Lessons from the Past, Promises for the Future: Reflections on Historical Thinking in Canadian History

By Thomas Peace

“Our historians have almost wholly ignored the existence of slavery in Canada.”

Two weeks ago these words echoed through Fountain Commons here at Acadia University.  Historians, educators and activists had gathered for Opening the Academy: New Strategies for Exploring and Sharing African Nova Scotian Histories. The message those of us in the audience heard was that African-Canadian history remains a marginal field in Canadian history. The words above – evoked at the conference, but originally delivered by T. Watson Smith in 1898 to the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society – still hold true today.[1]

It’s not my intention here to delve into the relative merits of this comparison (though a look through Watson Smith’s address makes one wonder just how far historical research has come over the past 115 years). Rather, I want to use Watson Smith’s statement as a way to introduce a more fundamental point about teaching history and communicating information about the past: it isn’t easy and it’s highly political.

This week ActiveHistory.ca has put together a series of blog posts that focus on the Historical Thinking Project. Scheduled to close its doors at the end of the month, the Historical Thinking Project has made a tangible difference in Canada’s historical landscape. Spearheaded by Peter Seixas, the Historical Thinking Project has drawn the attention of teachers, historians and education specialists by placing the emphasis of teaching history on process rather than content.  Anchored by “the Big Six Concepts” the project encourages history teachers to focus on:

  • Establishing historical significance
  • Using primary documents
  • Identifying continuity and change
  • Analyzing cause and consequence
  • Taking historical perspectives
  • Understanding the ethical dimension of historical interpretation

The project has met with considerable success. Since 2006, it has held numerous conferences and meetings and produced important resources to help teachers implement the concepts in their classrooms. Currently, Ontario and British Columbia have begun to adapt the project’s ideas to their history curricula on a larger scale. There is much to celebrate.

Celebration is not entirely on our agenda for this week, however. It was with some degree of sadness that in December the Historical Thinking Project announced that it was coming to an end. Supported primarily through Canadian Heritage’s Canadian Studies Program, the project has fallen victim to the Conservative government’s re-orientation of heritage and history-related policy. A shift has been made away from programs that focus on process and skill development towards “projects that celebrate key milestones and people who have helped shape our country as we know it today.” This mandate does not reflect the Historical Thinking Project’s goals. To use Seixas’s words “the Historical Thinking Project has never espoused ‘celebration’ or nationalism as goals for history education… [Instead] we have sought to enable teachers and museum educators to help students master the difficult tools of thoughtful, critical, evidence-based historical understanding.”

Karolyn Smardz Frost, a colleague of mine at Acadia, recently pointed out that the cuts to the Historical Thinking Project share much in common with events in the United States during the early-to-mid-1990s. There, the National History Standards generally reflected developments in social history but were equally oriented towards the process of doing history (historical thinking). In 1994, their release sparked a key battle in the U.S. History Wars. Though the standards were voluntary and produced with extensive collaboration, Gary Nash and Charlotte Crabtree, the project’s directors, were quickly placed on the defensive, facing off against the likes of Lynne Cheney and Rush Limbaugh. Lambasting the standards as politically correct and “multicultural excess,” these strong voices of American Conservatism railed against the more frequent mention of well-known freedom fighter Harriet Tubman than of some of America’s founding fathers (a fact that Nash considers exaggerated and intentionally misleading).[2] According to these critics, the emphasis on historical thinking watered down the traditional narrative of American history.

Although the recent cuts in Canada more closely resemble the hastily and poorly thought-out closure of the National Archival Development Program, there are important similarities between this year’s events and those south of the border twenty years ago. The most prominent similarity is the motivation: once again a program addressing historical thinking with significant (and pan-Canadian) influence on history curriculum has been cut in favour of “projects that celebrate key milestones” and individuals. A less prominent and more subversive parallel is the overt Conservative manipulation of history and how it is practiced to leverage votes and foster patriotism (here’s one front where this manipulation plays out). The changes in Canada fit into a broader international context whereby process and understanding are replaced by (more-or-less) blind nationalism and a re-articulation of a narrow pre-established historical narrative. (Here’s a taste of the discussion in the UK.)

Identifying key milestones and individuals should (and almost certainly will) remain an important part of the historian’s skills.  But the question that T. Watson Smith’s century-old comments beg is “whose key milestones and individuals should be remembered?” Should Canadians not acknowledge that people like the eighteenth-century slave Angelique, or Thomas Peters, or Viola Desmond, or even more establishment figures like William Hall or Lincoln Alexander, might have situated themselves within a different historical narrative, one less centred around the nation-state? Should Canadian history not take into account their views on the state, the nation, their province and their position vis-a-vis their neighbours rather than just trying to fit them into the old “tried and true” narrative of Canada’s past?

The historical thinking framework also allows us to move beyond politics and address effective pedagogy. When it comes to teaching and learning about the past, it is clear that intentions and outcomes don’t always align (a theme we will see in a number of the posts which follow). In 1898, T. Watson Smith clearly felt that he was making an intervention in Nova Scotian, and likely Canadian, history. It was another sixty years before Marcel Trudel’s L’esclavage au Canada français scandalized Quebec with its accounts of slavery in the French regime.  It was over a century before Afua Cooper published the award-winning The Hanging of Angelique, an account of an African slave’s eighteenth-century torture and execution. And its been only a few short weeks since Robert Everett-Green laid out the ‘shocking details’ of Canadian slavery in an article in the Globe and Mail covering the recently launched translation of Trudel’s work: Canada’s Forgotten Slaves: Two Hundred Years of Bondage.  Although this history continued to be told within African-Canadian communities and local history museums, it continues to be news for many Canadians that slavery was an everyday institution in early Canada. There’s clearly a problem with how Canadian history has been and is being conveyed.

It is to this end that we have put together a series of 11 essays and a podcast focused on historical thinking as a practice and the impact and influence of the Historical Thinking Project. In compiling these essays we’ve sought to bring together a diverse array of voices from across Canada:  teachers, students, historians and specialists in education. We’ve asked them to reflect on their area of expertise: historical thinking in the classroom, museum and within the general public.

The series begins with a re-posting of Heather E. McGregor’s “History Education in Canada without Historical Thinking: A Worrisome Prospect,” originally posted on THEN-HiER’s blog Teaching the Past immediately following the announcement that the Historical Thinking Project would be closing. McGregor, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia, addresses the impact of historical thinking, why moving away from this paradigm is problematic for history education and emphasizes how the Historical Thinking Project has encouraged budding historians to embrace “multiple and contested truths about the past.”

On Tuesday, we have three posts on historical thinking in the education system.  Lindsay Gibson, a secondary school teacher and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia, discusses the achievements and obstacles faced in implementing the historical thinking concepts in Canadian secondary schools. Stanley Hallman-Chong, the Social Studies, Elementary History/Geography Instructional leader at the Toronto District School Board, extends Gibson’s discussion, focusing specifically on the process and adoption of the historical thinking concepts in Ontario’s recently revised curriculum. We’ll end the day with a History Slam! podcast on teaching history in the classroom, where host Sean Graham talks history and historical thinking with students and teachers in an Ontario high school.

Building on Tuesday’s discussion, Wednesday’s posts will address the influence of historical thinking in teacher education, university classrooms, and in museums. In the morning, Carla Peck, a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta, reflects on a professional development project she led for Alberta teachers focused on the Historical Thinking Project, highlighting the need for and importance of historical thinking concepts. Following Peck’s essay, we will re-post Ruth Sandwell’s ‘Synthesis and Fragmentation: the Case of Historians as Undergraduate Teachers,’ which was first published here in April 2011 and will shortly appear in expanded form in Becoming a History Teacher: Sustaining Practices in Historical Thinking and Knowing (forthcoming with University of Toronto Press). In this paper, Sandwell points out that undergraduate teaching is where university-based historians reach their largest and most captive audiences, and consequently they should make a concerted effort to adopt historical thinking practices in their classrooms. Finally, at the end of the day, we’ll post a paper by Elisabeth Tower, the Education Manager at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.  Tower’s paper reflects on how the historical thinking framework has been used to develop a more participatory experience at the museum where visitors and the museum can dialogue together about the past and its construction.

Moving beyond the institutional implementation of historical thinking concepts, Thursday’s essays explore historical thinking and consciousness within the broader Canadian public. In the first post of the day, the ‘Pasts Collective‘ (Del Muise, Marg Conrad, Gerald Friesen, Kadriye Ercikan, David Northrup, Peter Seixas and Jocelyn Létourneau) summarize the results from their large-scale study on how Canadians engage with the past. Their conclusions teach us much about the level of trust Canadians place in historians’ work and the institutions and resources developed around it. In the afternoon, Jocelyn Létourneau introduces us to the fruit of a similar study he conducted in Quebec, focusing on historical consciousness among Quebec’s youth and the disjuncture between teaching and learning. (Those of you who read French can get an early peek at this on our partner site, HistoireEngagee.ca; it goes live there today).

Our week will conclude on Friday with two essays written by two of the project’s key players.  Jill Colyer, the Historical Thinking Project’s national coordinator, will reflect on the past five years she has spent working with educators across the country who work with grades 3 to 12. Despite the many daily challenges classroom teachers face, Colyer was surprised at their willingness to change instructional practice and assessment methods in order to incorporate historical thinking concepts. Peter Seixas will have the last word, wrapping the week up with a reflection on the purpose of history education, the contribution of the Historical Thinking Project, and pointing a way forward for pursuing and developing the historical thinking framework once the project ends at the end of the month.

I’m not entirely sure that the adoption of the historical thinking framework will wholly remedy the laments of T. Watson Smith and his present-day contemporaries. We can, however, be reasonably certain that as these ideas are increasingly implemented in the classroom, Canadians will be better equipped to think with history. The Historical Thinking Project’s ‘Big Six’ concepts encourage students to actively engage with the past, situating themselves within the context of past events, and using them to influence the present and future. This will surely result in a more diverse and complex historical narrative in which the names, dates and places Smith revealed to us in 1898 are far more likely to be taken into account and consideration.

Thomas Peace is an editor at ActiveHistory.ca and a Harrison McCain Visiting Professor in the Department of History and Classics at Acadia University. 

This week ActiveHistory.ca is running a series of 11 essays marking the end of the Historical Thinking Project. Click here to see a list of all the papers published during this theme week.

[1] Even if you discard this premise, I suspect (though I would love to be proven wrong) that you would find in a quick overview of the Canadian history survey course offered at most Canadian universities that African Canadians are only discussed briefly. Yes, it’s true that scholars like Afua Cooper, Karolyn Smardz Frost, Marcel Trudel, Barrington Walker, James W. St. G. Walker, Amani Whitfield and Robin Winks have dramatically changed our understanding of Black history in Canada, but the field as a whole has not grown with similar gusto as other similar historiographical developments since the 1960s (like women’s and Indigenous history, for example).

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