of Quebecers now able to speak French, French is our common language.

There is an English speaking community in Quebec it has existed here for 250 years, it is a community that will continue to exist, a community tied to institutions like Concordia, and to neighborhoods like N.D.G.. It has always has been a community in transition and I believe a community that can make a positive contribution to this state, culturally, socially, politically, especially our kids. Now who am I?

My name is John Commins and I am originally from Notre Dames de Grace in Montreal. My background is primarily Irish. I have taught history at the High School level in Quebec for the last 24 years. I have a B.A. in History from Concordia University and am currently working on my M.A. I did my teaching certificate at Université de Montréal, where I think I am the only student in the education faculty to be certified to teach exclusively in English. I remember sitting down for my 3rd attempt at passing the French language test, and opening up my Grevisse to find 14 pages of,” d’exceptions expliquant comment accorder le participe passé avec l’auxiliaire avoir”, I said a bad word and realized maybe I wouldn’t be able to pass this test. The administration at U de M knew I worked hard at overcoming my linguistic handicap so they wrote to the ministry and got me certified in English, thanks! Ça c’est un accommodement raisonnable! Why did I choose to go to U de M, simple at 25 I finally realized that having enough French to only talk about the Habs was becoming embarrassing. I knew that to be a full partner in this society I had to speak French, it took me 25 years, my students know that when their 5, more on that later.

I worked for nine years in Nunavik teaching History and English in Kangirsuk and Kuujjuaq. Teaching Quebec-Canada history to Inuit kids certainly made me a better teacher and also provided me with a lens on seeing how those totally outside the historic narrative reacted. They reacted as anyone would; they felt excluded. “ What about us? We‘ve been here for five thousand years how come we only get a paragraph, are you kidding!” Since then the Kativik School Board has worked hard at including the Inuit in a broader narrative, but seeing the kids search for themselves in their textbooks was important. They wanted to see a bit of their past, it hurt them when they did not.

When I returned to Montreal I taught at Royal West Academy in Montreal West. I spent seven years at Quebec’s finest English speaking public school, this according to the “criteria” of the Fraser Institute, an organization that I think little of. The reason Royal West rated highly was that they selected their students, good hard working students who of course were good at school. The students who go to Royal West will be amongst the elite of the English speaking community within the next few years, so I am going to talk about them. They are my constituency for this article.

Let me tell you about them and the part that history plays in their lives and how specifically Quebec history and its narrative impacts the quality of their citizenship, specifically in their relationship to the Quebec state. Which is where I will eventually head. First of all who are they?

My kids come from every single ethnic and religious background imaginable. Except one, the French origin majority community, the only cultural context they share is there collective capacity to be declared legally eligible to attend English schooling. They are the children of the pre –Law 101 immigrant community, along with a very few members of the historic British communities. I will give an example to illustrate this.

At Royal West Academy I taught four sections of 20th century history. I always asked my students if they had grandparents who had participated in WW2. It is an assignment to bring a personal dimension to the study. Here is what came back in one section. Their grandfathers served in the R.C.A.F The Black Watch, Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, The Grenadier Guards, the Russian Red Army, Italian Navy and Army, Italian Communist Partisans, Polish Free Forces, Polish Partisans, The US Marines, Royal Navy, Royal Air force, Mao’s Red Army, Chiang Kai-shek Nationalist Forces, and the Wehrmacht. This of course illustrates a very obvious point about the nature of the Anglophone community and the kids I teach.

These kids are as ethnically diverse as anywhere else in urban Canada. The one key generational difference is the fact that my students speak and write French, well. At Royal West Academy every course till grade 10 is given in French, let me repeat that, every subject with the exception of English is given in French; our Quebec – Canada History course at the grade 10 levels is given exclusively in French. The textbook and test are exactly the same ones that French students get. Practically all of my students come out of French Immersion programs. Out of 174 students that graduated in 2006 at R.W.A all received bilingual certificates. To graduate in the English school system in Quebec and not know how to communicate in French means that you’re a special needs student or a Francophobe. I have not heard a student say in the 14 years I have been in Montreal,” I don’t need French!”[1] when I was a kid we said it all the time, now some of my best friends, the kids I grew up with live in Vancouver and Toronto, and they regret it and so do I.

It’s an incredible paradigm shift to my experience growing up in pre-bill 101 Quebec. Where French teaching was a sorry mess and learning French wasn’t seen as necessary for economic mobility. Now it is. My students know if they don’t speak French they will have extremely limited economic future or they will have to leave. My students could and should be an incredible asset to the Quebec community and state.

So what it is like to teach these students history in Quebec and how does Quebec history and its teaching affect the quality of my student’s citizenship?

First my students intrinsically know one thing, history in Quebec is important. The Quebec state mandates more history teaching at the elementary and secondary level then anywhere else in Canada. Until recently you could not graduate from High School unless you passed your Grade 10 History course. You could flunk Math, Science, and Ethics and yes Gym. However you could not fail history and receive a high school leaving certificate. In most Canadian provinces Canadian History is not mandatory. My students know this and sometimes have asked why?

The reason in my mind is obvious, the Quebec state since before the advent of the Quiet Revolution has sought to foster a strong sense of national identity and allegiance. This national identity has been constructed for the most part by Quebec historians so there work has had an honored place in Quebec’s pedagogy and society. I mean Lionel Groulx has a mountain, metro station, college named after him, Donald Creighton, nothing. The Quebec state for the most part has utilized a very specific historical narrative. To the point where Jean Charest was asked during the celebration of Quebec City’s 400th Anniversary, what characterized the Quebec experience, he responded with one word “Survivance”, not Pauline Marois, Jean Charest. Which to anyone who has studied Quebec history points very directly to one school of thought.

This narrative that developed from Garneau, to Groulx, to Seguin and has been I would argue the functioning state narrative. An embattled minority surrounded and struggling to survive. With the states prime function to protect and to promote that minority which in fact in my kid’s lives is a majority, that holds every dominant political, economic and cultural position in Quebec. That can be a tough one for my kids to figure out. In this narrative where are my students? Where do they exist?

One of the reasons I was invited to write this article, probably the only reason, was my participation in the reform of the history programs at the cycle two level. The reason I asked to participate was reading the first summary statement of what the new history program would be and what it wouldn’t be. First a citizenship component would be added; citizenship to my mind was a statement of inclusion. A really bold statement that all who were citizens of this state would and should be included as real constituents. Secondly, what it wouldn’t be. I’ll read you what I read that day:

‘In the Western world, historical education began to be a standard feature of the curriculum in the public schools in the context of the rise of the nation state a little over a century ago. Its introduction reflected a concern for citizenship education: historical narratives were used to instill a national identity and a belief in the validity of the existing social and political order. In the framework of the present program, the purpose of teaching history and citizenship education is RATHER to contribute to the education of citizens who are capable of well- informed, open-minded social participation. In accordance with the principles of democracy.”

So the notion of a deeply ethnic and national history was going to be looked at differently, importantly for my kids maybe the comfortable binary of French versus English antagonism could be a part of the narrative, but not the entire one. The notion of national history was looked upon in a way I had never read in any official state educational document. I also knew that in Quebec this was going to be trouble. Those who had invested their entire intellectual lives defending Maurice Seguin’s fifty-year-old, normes, were going to be unhappy. The reason I knew they were going to be unhappy was following the reaction to the Lacousèriere Report. A report that any where else in the occident that would have been treated as a positive step in building the Quebec of the future, was greeted in a way that was shocking to an English speaking history teacher.

My personal favorite for hyperbole was Marc Aimee Guérin’s reaction. Guérin is of course one of Quebec’s biggest educational publishers; he is not a fringe participant in any debate. He attacked French-Canadians for “…acting like beaten dogs since the Conquest – to get on their knees before the Amerindian and Allophone invaders.”[2] Guérin added « Comme il est difficile d’éviter cette attitude politiquement correcte qui noie tous les concepts dans un flou politique ou, seuls, naviguent à l’aise les menteurs et les fourbes. ‘Les minorités ethnique’ et ‘les Amérindiens ‘ qui sont déjà en place au Québec avec des avantagés socio-économiques politiqués ne devraient pas demander plus que thp-merseyleurs du au risque d’assister un jour a un durcissement de la politique québécoise. Trop, c’est trop. [3] Wow ! My ancestors came here with 5 cents and a shovel and I don’t think members of the First Nations community see themselves as invaders, in a sad way thats kind of funny . This was an extreme example of how the Lacoursèire Report was greeted, but its implications were clear, this by a Publisher of educational materials, educational. So I had a feeling of what was in store.

There were 16 of us who were selected to work on the Cycle 2 Univers Social program, 14 of my colleagues were of French origin, there was a member of the first nations, Mike Rice and myself. We had two years in which we vetted what had been written .We had no editorial control and acted as a sounding board. We did however collectively have impacts on what was written. It was an incredibly enriching experience with colleagues who were thinking of their kids first. Colleagues who were for the most part nationalists and sovereignists, but who recognized that Quebec was evolving and other stories needed to be told and that citizenship could compliment existing narratives. I was really lucky to have worked with these dedicated professionals. We were led by Marius Langlois (from the ministère de l’Éducation, du loisir et du sport) who treated all our diversity and differences with respect and believe me their were differences.

This guiding spirit came to end when the journalist Antoine Robitaille of Le Devoir printed an article that essentially said that there was a federalist plot to water down Quebec’s national history by making it less… conflictual! The glory of continuous defeat and victimization was somehow being challenged. The notion of dueling French Quebec nationalism and English reaction so comforting to the Quebec nationalist narrative was somehow being questioned as the sole historic vector. It took the liberal minister of Education about 10 minutes to realize he wouldn’t fight this battle. He recognized politically he wouldn’t have a chance. History and its telling was not a battle he would fight. So conflict writ large was reintroduced. Quebec contemporary politics would be served by history.

As we all know in Quebec the media echo chamber is pretty small so these mini-scandals erupt with some frequency. The intensity of this event was really quite extraordinary. So much hyperbole and half -truths bandied about by committed political ideologues whose major function was to intimidate debate and sanction any non- orthodox historic thinking. The whole notion of citizenship history was attacked. It was seen as a conspiracy to somehow minimize or denigrate the contribution of the French catholic majority. It was a very sad moment for Quebec history students and I mean Francophones.

In my mind their was little doubt a chill would occur and would have an influence when publishers started writing the approved textbooks. Publishers would now fear that any inclusive non-majority stories would be considered in light of this controversy. In a broad sense I was wrong and to the publishers credit there were more stories and a broader narrative, but this seemed to be centered in the new cultural communities and first nations. The reform of programs did contribute to a broader narrative but the Anglophone community in my eyes remained static. When Ronald Rudin wrote, The Forgotten Quebecers: A History of English Speaking Quebec, 1759-1980 (IQRC, 1985), it was translated as L’histoire du Québec anglophone, 1759-1980 (IQRC, 1986). The forgotten part was forgotten and herein lies a key problem.

The objectification of the Anglophone community as either a planter community a la Ulster- Loyalists or as the Ross_gardens_behind_Peel_Street_Montreal_1926-27_705pxremnants of the Golden Mile is still a very seductive one and unfortunately an omnipresent one. Not in any way shape or form as it once was but it’s still their and what compromises my students learning is that it is such a caricature of the English speaking community. When my kids would open a pre reform history text and read it and remember they would read it French. At the end of the year they would be confronted by this question. Is that us? Is that me? Redcoat, Wolfe, Rich Merchants, Montreal Party, McGill, Molson, Hang Patriots, Golden Mile, Van Horne, Holt, Italians throwing chairs in St. Leonard… That’s it! That’s us! That’s our whole story? Rich dudes constantly objectifying and fighting with French speakers. There is no doubt that the Golden Mile and its occupants controlled 70% of all of Canada’s economy, their influence and Victorian imperialism was a fact but to make them the sole vector in which to see my English speaking kids is sad. The Golden Mile is dead. They are gone. Yet so many are invested in keeping them alive, they serve politics. I am interested in history.

I will provide concrete examples of some missing pages that would help challenge common objectifications of the English speaking community and in the next reform should be incorporated. I will probably be dead but it would go far to breaking stereotypes and I’d die happy.

First the vast majority of Anglophones who started arriving in urban Quebec at the dawn of the 19th century were poor and they were Quebec’s first urban proletariats. They were concentrated in Quebec City and Montreal to such an extent that by mid –century Anglophones were for a period a majority in Quebec’s two largest cities. When some complain about the English face of Montreal it is somewhat comical, English speakers were a majority in Montreal for decades.

These Anglophones spearheaded the first attempts at organizing the industrial working class with as many as 20 being mowed down by soldiers and cavalry in June of 1842 at Beauharnais Canal Strike. MacInness, Gormley, and O’Doyle left their blood in the canals and roads and bridges of Quebec’s largest cities. They helped build Montreal and Quebec City. Montreal’s civic flag is emblematic of this fact. So is the Black Rock memorial a place that speaks to the six thousand Irish immigrants who died on the shores of Montreal in 1847.

Gump Worsley

Gump Worsley

They contributed mightily to building Quebec and more often then not in solidarity with Francophone working men and women. When Dickie Moore, Doug Harvey, Gump Worsley, Donnie Marshall and Scotty Bowman helped lead the Montreal Canadians to Stanley Cups their dads were workingmen from the blue-collar neighborhoods in Montreal. Just like Maurice Richard, Bernard Geoffrion and Jacques Lemaire. The closest their Dads got to the Golden Mile was to take out the trash. Francophone students rarely if ever get these missing pages and it hurts them and our collective.

Secondly a black hole in Quebec secondary historiography that needs to be addressed in the next reform is World War II. This War was a clash of Civilizations of the most desperate kind yet in Quebec 120,000 volunteers who fought and died in that conflict live in historic limbo, the majority of them French speakers. Their stories rarely if ever told. The biggest and bloodiest conflict of our civilization is often reduced to Conscription and women went to work. Where else in the Occident is that WW II?

In my neighborhood in Montreal our local High School, West Hill, lost 45 killed by late 1944. Everyone knows that many elites in Quebec were against Canada’s participation but the time is long overdue to introduce Quebec’s students not only to Michel Chartrand but his brother Gabriel Chartrand, who volunteered to be dropped into Belgium to get downed air man home, with the sure knowledge that he would face immediate torture and execution if captured. Why not his story too? Imagine the teaching opportunities around the choices of these two brothers. In marginalizing WW II Anglophones are again seen as living outside the collective.

Finalement, le dernier point. Mes élèves sont bilingues, brillants et créatifs. Quand j’enseigne l’histoire du Québec, je pense souvent à Gérald Bouchard et à ses propositions pour enseigner l’histoire nationale. Pour lui, c’est une question d’appartenance et de cohésion sociale. Partant, il conçoit le cercle de la citoyenneté de manière élargie. Je suis d’accord.

So here is my happy ending. In 2007, while I was teaching at Royal West Academy, a student who was originally from Calgary and of Chinese decent started to talk to me about C.E.G.E.P. I told her why not go in French, she had been taught French by many outstanding teachers at R.W.A. who had given her the confidence to perfect her language skills and open more doors. She did and gained enough confidence in her place in Quebec society to run for elected office. She ran in a riding where over 90% of the electors had French as their mother tongue, 26,000 thousand of them voted for her. Laurin Liu is now a Federal Member of Parliament, for Rivière-des-Milles-Îles. She will be a great asset to her community and Quebec. There are many more like her.

[1]Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec come on !

[2] Marc-Aime Guerin,La Faillite de l’Ensiegnment de l’Histoire du Quebec ( Montreal : Guerin,1996) pg.51

[3] Marc –Aime Guerin ,p.54.


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