Wednesday, July 7, 2010

(No.102) Historical amnesiacs & the Queen of Canada

During the Queen of Canada's just concluded visit (her 22nd) there were the predictable comments and poll results calling into question both Canadians' support for the monarchy and its relevance to Canada.

Polls indicate that this attitude is held by a third or more of respondents depending on the poll and the phrasing of the question. For example, a question about support for the monarchy elicits a different level of support than one which invites a negative answer, as did the wording of a recent polling question which queries respondents' support for a monarchy that is "a relic of our colonial past that has no place in Canada today".

To the extent that support for the monarchy is actually declining in Canada useful explanation is infrequent. Instead one gets served up precious references to Canada's 'changing demographics', the inappropriateness of the 'Queen of England' having any role in Canada, the relevance of the monarchy in the 21st century and the like.

Citizen understanding of the role of the monarchy is not improved by tabloid-style references, when discussing Canada's form of government, to the private lives of members of the Queen's family. But then such irrelevances tend to be made by those who do not seem to understand the difference between being a monarchist and a celebrity groupie.

Nor is respect fostered by puerile and inaccurate public references to the Queen of Canada, not uncommon among advocates of a Canadian republic (e.g., "that German woman, Elizabeth", Globe and Mail, letters, July 2 ,2010). In passing, a question: would the Globe publish a letter or column referring to a black public figure whose ancestors came here 300 years ago from the Caribbean as "that Jamaican woman"? About as likely as their editorializing against Toronto's Gay Pride Parade.

A relevant question but one rarely posed in the media is this: how can Canadians, especially those who are new or younger, develop an understanding of the relevance and importance of the Queen's role in Canada's system of government, its Westminster origins, its evolution and today's crown-in-parliament when schools and media alike do so little to foster useful understanding of their history or contextual place in Canada's governance?

Across Canada high school students are not, as they once were, required to take a full program of history courses. It is unusual if a provincial educational system requires a high school graduate to have passed more than a single history course -- and even then it will likely have taken the form of 'social studies' or 'civics' designed in the hope that students might find it 'interesting' and not be turned off by having to learn too many facts. As one who taught in high school and university it seems to me that the teaching of history, even a basic but useful form of political science-related Canadian history, has long since become inadequate in content, context, degree of difficulty and number of courses required.

The other day I heard Andrew Cohen, the president of the Historica-Dominion Institute, lament that so many Canadians are "historical amnesiacs". While I am sympathetic to that view, the use of the word amnesiacs implies there was once historical knowledge acquired but since forgotten.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle in the way of intelligent discussion of the monarchy in Canada is the low level of public literacy about Canadian history and government. One indication is the result of the Dominion Institute's 10 year benchmark study (2007): 82% of Canadians age 18-24 failed a basic Canadian history test, 1% more than had failed the test a decade before.

To what extent should one rely on the assumption that, say, a 20 year old Canadian will have an informed opinion for a pollster about whether there is value in the fact that Canada is a constitutional monarchy with Elizabeth II as Queen of Canada?

Consider the following, for example, from the Dominion Institute's surveys:

-- only 21% of Canadians know that the Queen is Canada's head of state but 75% know that the American president is the U.S. head of state. (What's even sadder is that in the same history quiz Canadians had a higher average % of correct answers on questions about the United States (47%) than they did on parallel questions about Canada -- 42%),

-- 42% believe that the prime minister is Canada's head of state and more than half of Canadians (51%) think that we elect our own prime minister directly, and

-- 42% of younger Canadians, presented with a choice among 3 answers describing Canada's form of government, did NOT choose "constitutional monarchy".

What are the chances that one will understand, much less value, something about which one does not know even basic facts?

Some commentators seem eager to assert a generation gap between those supporting the monarchial form of government in Canada and those who do not, as well as asserting an increase in Canadians who find the monarchy "uninspiring" or "irrelevant". How could it be otherwise? Is it realistic to expect someone who is tone deaf to embrace classical music appreciation? Is it sensible to direct a latent congregant to believe in a religion with the tenets of which he is unfamiliar?

Finally, here is a dry but relevant fact to be shared with those Canadians who (a) want and expect to see Canada become a republic, and/or (b) are among the fact-deprived in terms of civic literacy: the abolition of Canada's constitutional monarchy (a form of government many of us still firmly believe to be a great benefit and advantage) will require the approval of both houses of parliament and the approval of every provincial legislature.

Before that distant day arrives and the advocates of this constitutional change have the opportunity to salute a Canadian republic, I confidently predict there will have been more than ample time to (1) reform the teaching of history, and (2) for most Canadians to have read up on Canadian history and governance. I admit that neither seems likely to occur. But then neither does the abolition of Canada's constitutional monarchy in my lifetime.

Alastair Rickard