This is the fourth entry in a monthly series on Thinking Historically. See the Introduction here.
Our conceptions about good citizenship vary. Context, particularly space and time, matter. In citizenship education, young people participate and deepen their understanding of how to make change in their communities. They do so across various domains, inclusive of formal politics, political advocacy, civic society, and grassroots/community participation. Scholars Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne developed the What Kind of Citizen framework to capture different orientations to the concept of good citizenship. Debates persist however and scholars agree that more education for supporting democratic citizenship is needed – and that knowledge, skills, and participation are significant elements of citizenship education.
In this blog post, I share the preliminary findings from my study on experiences in the Air Cadet program related to core concepts of citizenship education – agency, responsibility, and civic engagement. I focus in particular on the different ways participants make change in their communities today and how they relate these enactments as citizens to their experiences as youth in Air Cadets. This was a qualitative study. Over one hundred adult participants completed a survey. From the respondents, seventeen diverse participants were selected for in-depth study, with a view of building a deeper understanding of how the program functions as a civic educator for participants of diverse identities, including Indigeneity, race, gender, sexuality, religion, socio-economic status, and ability.
The foundation of this study is historical. The Government of Canada launched the Air Cadet program in 1941, which was to be integrated within school systems across educational jurisdictions. The program responded to a societal need to better prepare boys for service in the air element during the Second World War – rhetoric on its value for building good, law abiding, citizens was rampant. Today, Air Cadets is part of the broader cadet movement – Cadets Canada –and remains the largest federally sponsored program for young people in the country. Cadets aims to develop the attributes of good citizenship, along with promoting physical fitness, and interest in the Canadian Armed Forces. However, little research exists on how the program functions as a civic educator.
Making Change in the Present
In my study on Air Cadets, participants’ preferences for making change in their communities fell under the domain of civil society and grassroots and community action, with only two participants engaging in formal politics and political advocacy.
Most participants reported making change through civil society organizations. They shared stories about contributing across a multitude of organizations, such as labour unions, volunteering to run extracurricular activities in the school, or volunteering with Air Cadets as adult leaders. For example, Andres is a union officer who continuously fights for change in education. Andres highlighted one experience, that took place over several years, where he advocated alongside many Indigenous communities and allies for schools and buildings named after John A. Macdonald to be changed. He moved “to rename them in recognition of the central role that Macdonald had played in the Indian Residential School system and in Indigenous genocide.” Andres emphasized that his role was as part of a collective movement to address the legacies of the Indian Residential and Day Schools, which mattered to him as an educator.
Andres expressed that his personal values aligned with the political left, calling himself a “lefty.” Despite this seeming contradiction in values, he believed that his experiences in Air Cadets helped him in his present day advocacy work:
I definitely don’t think that I would have had the same confidence, the same ability to put myself out there, to run even for an elected position, and solicit votes – do the whole sort of political thing. Cadets gave me the confidence it gave me. The skillset to do advocacy work.
When defining his notion of being a good citizen, Andres emphasized the importance of voting. He then highlighted that caring about the wellbeing of others in the community was important. In particular, he mentioned the need to pay attention to how historically marginalized communities have been treated in the past, and continue to be treated, because of harmful policies.
Grassroots and Community Organizations
Many participants shared insights about their current initiatives making change through grassroots and community organizations. Participants spoke of making change in different areas, such as through volunteering in addiction centers, supporting refugee families, and advocating for culture change. Annette shared about her efforts to help with culture change in her work community to educate people on how to make policies that remove barriers for certain people groups. Annette explained that organizations and their processes have typically not been “accessible or geared towards certain populations that look like me – we’ve been prevented from access.” Annette explained it was not part of her role at work, but that it feels like it is her responsibility to make the community better.
Annette reflected on her experiences in Air Cadets, where she described herself as very timid and wanting to blend in when she first joined. She referenced the challenges that she faced as a young person who talked with a lisp. Annette viewed Air Cadets as follows:
…an evolution of me being able to speak and be vocal and be seen and be heard and be okay with that… learn how to take feedback and construct your feedback – be criticized, be critical, and take it as an opportunity to better myself and not think there was something wrong.
Annette’s vision of good citizenship included caring about other people and making small sacrifices to make differences for others: “And I think advocating for those who don’t have a voice, or the power or the access to ensure they are able to have it.” She noted she had grown a lot since her time in Air Cadets. She felt the program had given her a voice and a way to navigate a system, which she continued to do in adulthood. She also valued the “sense of forever community” she found in Air Cadets, and carried with her to this day, twenty years later.
Formal Politics and Political Advocacy
Two participants shared about their efforts to make change in the present in ways that align with the domains of formal politics and political advocacy. In one case, Ryan offered a few examples of how he makes change in the present through formal politics. He ran the communications operation for a provincial campaign. He fought against a condo development in a space that was well used and needed by the community. Most recently, Ryan was pursuing his passion to make change through policy by running for a member of provincial parliament in a riding. Ryan related his ability to act and make change to his experiences in Air Cadets:
That’s where I learned to be responsible. That’s where I learned what it meant to be a citizen. That’s where I learned, quite frankly, how to perform at a very high level and to use those skillsets to obtain whatever goals you have for yourself to achieve. I didn’t learn that in school. I didn’t learn that through family, necessarily. It’s cadets.
He attributed his ability to advocate for change to the skills he learned in the program, explaining that he experienced poverty growing up. Ryan shared his present day notion of good citizenship as “being politically and socially active. It means being observant, caring about what you observe and then making a plan to do something about it as best you can.” Ryan was passionate about fighting poverty, in particular, and he felt motivated to make change for others.
Perspectives on Citizenship
In sum, participants referred to their experiences in Air Cadets as having contributed to their ability – and in many cases their self-confidence – to make change in the present. They provided their perspectives on the relationship between their present day enactments and conceptions of good citizenship and their experiences in Air Cadets. Some participants pointed out a nuance that their actual conception of citizenship had expanded since their time in Air Cadets –Ash, for example, shared that when they were in Air Cadets, they learned citizenship as “listening, obeying, following orders,” but in adulthood, their understanding had evolved to understanding good citizenship as “holding the structures and systems of power and privilege accountable.”
Regardless of their conceptions of citizenship, all participants offered unique perspectives on how the program functioned as a civic educator and spoke of the deep relationships they held as a young people in the Air Cadet community. As an educator and researcher who values historical mindedness, understanding how the past shapes conceptions of citizenship is a significant aspect of my research. As I move forward with analysis, I will consider how participants’ notions of good citizenship in the present indicate change or constancy in the program overtime, to better illuminate how the program functions as a civic educator.
Rebecca Evans is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University. She works as a Research Assistant for the Thinking Historically for Canada’s Future project, where she examines historically minded civic engagement and historical thinking strands in Northern curricula.
 Indigenous perspectives on multi-nationhood citizenship are notably absent from the framework. Sabzalian (2019) points out that Indigenous perspectives are absent in most citizenship education scholarship.
 All participants names have been changed.
Suggestions for Further Reading