Quebec’s new history curriculum is a “one-sided view” that must be replaced, say critics

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History textbooks in Canada have long served to justify the unjust treatment of First Nations by the Europeans. According to a report by the province’s largest English school board, that hasn’t changed.

Today’s high-school students in Quebec are receiving a “skewed, one-sided view of the past that distorts the historical record,” a special committee of the English Montreal School Board says in a report. The EMSB committee concluded that the textbooks are “fundamentally flawed and must be withdrawn from all high schools.”

The new history curriculum was developed in 2013 under a Parti Québécois government. Since being introduced, the curriculum has provoked wide criticism. The independent committee echoed previous allegations that the program promotes a narrow nationalist perspective of French Québécois culture, presenting Indigenous peoples as “other and antagonists” while virtually ignoring the contributions of many other minority groups.

EMSB commissioner Joseph Lalla proposed the motion to form the expert committee. Lalla told the Nation that he hopes to create a new textbook, ideally with support from the Ministry of Education.

“It has to be shown that there are other perspectives and other narratives,” he said. “We don’t want to antagonize anybody. We simply want to do justice to others.”

John Zucchi, a McGill University history professor who was one of the three expert committee members, said the textbook suggests that “there is only one version of Quebec. All these other groups, including the Indigenous in particular who were there before everyone else, end up becoming groups collaborating with the mainstream society.”

The report states that the textbooks generally portray French colonizers as “benevolent allies” seeking to gently familiarize Indigenous peoples with their way of life so they would be “willing to convert to Catholicism freely.” The books include numerous offensive statements that diminish the value of Indigenous science, architecture and other cultural elements.

Zucchi told the Nation that the countless problematic aspects of European settlement are “whitewashed and overlooked. Even residential schools; there’s no mention of the violence or the abuse there at all. Not even one line.”

The expert committee was concerned that the books are so dense with historical facts that students will quickly lose interest. By avoiding the “complexities, contexts and multiple causes and effects that make history interesting”, the program discourages critical thinking and engagement with the subject matter.

“The writing of history must truly seek to represent the past as fully as possible and therefore must also seek to understand that there are different ways of thinking about the past,” Zucchi commented.

Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge says that he has no plans to change the controversial books or curriculum. The textbooks were already revised earlier this year to replace derogatory references to “Amerindians” and various stereotypical images with appropriate terminology and greater attention to Indigenous roles in key historical events.

Several commentators in the French-language media called the $1.6 million cost of these changes a waste of public funds – even blaming the First Nations Education Council (FNEC) despite the fact that FNEC representatives were invited by the Ministry of Education to take part in advisory committees.

“We will not let anyone tell us what terms should be used or not used when it comes to the history of our peoples and our nations,” Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, said in a statement. “This is a warning for those who want to teach us a lesson. It is high time to stop giving a one-sided view of history seen through the eyes of the conqueror.”

Picard told the Nation he’s unsure whether the recently elected Coalition Avenir Québec government will engage with First Nations issues as the previous Liberal regime, but expressed cautious optimism.

However, he warned, “If they’re going to play hardball then we take over our own education – at least the way history is being taught in our own schools.”

Two representatives of the Cree School Board (CSB) were involved in the curriculum’s revision for over a year but were dismayed that little of their input was included in the final product.

“What this shows is it’s really time for the province to allow First Nations voices to take the lead in determining what is said about us and what’s put out in the public school system,” CSB Chairperson Sarah Pash told the Nation. “The phrase ‘nothing about us without us’ is about authentic consultation.”

Kativik Ilisarniliriniq (KI), Nunavik’s school board, noted that consultations on the history program were held at the last hour – after the curriculum and textbooks had effectively already been finalized.

“We were put in a position where it became very difficult not to perceive the Ministry of Education as being more interested in getting us to endorse the history program as it was, rather than genuinely seeking our collaboration to improve it,” said KI President Robert Watt.

Both the CSB and the KI are already working on their own history programs, while contributing to the development of material that will be relevant for all students. Both school boards are working in partnership with local cultural institutes, consolidating expertise within their communities so that they no longer need to rely on external curriculums.

This curriculum “will honour our own history, traditions, culture and language,” said Pash. “We hope we’ll see the results in our schools in the coming year or two. For us, it’s a question about access to heritage. This is exactly the type of issue that needs to come to light to figure out the future of the Indigenous education system, focusing on identity and citizenship development.”

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