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Christopher Dummitt: We are telling the wrong story about Canada

Commentary

Twenty-five years after its initial publication, Who Killed Canadian History? is an odd thing: a pessimistic book by a jaded author that was probably too optimistic.

In 1998 Granatstein warned us about two big things: first, that a range of actors, from schools and museums to the CBC and universities were losing historical rigour. Schools hardly required any Canadian history and, when they did, it was taught in scattered fashion. They didn’t offer rigorous chronological accounts of the nation’s past but instead dipped into the past to tell a hodge-podge of stories with no overall coherence. 

Granatstein’s second point was related to the first: he warned that we were losing the story of Canada itself. In the desire to explore diverse experiences, to include the stories of immigrants, women, Indigenous peoples, and others, the purveyors of Canada’s past were losing sight of the fact that there really was a Canadian story amidst all this diversity. The book was a plea for historians to tell stories about what Canadians had in common.

The main way to do this was to prioritize accounts of national politics and constitutional development, and the nation’s involvement in wars overseas. How did Canada come to be? What did Canadians struggle over as Canadians?

Granatstein still claimed that these other diverse stories mattered (though it’s safe to say many of his professor readers didn’t believe him). But he argued that the nation needed a unified narrative. He saw it ebbing away. 

He wasn’t wrong—except in not being sufficiently pessimistic.

It’s now clear that the disorganized mess of which Granatstein complained was the point all along. The glitch wasn’t a mix-up; it was the intended destination. 

Anecdotes of oppression are the new national narrative—a conception of Canada as merely a settler colonial nation, steeped in a racist history, whose people have been oppressed, and whose even ostensibly positive policies like official multiculturalism merely hide exclusionary tendencies. This is the new Canadian story.

In the Canada of 2023, there are many iterations of this largely negative national story. The activists toppling statues certainly propagate it with abandon; seemingly any white male colonial figure is a legitimate target of desecration. But so too do the museum curators devoted to decolonization—or the art gallery curators who won’t let us enjoy Rembrandt or Vermeer without accompanying plaques decrying the Atlantic slave trade or colonialism. The pro-Palestinian petitions that talk about “so-called” Canada are absolutely picking up on this story that the country is so illegitimate as to not even deserve to be named without qualification.

Patriotism is politicized. Those who fly Canadian flags from their car windows, with the “F*** Trudeau” bumper stickers are a new counterculture. In a country that used to be quite English in its sense that nationalism was for crude Americans, we have now in our midst exactly that form of rough hypernationalism, but it arrives not as a majority concern, but instead from a political minority. These are voices of protest against an educated elite who either stand by meekly as national institutions and traditions are written over, or who are themselves orchestrating the destruction. 

For many scholars, it was never the intention to denigrate Canada. For many—and I used to count myself amongst them—we were interested in what you might call “What about?” history. That is, we wanted to look at the stories previously unexplored. What about those not involved in national politics? What about the working class and their struggles? What about Indigenous peoples? What about women’s struggles? What about new immigrants to this country, especially those who hadn’t fit into the for-so-long dominant French and English two-nations idea of Canada?

These questions were—and remain—important. High politics tells us about certain aspects of our past, but it misses a lot. It seemed logical and compelling to offer a richer account of Canada’s diverse history. There was also the point that nationalism can seem, to intellectuals, like a fool’s game, so obviously sentimental and arbitrary in its loyalties. To tell national stories, as Granatstein wanted us to do, seemed simplistic. 

The problem is that these curiosity-based scholars have provided cover for activist scholars with an axe to grind. Under the guise of “correcting” an older national story, quite radical Left scholars use university funding and positions, and national research grants, to attack the country that makes their livelihood possible. This is, in a sense, the inevitable consequence of believing in an open-liberal society. It is—and should—be possible to castigate a nation’s sins from within the main institutions of that nation. You don’t want to live in a country where this isn’t possible.

“Something has gone awry amongst our intellectual class.”

But it’s clear also that something has gone askew, that other scholars aren’t exercising the normal disciplinary pressure or criticism that we ought to expect. Something has gone awry amongst our intellectual class.

We might have expected a serious scholarly body like the Canadian Historical Association to want to foster debate about the meaning of a concept like genocide—and the way in which activists were attempting to modify the commonly accepted uses of this term. We would certainly hope that such a profession would be very interested in looking at how something like the many negative experiences of the Indian Residential School System in Canada differed from what we otherwise call genocide. Should we really use the same term to describe both residential schools and the massacres in Rwanda? Can we really not see the need for a different concept to describe the intentional murdering of six million Jews as compared to the still negative experience of residential schools? To any reasonable person, these ought to be legitimate questions. Instead, two years ago, that professional body asserted that there was to be no debate. The profession had spoken and residential schools were now to be labelled as genocidal. 

Then some historians pushed to even criminalize debate on the topic, calling it “residential school denialism”. Even in the face of this illiberal attack, Canadian historians remained silent. There is some hope that, behind the scenes, more temperate and reasoned voices will prevail. But so far, moderate voices accede to the radicals and Canadians are left with official institutions which present over-the-top unreasoned accounts of Canadian barbarity as “truth”, and smear critics as backward and retrograde.

The ideological capture of the universities and other elite institutions makes this possible. Over 90 percent of professors vote for Left-leaning parties. More temperate scholars might not like the excesses of their radical colleagues but, after all, they are on the same side. It’s the radical progressive version of “boys will be boys.” After all, they’ll say, the political message is right.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the Trudeau government has never released an updated Citizenship Guide. The old guide, created under the Harper government, was widely panned by Left-leaning Canadian academics for not telling the new woke narrative. When the Trudeau government took office, they immediately began work on a new version. Nine years later, it still hasn’t arrived. One has to think that somewhere within the machinery of government bureaucrats are wondering how on earth the government could release a guide to its new prospective citizens that instructs them in the horrors of the country they are about to join. 

What would those from authoritarian China think of tales of Canadian illiberalism except to laugh? Or how about new immigrants from Afghanistan? Would it make sense to such a person, who has fled persecution, to come to Canada only to be told that what you really need to know about this country is its horrible record on race relations or gender-based violence? Is this really what makes the Canadian story distinct? Given that we have not yet seen the new guide, despite the fact that a full draft was finished years ago, it’s possible that some sane voices within the government have been wondering the same thing.

Or, perhaps worse, maybe my assessment is too naïve. Perhaps it’s just that people within the government are debating how low to go, fighting over which stories of atrocity to privilege. After all, in the victimhood Olympics, the gold medal surely is making it to the Citizenship Guide.

Given all that has changed over the last twenty-five years since the publication of Who Killed Canadian History?, you might ask: why isn’t there a second edition? Shouldn’t we get a new book, maybe with a new title like Who Keeps Desecrating the Now Long-Dead Corpse of Canadian History?

The answer is as depressing as it is clear. Granatstein’s editors told him that, yes, a new book probably would be great. Yes, it would probably sell very well indeed. But could they publish it? No, they could not. Why not? Because the staff at the publishing house would revolt. 

And that is what happens when the radical Twitter mob takes over our institutions, and ostensibly saner voices allow it to happen.

Joanna Baron: What the ‘math is racist’ argument gets wrong about equality rights

Commentary

In 2021, a judge of Ontario’s Divisional Court found that mandatory math competency tests for incoming public school teachers constituted discrimination against racialized teaching candidates. The decision, Petrucci v. Ontario, was a bombshell, representing a highwater mark of judicial DEI countenance. It was deemed a “surrender to, indeed an embrace of, irrationality masquerading as legal doctrine” by constitutional scholar Leonid Sirota. Happily, the decision was overturned unanimously by the Court of Appeal last week, but the whole affair and the tangled equality rights jurisprudence that led to the original outcome bear accounting for. 

In response to falling math scores across Ontario schools, the Ontario government mandated a basic math proficiency test (MPT) for all public school teachers. The MPT barely reached a Grade 9 level, with many questions well below that threshold. The test was screened twice for “bias and sensitivity to equity issues.”

A Divisional Court decision was issued on the basis of one round of the test being administered. It found that the test constituted a form of “adverse impact discrimination”, accepting an assertion that “Black and Latinx teacher candidates are much more likely to fail standardized teacher tests than their White peers,” and that standardized tests are categorically “biased against almost all vulnerable classes of potential teachers other than women”. They reached this conclusion even though it was common ground that teaching candidates were permitted to take the test as many times as needed.

The allegation that standardized tests, whether for students or faculty, contain implicit biases is a familiar one. Staff with the Toronto District School Board’s Mathematics and Numeracy Department have given presentations suggesting that the province’s standardized testing was an example of “white supremacy in K-12 mathematics education.”

The hearing of the appeal, held at Osgoode Hall this fall, was bracing to witness. In one exchange, Justice Monahan remarked, upon hearing that the content of the MPT was biased against non-native English or French candidates, that he felt like he was in Alice in Wonderland absurdist territory. Clearly, basic competence in English or French is a requirement to teach in an Ontario public school.

Counsel for the candidates argued that even the government’s accommodation of multiple test rounds was insufficient and that the disparity in test outcomes created sufficient evidence of discriminatory impact. He argued that to demand more evidence would be “unduly onerous” for the candidates. This was posited due to the excessive burden for racialized candidates of having to “see their white colleagues passing, give up jobs and time with family.” They feared that some candidates who failed the first time would just give up.

With an eventual pass rate for racialized candidates of 93 percent, the court didn’t accept this, as there was no indication that the test served as a meaningful barrier to the diversity of the teaching profession. And thank God. If the standard of a basic test of grade nine math abilities for an educator is too meritocratic for our society, and asking intended teachers who don’t pass right away for a bit of perseverance, things are pretty hopeless. (And I say this as somebody who failed her G2 driving test four times, with considerable humiliation!)

In the result, Justice Monahan found that the test was not discriminatory: candidates who had not passed could rewrite the test an unlimited number of times without prejudice, and the test itself had already been screened for bias. The legal charity I work for, the Canadian Constitution Foundation, intervened and argued that the test, which already made accommodations for racialized groups, was not arbitrary and thus was strongly presumed to not be discriminatory.

The decision is an opportunity to consider how the guarantee of equality under the Charter has metastasized in the last forty years since its adoption and offers a somewhat hopeful check on s. 15’s drift towards creating positive obligations on the state to produce uniform outcomes between all societal groups. From the perspective of the candidates and the Divisional Court, substantive equality demanded that the government fill in any gaps in outcomes between groups, even if that means eliminating the requirement of proving basic skills for those who would educate our children.

Section 15(1) states “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.” The landmark case defining the scope of s. 15(1)’s protection, Andrews v. Law Society of British Columbia, guaranteed “equality before and under the law, as well as the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination” and clarified that its protection “was not a general guarantee of equality.” In other words, it was a negative guarantee of formal equality rather than substantive equality: equality of treatment under the law, free from state distinction, rather than equality of outcomes.

Now-retired Justice Rosalie Abella, however, made it a hallmark of her judicial legacy to entrench a thick conception of substantive equality in which each social group ought to enjoy equal outcomes on every measure of achievement, and a group’s demonstration of unequal outcomes served as prima facie evidence of discrimination.

This view prevailed in the Supreme Court’s 2020 Fraser decision, which found that RCMP officers who opted to switch to part-time work after their maternity leaves were entitled to full-time pension benefits in retirement. Abella found that to hold otherwise would perpetuate historical disadvantages of women, and counselled lower courts, when reviewing laws for discriminatory impact, to disregard legislative intent, as it was not important to show discrimination. Mere “headwinds” against which a certain group might struggle were sufficient.

However, concerns about whether equality doctrine was becoming unwieldy and all-encompassing were addressed in 2022’s R. v. Sharma, which was released after the divisional court’s decision in Petrucci. The majority decision reins in Fraser in a few ways. First, it clarifies that any gap in outcomes between groups does not mean there has been a breach in equality rights, only “disproportionate” gaps. Second, it emphasized that the distinction had to be arbitrary in order to ground a claim of discrimination: “a distinction that is based on an individual’s actual capacities will rarely be discriminatory; but a distinction that fails to respond to the actual capacities and needs of the members of the group will often be discriminatory.”

The proposition upheld by the Divisional Court—that fear of burdening racialized candidates should lead the government to scrap a test meant to boost poor math scores throughout public schools—represents a nadir of bigotry of low expectations. It also threatens to entrench poor math outcomes for all students, including racialized ones, by doing away with the requirement of basic teaching knowledge requirements. Finally, its view of the aptitudes of racialized Canadians is both condescending and unsupported by evidence. A recent study from the Aristotle Foundation, for example, shows many Canadian visible minorities outpacing white Canadians in income and educational attainment. Disparities do not imply discrimination, and it is by fostering a culture of excellence rather than a race to the bottom that society flourishes.