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A satue is being lowered onto a truck.
Workers lower a a statue of Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, onto a truck as a crowd watches in Kingston, Ont., June 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg

Commemoration controversies in classrooms: Canadian history teachers disagree about making ethical judgments

Commemorations of significant historical people and events connected to histories of racism, enslavement and colonialism continue to fuel debates over collective memory and civic values in Canada and around the world.

Most recently, after a survey of the grounds at the former residential school in Kamloops uncovered the remains of 215 children buried at the site, the city council in Kingston, Ont., expedited long-standing debate and removed a statue of John A. Macdonald.

In Toronto, activists toppled and decapitated a statue of Egerton Ryerson, whose recommendations were instrumental in designing and implementing the residential school system. The university said the statue would not be replaced and invited further dialogue about a possible institutional name change. One commentator said teachers should be outraged by protestors’ actions.

Our previous research has explored how teachers and students think about and approach ethical judgments when focusing on controversial historical events and how historical injustices are included in revised social studies curriculum in British Columbia.

In an article in the Canadian Journal of Education, one of the authors of this story argues that commemoration controversies should be taught in Canadian history and social studies classrooms.

Learning about these controversies could be an opportunity for students to address knowledge, skills and values essential for developing civic identity and engagement. Students could find powerful opportunities to use their historical understandings to make informed decisions.

Read more: Stop telling students to study STEM instead of humanities for the post-coronavirus world

To date, little research has focused specifically on teaching about commemoration controversies. Our team (with Catherine Duquette, Jacqueline P. Leighton, Alan Sears and Jessica Gobran) designed a 31-question online survey to better understand Canadian teachers’ beliefs about commemoration controversies and how to teach them. We also wanted to identify the benefits and challenges teachers see in doing so.

We found that history teachers are regularly teaching commemoration controversies through analyzing different sources, discussing different arguments and perspectives and generating solutions about how to respond.

However, teachers disagree about if and how they should approach ethical judgments when teaching about commemoration controversies.

A woman dances next to a toppled statue of Egerton Ryerson.
A protester dances next to the Egerton Ryerson statue before protestors removed its head after toppling it June 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Changing views?

Canadian commemoration controversies have been divisive because they challenge long-standing national myths about Canada as a progressive and inclusive nation. They also highlight important problems and issues in Canada today, particularly the ongoing effects of racism and colonialism on Indigenous peoples, Black and racialized people.

A September 2020 survey by Leger of 1,529 Canadians found that half the respondents were opposed to removing statues or monuments or renaming, even when it was demonstrated that the person being commemorated held racist views or implemented racist policies.

But recent data suggest attitudes may be shifting.

In June 2021, Abacus Data surveyed 3,000 Canadians for the Assembly of First Nations and the Canadian Race Relations Foundation after the discovery of the remains of 215 children in Kamloops. The survey found that 58 per cent of respondents support renaming buildings and institutions named after people connected with the residential school system, 21 per cent are opposed and 21 per cent say they don’t know.

Teachers aware of controversies

In our survey of 114 history teachers, most of those who completed the survey are experienced, with 71 per cent having taught in classrooms for more than nine years.

They teach in kindergarten to Grade 12 schools, post-secondary institutions and museums and live in a range of provinces and territories. Just over half identified as male (53 per cent), 43 per cent as female and three per cent identifying as transgender, gender non-conforming or gender-queer.

Respondents weren’t racially diverse. More than 85 per cent of respondents identified as white, understood either as “Canadian/white” (68 per cent), or “European/white” (17 per cent). Only three respondents identified as Métis or First Nations. No respondents identified as racialized.

Read more: Black History: How racism in Ontario schools today is connected to a history of segregation

Respondents were aware of numerous commemoration controversies and recognize that commemorations are interpretations of the past created after the event occurred or the person was alive.

They also understand that removing or revising commemorations is not an attempt to destroy history. Instead, they acknowledge that removing or altering commemorations is acceptable if they are found to be inaccurate, exclude important information or celebrate those who acted unjustly in the past.

Elder Junior Peter Paul points to a statue of Canada’s first prime minister, John A. MacDonald, during a ceremony in Charlottetown, May 31, 2021. The city has since removed the statue. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Morris

Commemoration controversies important to teach

The respondents think commemoration controversies are important to teach about, and more than 80 per cent have already taught about them or intend to teach about them.

Most respondents report using similar methods for teaching about commemoration controversies. The most popular include small and large group discussions, analyzing primary and secondary sources and having students generate possible solutions.

Respondents identified many benefits of teaching about commemoration controversies including making history more interesting and meaningful, fostering students’ historical thinking abilities and advancing students’ critical thinking, problem solving and communication abilities.

Challenges, disagreements

More than half the respondents said they have no concerns about teaching commemoration controversies, which challenges previous research that found that teachers often avoid teaching about controversial issues.

The most common challenges respondents identified were concerns about students making hasty judgments that do not consider historical context and using present day beliefs, values and attitudes to judge the past.

Despite widespread agreement about most aspects of teaching about commemoration controversies, there were areas of disagreement. Participants were divided about whether changing or removing problematic commemorations will lead to meaningful social change.

Half think teachers should remain neutral and objective when discussing commemoration controversies with students, while 44 per cent disagreed with that view and five per cent strongly disagreed.

Similarly, 45 per cent think teachers should not ask students to judge the actions of people in the past in terms of just and unjust, right and wrong.

These findings illustrate the prevalence of the myth of neutrality among teachers. There is a longstanding idea among many teachers, including social studies and history teachers specifically, that they need to remain neutral and objective when teaching, even though it is commonly known that teachers’ beliefs and values influence their teaching.

When it comes to classroom practice, many teachers are unaware of the various ways ethical judgments are present in the activities and the resources they use, and the extent to which they bring their own ethical judgments into the classroom.

A police officer gestures with to a statue while talking with a veteran holding a Canadian flag.
A Kingston Police officer talks with a man who protested the removal of a statue of John A. Macdonald in Kingston, Ont., as construction crews arrived, on June 18. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg

Future research

This research suggests the need for teachers to identify how their beliefs about objectivity and neutrality influence how they teach about commemoration controversies. It also raises questions about how an attachment to neutrality may serve to maintain the status quo when asking students to make ethical judgments about historical and contemporary injustices.

Anti-racism education researchers highlight how what teachers do in classrooms isn’t neutral, but is always shaped by context, implicit bias and racialized and cultural assumptions. From this perspective, assuming neutrality leaves white supremacy and racism unaddressed, perpetuating harm to racialized students.

But many teachers don’t consider how their attempts at neutrality and objectivity affects their students.

Future research needs to move beyond surveys to investigate how teachers and students respond to commemoration controversies in the classroom, and the impact these experiences have on all students’ learning.

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