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Jerry Amernic: Helge Ingstad and Canada’s Viking history


Today Europe is embroiled in its biggest war and refuge crisis since 1945 and all because Russian leader Vladimir Putin believes Ukraine has never been a real country. Perhaps before this horrendous tragedy occurred it would have been good for Vlad to get out in the streets of Kyiv himself, not to mention read a few books. Some of the darkest chapters in the annals of the human race can be directly traced to misled followers of historical revisionism. Unfortunately, some of them wielded enormous power.

I once attended a conference in Jerusalem commemorating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There was a session that focused on the mountaintop fortress of Masada and the legendary mass suicide of more than 900 Jewish Zealots who had resisted the Roman army in a siege said to have taken place in 73 A.D. According to Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, the Zealots poisoned themselves instead of giving up to the Romans. A movie made for TV called simply Masada tells the tale. At one time, human remains were found in a cave near Masada and in 1969 it resulted in a formal state funeral in Israel. The bones were deemed proof of said events.

The session I took at that conference was conducted by two Israelis—an anthropologist and an expert on forensics—who said there was no evidence the mass suicide ever happened, which would be anathema to great numbers of Jews around the world. Their conclusion after extensive analysis was that the remains were those of Roman soldiers which would mean the Israeli government had given a Jewish funeral to Roman pagans!

I may now be in hot water with some readers, but that is my point. A popular old Western starring James Stewart, John Wayne, and Lee Marvin called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance concludes with a newspaper reporter commenting that when you can write about the legend or the fact, go with the legend. Indeed, that’s the problem Helge Ingstad ran into when he proved beyond any doubt that Christopher Columbus did not discover America.

Ingstad was a Norwegian who lived to 101, but the year before his passing I spent an afternoon with him at his home outside Oslo. His remarkable life spanned three centuries—he was born December 30, 1899, and died March 29, 2001—so he left us just over 21 years ago. Ingstad is the explorer who along with his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine, led a series of excavations at the old Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Those excavations took place in the 1960s, and in 1978 L’Anse aux Meadows was officially designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site

Go to L’Anse aux Meadows today—it’s also a National Historic Site in CanadaL’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site—and you see a bronze statue of the Ingstads honouring them for their painstaking work. The word “painstaking” would be an understatement.

Ingstad was born in Bergen, Norway and studied to be a lawyer, but a lawyer’s life wasn’t for him. In 1926 he packed in his legal career and went to the Canadian Arctic. There is a saying about love at first sight and it must have been like that for him. He lived with Indigenous tribes, became a hunter and trapper of note, and later wrote books about it. The Land of Feast and Famine chronicled his four years as a trapper in the area beyond Great Slave Lake in the Canadian North. Another book called East of the Great Glacier was about his time spent as governor in east Greenland, and these books became popular with schoolchildren in Norway. East Greenland just happens to be where Eric the Red once lived.

The Norwegian who greatly admired our Indigenous people—he spared no details telling me this when I saw him—went on to immerse himself in the old Viking sagas. One hundred years old, frail, his voice failing, Ingstad might have been only a shadow of his younger self when I was privileged to spend time with him, but up on the walls of his home—absolutely everything in it made of wood—were the results of hunting exploits. A large moose head stared at me from above the door.

The two Viking sagas that came down through the ages are The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Eric the Red. Both have been translated into English from the original Old Norse. The first, the Grœnlendinga saga, and the second, Eiríks saga rauða, are said to have been written in the 13th century about events that allegedly took place between the years 970 and 1030.

Ingstad was convinced the Vikings had alighted somewhere on the east coast of North America long before Columbus. Some five hundred years before. He spent years searching for a place the sagas called Vinland, and then one day in 1960 he found himself in a small fishing village at the very top of the Great Northern Peninsula in Newfoundland. He had been following the route taken by Leif Ericson, as written in the sagas. Ingstad asked the locals if there were any ruins about and was told of old “Indian” ruins.

The native Scandinavian saw them and knew better. Said Ingstad: “They were very much like the ruins I had seen on the west coast of Norway.”

Over the next few years, he and his wife led excavations with Canadians, Americans, Swedes, Icelanders, and Norwegians digging up the foundations of the turf houses, the smithy, the kiln, and the row of boathouses on the creek that runs through the meadow. The land and the waterways were just as described in the old sagas.

One of the Norwegians on a 1968 dig, then a young student, was Sigrid Kaland who would go on to become a respected archaeologist at the University of Bergen in Norway. I saw her when I was there.

“People said the Ingstads were forging evidence,” she told me. “They said they had brought these things over from Norway. Who were they? Historians. Well-known historians. Once at a conference I was told to my face that these objects were fake.”

What really set her off was a small ringed pin made of bronze, just like pins Vikings had used to fasten their robes so they could draw their swords. She found it on the dig herself. It would be one of 2,000 artifacts unearthed at the site.

Kaland said Ingstad set the record straight because of his familiarity with the Canadian North and because, well, he must have had Viking DNA in his blood; he looked for Vinland not from the seaside but from the landside. The way a Norwegian would. And that was how he found L’Anse aux Meadows.

Ingstad also told me about the difficulties he had. “A number of archaeologists accepted that this was a Viking settlement from around the year 1000 but quite a few people did not accept it. There were many with fixed opinions about this but we were always certain.”

He did acknowledge that the governments of Canada and Newfoundland were always very cooperative, and he left me with this: “You have something nobody else has. Now L’Anse aux Meadows is known all over the world. Canadians have a gift in their hands.”

Christopher Columbus did indeed sail the ocean blue in 1492. In fact, the Italian explorer who sailed for Spain made four trips across the Atlantic, but the furthest north he got were islands now known as the Bahamas. He never touched down on the continental landmass of North America, and even if he did he was a Johnny-come-lately. About five hundred years late. The Vikings had beaten him here.

Ingstad took his last cross-Atlantic trip the same year I saw him, when he was 100. He was guest of honour at the opening of an exhibit in Washington, D. C. called “Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga.” He even made a speech at that event. He had a frigate of the Royal Norwegian Navy named in his honour. He held several honourary doctorates including one from Memorial University in Newfoundland, and there is also The Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad Building on the St. John’s Campus of that same university. What’s more, a small river that flows into Great Slave Lake is called Ingstad Creek while a mountain in the Brooks Range of Alaska is Ingstad Mountain. There is even an asteroid discovered in 1980 with his name on it.

When he died The Economist ran an obituary titled “Champion of the Vikings.” But back in 1981, the National Film Board of Canada released a documentary about him called The Man Who Discovered America. That he was, but with apologies to Chris.

Paul W. Bennett: Ontario’s approach to early reading is failing its students


Several months ago, the earth shook in Ontario and sent reverberations across the Canadian system of education. The Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled that children had “the right to read” and were being denied it in that province’s schools. Most “learning disabilities” labels were actually the result of reading failures, the latest OHRC inquiry found. And most tellingly, students from disadvantaged communities were the most likely to bear the brunt of ineffective reading instruction in elementary schools. 

Thousands of Ontario parents with children struggling to read have now broken the silence. Over the past two years, they came forward, sometimes with their kids, to provide heart-wrenching personal testimonies about how current early reading programs have failed them. On February 28, 2022, that Commission,OHRC Right to Read inquiry calls for critical changes to Ontario’s approach to early reading headed by Chief Commissioner Patricia DeGuire and backed by the latest evidence-based research, simply demolished prevailing methodologies and programs which have left far too many kids unable to read to a level of functional literacy.    

An estimated nine out of ten children are capable of learning to read when provided with the proper instruction. That factoid, generated by International Dyslexia Association (IDA Ontario) research, was confirmed by the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The fundamental problem is that one-third of our youngest students, the vast majority enrolled in so-called “balanced literacy” programs, simply cannot read with the fluency needed in today’s world.  

Starting in October 2019, the Right to Read inquiry looked at a representative cross-section of eight English language school boards, including Peel District School Board and Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board and all 13 English-language faculties of education and Ministry of Education sanctioned curriculum. In addition to listening to a multitude of concerned parents,Why some parents are eager for changes to Ontario’s early reading curriculum the inquiry tapped into the research expertise of leading learning disabilities researchers, including Linda Seigel of the University of British Columbia and Jamie Metsala of Halifax’s Mount Saint Vincent University.

While Chief Commissioner DeGuire refrained from pointing fingers, it was clear that current early reading methods were not working and the commission got a “mixed response” from education faculties regarding the findings. That’s no surprise because most faculties provide little if any preparation informed by the science of reading and model curricula based upon the “balanced literacy” dogma peddled by the dominant learning resource providers. 

When one-out-of-three students graduate without reaching provincial or international standards, someone, somewhere, has to assume responsibility for the outcomes. Vulnerable students—those from impoverished and marginalized communities—were already struggling before the two-year-long pandemic school disruptions. OHRC’s legal counsel Reema Kawaja said it best: “No child should go to school for 14 years and not learn to read.” 

Current reading instruction methods are deeply entrenched and their defenders have succeeded, for three decades, in sinking periodic assaults on that hegemony. Generations of elementary teachers have stayed the course, rebranding “whole language,” applying the reading recovery band-aid, and fuzzing up the whole question with “balanced literacy” providing continued cover for those same methods.  

This transition has been facilitated and enabled by Canada’s faculties of education where teachers are introduced to literacy programs and inculcated in provincially-sanctioned texts and learning materials, exemplified by Fountas & Pinnell, North America’s largest purveyor of “balanced literacy” learning resources, teacher training, and classroom assessment tools. 

New Brunswick Education Minister Dominic Cardy was one of the first off-the-mark in reacting to the Right To Read findings. With news of the earth-shaking February 28 Ontario report breaking, he took to Twitter with another impossible-to-ignore and quotable declaration heard across the K-12 education world.   

“Our approach to reading instruction was a disgrace,” Cardy tweeted. “We gave teachers a job and didn’t give them the tools to do it. For me, this is the biggest education scandal of the last fifty years.” Just in case you thought Minister Cardy was simply blowing off steam, he repeated his claim for Brunswick News in much greater detail.

Minister Cardy and his Department were one of the first to wade into the latest iteration of the reading wars.  “It’s crazy,” he told Brunswick News. “[There are] two camps. One is based upon reality, and one is not. And for a long time, we followed the one that is not based upon reality.”  Like the thousands of Ontario parents, Cardy challenges the prevailing theory that “if you surround [children] with lots of books, they will learn how to read.”

The Right to Read inquiry report may well tip the balance and, it should be noted, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce was quick to endorse the reportOntario to revamp approach to literacy in schools after report calls for change and its 157 recommendations for change The most critical of those is Recommendation 30 which fully embraces systematic reading strategies, including phonics, and rejects the still popular “three-cue” guess-the-word methodology.  

What is astounding is that the OHRC actually spelled out in detail the key requirements to successfully teach and support all students:

  1. Curriculum and instruction that reflects the scientific research on the best approaches to teach word reading. This includes explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, which teaches grapheme to phoneme (letter-sound) relationships and using these to decode and spell words, and word-reading accuracy and fluency. It is critical to adequately prepare and support teachers to deliver this instruction.
  2. Early screening of all students using common, standardized evidence-based screening assessments twice a year from kindergarten to Grade 2, to identify students at risk for reading difficulties for immediate, early, tiered interventions.
  3. Reading interventions that are early, evidence-based, fully implemented and closely monitored and available to ALL students who need them, and ongoing interventions for all readers with word reading difficulties.
  4. Accommodations (and modifications to curriculum expectations) should not be used as a substitute for teaching students to read. Accommodations should always be provided along with evidence-based curriculum and reading interventions. When students need accommodations (for example, assistive technology), they should be timely, consistent, effective and supported in the classroom.
  5. Professional [Psycho-educational] assessments, should be timely and based on clear, transparent, written criteria that focus on the student’s response to intervention. Criteria and requirements for professional assessments should account for the risk of bias for students who are culturally or linguistically diverse, racialized, who identify as First Nations, Métis or Inuit, or come from less economically privileged backgrounds. Professional assessments should never be required for interventions or accommodations.”

The OHRC inquiry report provides plenty of sound research and detailed policy guidance for Ontario, New Brunswick, and other provinces. By the end of next year, 2022-23, the New Brunswick version will be in place in Kindergarten to Grade 2. It’s already being implemented in a few Ontario pilot schools, including those in the York Region Catholic District School Board, north of Toronto, and the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board was the first to commit to acting on the OHRC recommendations.  

Tackling the problem will not be easy because prevailing “balanced literacy” approaches are deeply entrenched in most faculties of education. One of the first to cast a stone was Shelley Stagg Peterson, professor of literacy at OISE/University of Toronto, and, since then, Brock University professor Diane Collier, who represents a group of literacy researchers from nine different education faculties in Ontario. 

“Reading English is not phonetical; it is visual,” Stagg Peterson wrote in an Ottawa Citizen Letter to the Editor. “If a child has a good visual memory, he or she will be able to read anything they can understand by the end of grade one.”  Then came a couple of astounding statements: “Poor readers can have wonderful careers in many fields. Phonics is a useful tool in learning to read but it is not a method.”

Education faculty literacy professors have rallied in defence of the dominant pedagogy and mandated resources.  “There is no one-size-fits-all for reading,” Professor Collier told CBC News. “A highly systematized, step-by-step approach is not necessarily accessible for all students who have all kinds of needs, so it could further marginalize readers.” Their counter-strategy is clear—paint the Right To Read findings as an endorsement of “phonics” and attack it as advocating a “narrow” approach, sidestepping the findings and the ineffectiveness of current methods. 

The Ontario Right To Read inquiry report put existing literacy programs on notice but their defenders, ensconced in the education faculties, are not about to yield or give ground when learning resource alliances and training contracts are at stake. Reading reformers now know that it’s going to be a long siege and will require vigilance throughout the implementation process.