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Canadiana 1000: An introductory course

(January 27, 2000, Gazette)

By Kelley Power

Please put up your right hand if you can correctly answer the following question: How did our country come by its name?

And if your response consists only of the fact that “Canada” is an Anglicized version of an aboriginal word, that’s not good enough.
With the number of Canadian placenames that share that origin, you could simply be guessing. What I’m interested in are the details.
I don’t think I’d be going out on a limb if I guessed that more eyebrows shot up at my question than did hands. I’m presuming, of course, that such a poor showing is not a result of a reluctance to embarrass yourself in public by having your right hand raised for no apparent reason while reading the newspaper.

No, instead I choose to believe that there are simply too few people out there who actually know the right answer.

How about this one: Who’s portrait is featured on the back of the Canadian $100 bill? I think it’s reasonable to assume that only individuals of some renown have their faces printed on our currency, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Queen Elizabeth II among them. But, despite the fact that the man with the moustache must be somewhat important, I’m guessing that identifying him is even less likely than getting an answer to the “Canada” question.

I decided to use these questions, and the unlikelihood of them being answered, to illustrate a problem that I have noticed amongst students (myself included): ignorance of our nation’s history and culture. I’m embarrassed to admit that I knew who was on the front of the American $100 bill but not who was depicted on the Canadian equivalent.

In an age when the line dividing the societies and economies of the United States and Canada is becoming less distinct, the need to preserve and transmit Canadian culture and heritage seems to be more urgent than ever.

I feel distressed over the fact that we know relatively little about our country. And, because I’m coming to the realization of how important it is only at this late stage of my university career, I feel a little guilty.
Shouldn’t uncovering the most basic facts about our country be a priority for us “educated” citizens? Are we not in a better position than most to acquire such knowledge, given our immersion in a learning environment?

Even if historical or cultural information about Canada does not apply directly to your field of study, you still live in a society that has been and will continue to be heavily influenced by events and people in both the past and the present. None of us exist in a vacuum, where the act of acquiring such knowledge could be justifiably neglected.

One very current issue in this country that clearly illustrates the need for all people to have a more complete understanding of Canada’s past is the question of national unity.

Not only does the separatist movement have its roots in centuries-old conflicts between the French and British over control of Canada, but the ramifications of an independent Quebec reach far beyond the borders of that province.

In this case, then, complete comprehension of the problem is impossible without an understanding of history and the potential consequences of separation are so widespread that nobody can justify ignorance of the issue by claiming exemption from it.

While I’m on the topic of the disgracefully small amount of Canadian-oriented information circulating in the student mind, I’d like to clarify that I’m not saying this condition exists only in Newfoundland. Indeed, I’ve been asked some ridiculous questions by students from other provinces that reflect how they’ve been misinformed about this island.

One of my favourites will always be the inquiry into whether everyone in Newfoundland lives in an igloo or not. And, while I haven’t heard it for some time, the question of whether or not all Newfoundlanders are employed in the fishery was a common one.

Humourous though they might be, these two questions also demonstrate a lack of understanding by people from other provinces of this island’s climate, economy and culture.

Are we agreed, then, that a problem exists; that the average student does not possess the quality and quantity of information pertaining to Canada that he/she should? If so, then finding a solution is of the utmost importance.

It might be useful to look first at primary and secondary schools. An article published in the Telegram on Jan. 8 discussed the necessity for the curriculum of these institutions to place greater emphasis on Canadian history. A component of local history is also suggested to provide students with a sense of regional identity, however a standardized course of study that touches on all areas of the country is also under consideration.

At the post-secondary level, perhaps making a set of courses in Canadian and Newfoundland culture/geography/history mandatory at Memorial is an option. I’d certainly like to believe that I opened a few eyes with this column, but I realize that it isn’t exactly the whop on the head that some need to convince them of the importance of compulsory Canadian studies.

My opinion, however, is that if calculus – which screams impracticability – can be justified as something required for a degree, then certainly a few courses to help improve our understanding of this, our home and native land, wouldn’t be too unreasonable.

Maya Angelou once said, “No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place.” Notwithstanding the total exclusion of the female sex from this statement, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

FYI: ‘Canada’ comes from the Huron-Iroquois word ‘kanata’ which means village or settlement. The word was used by two Huron-Iroquois youths to indicate the location of the village of Stadacona (site of present Quebec City) to Jacques Cartier in 1535. The word was preserved by its use as a proper noun, identifying larger land areas as the colony grew.
Sir Robert Borden is featured on the $100 bill. He was Prime Minister of Canada from 1911-1920.