Thinking about History Curriculum in Canada (while also recognizing the informal curricula we carry)

By the end of this week, students across Canada will be out of school. During their school year, students in Canada would have learnt from the provincially mandated curricula as well as professional attempts at engaging in work of truth and reconciliation. However, while we can talk about the curriculum in our schools, any formal education young people have gained have been augmented, challenged, reinforced, and/or solidified by the many points of informal curriculum that will have students received outside or adjacent to the formal curricula. In other words, along with the formal curriculum, students in Canadian school would have also learnt from each other, their teachers, their community members, their parents and guardians, the media, and their political leaders. And, without a doubt, the current events, or even just the air around current events, that are leaving so many of us, adults and children, with more questions than answers.

“Turban, Eh? Edmonton,” from the Sikh National Archives of Canada (July 17, 2017)

In my first post in this series, I wrote that I would focus on the formal curricula of each province because of the ways curriculum can act as a “metaphoric black box filled with assumptions and fears about what is covered and how.” I stated that in this series, I was “interested in opening up this black box to demonstrate the concrete objectives that students are intended to meet in their mandatory Canadian history courses, and in doing so, I hope to provide tangible examples of where historians can provide information and resources to teachers and where teachers can find academic support for deeper or greater knowledge from historians.” I stand by this focus because I think a focus on informal national history curricula, the ether of our historical consciousness, is hard to pin down and articulate; mainly, I’d argue, because of the personal and political relationships we carry and scaffold to these curriculum.

In my first post I also questioned if we knew what our children were learning. Or more accurately, if we knew what the children were supposed to be learning. In my March post, I reposed a question I’ve been asking since 2011, which is: Who is history education for? Despite a great series covering our provinces’ curriculum, I don’t know if we are any closer to answering those questions.

While this series identified what was in the formal history/social studies curriculum across Canada, many provinces are currently going through history/social studies curriculum revisions, including Alberta and Saskatchewan, and more changes are sure to be underway. Curriculum websites have also provided evidence of the revisions that have taken place across the country over the last ten years to replace or complement older versions. When taken together, what one sees a distinct trend toward the Historical Thinking approach history education.

While Historical Thinking has the intention of bringing people together over the similar questions we all share according to Historical Thinking’s Peter Seixas, I have previously articulated my concerns that Historical Thinking has neoliberal echoes and lacks of room for the work of reconciliation. Agree with that stance or not, and I know many of the contributors to this series do not, what I have seen from reviewing the history/social studies curricula from around the country is that a grand Canadian narrative is being replaced by a new narrative of inquiry, and it is not that I want to see a grand Canadian narrative returning to our classrooms, but I am wary of an approach to teaching and learning history that lacks space for understanding the very things that pull us close to informal curricula: power, politics, and affect. Did past versions of history/social studies do this? Not necessarily. But I think future versions of history/social studies should.

Not a day goes by without me questioning how I “missed” the rise of populism, how psychologically violent the processes of migration can be, how my settler privilege has shielded me from grappling with the lack of running water on reserves, how so many young people are looking for spaces to express their identities away from the norm, and how my belief that education and compassion will win out is being eroded. More importantly, not a day goes by without me questioning how I can help my students understand and speak through these things in ways that empower them to develop community and make radical change s in these communities in order to carve out a world that accepts us all. I don’t think methodologically understanding how continuity and change works, or how to assess evidence, or how to determine significance – all elements of the Benchmarks of Historical Thinking – can help us do this. I do think that giving students a chance to deconstruct narratives using evidence of the past can help us do this, but that is in the teaching not necessarily in the curriculum itself.

Research has shown, including my own, that teachers, especially history teachers, like to teach from a place of knowledge and comfort. This is normal – you want to know what you are going to teach and don’t want to be put on the spot. However, we are limited in what we know. And we are limited in how we can teach and share stories that are different than, even challenge, our own. Thus, I encourage more spaces of community in which us as educators – in the broadest sense of the term – can articulate and deconstruct the informal curricula we carry with us in order for us to be able to model this for, and with, our students. I think the most poignant question to leave this series on is: I do care. Do you? How does our history education allow us to show this?

Thank you Active History for hosting this series and to the contributors for adding to this series: Cynthia Wallace-Casey, Lindsay Gibson and Carla Peck, and Catherine Déry.

Click through all the posts from the series below and look out for my forthcoming manuscript for UBCPress where I explore more of these ideas. Imagining a New “We”: Canadian history education for the 21st century will be published next year.


Dr. Samantha Cutrara is a History Education Strategist and is currently completing an Instructor’s Guide for York University on bringing Digital Humanities and Social Sciences into classrooms. Find more information about her consulting and academic work on her website


The author would like to acknowledge that this work was created on land that is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, the Métis, and most recently, the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. This territory is also covered by the Upper Canada Treaties. Today, the meeting place of Toronto (from the Haudenosaunee word Tkaronto) is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and the author is grateful to have the opportunity to write, study, teach, and learn in the community, on this territory.

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