Quebec's history curriculum is the co-creation of the worst politics of both of the province's main political parties, and should serve as a cautionary tale for the next time Quebecers consider using their vote to exchange one political evil for another.
Horrified by the Parti Québécois’s proposed Charter of Values and the conservative ethnic nationalism it represented, the election of 2014 saw large numbers of Quebecers turn to a corrupt, austerity-mad Liberal Party, hoping it to be a lesser evil.
This fall, high school students throughout Quebec will reap the consequences of this short-sighted political calculation as they are subjected to a dogmatic, exclusionary and politically regressive history program that is as much the product of the PQ’s conservative ethnic nationalism as it is the Liberal Party’s myopic obsession with public sector austerity.
An ideologically driven reform
The genesis of this reform begins with the lobbying efforts of la Coalition pour l’histoire, an organization founded by nationalist historians Éric Bédard and Robert Comeau with the support of organizations such as la Fondation Lionel-Groulx, le Mouvement national des Québécois, and la Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal. Despite the fact that Quebec’s current curriculum contains numerous and frequent references to Quebec nationalism and the Quebec nation, the coalition sees it as its mission to stop what it calls the “denationalization” of Quebec history.
The politics of this coalition were laid bare in 2013 when the organization refused to meet with the members of the initial committee set up to reform the curriculum, because of the “divergent views” that would be present. Evidently the coalition members wanted a committee as monolithic in its composition as the view of Quebec society they sought to impose on Quebec’s students.
The PQ education minister of the day, Marie Malavoy, subsequently decided to meet privately with a small group of coalition supporters. Cancelling a meeting of the larger, more diverse committee was a telling indication of the direction she was intending on taking the program.
In an open letter published by Le Devoir, the leadership of L’Association québécoise pour l’enseignement en univers social (AQEUS) scolded the minister for taking her advice from a committee of nationalist historians that not only excluded any participation from teachers and pedagogical experts, but also prevented one historian from participating because of his activism with Québec Solidaire. They also accused the minister of “instrumentalizing” the teaching of history for “purely partisan and political ends.”
Though the report that would serve as the basis for the PQ’s pilot program did eventually involve a modest process of consultation, the end result clearly reflected the coalition’s desires for the program. Coalition spokesperson Robert Comeau was quoted in Le Devoir as being “very satisfied.”
Minorities omitted from history
So what exactly is so problematic about the proposed reform? To answer that question, one must consider the things that have been omitted.
Perhaps the most symbolic omission is the word “citizenship.” Throughout Quebec’s modern history there has been debate as to whether the concept of the Quebec nation is inclusive of those living in Quebec who are not of French ancestry. The removal of the word “citizenship” from the course title is the first indication that this program is promoting a view of the Quebec nation based narrowly on ethnicity rather than a more inclusive and pluralistic vision that envisions the nation in terms of civic participation around a collective democratic project to improve society.
The next telling omission is that the struggles and contributions of Quebec’s various minority communities are almost entirely absent. Nothing about the over 4,000 people of colour enslaved in Quebec during the French regime. Nothing about the struggles against discrimination faced by Jewish, Italian and Greek immigrants. Nothing about the more recent efforts to welcome refugees fleeing war and oppression in places like Vietnam, Lebanon, Chile or Haiti. Students from these backgrounds will next year be subjected to the story of a society that renders their existence invisible.
The one minority group that is featured prominently is anglophones, but they are cast exclusively in the role of comic book villain intent on impeding the progress of the French majority at every turn. There is nothing about the anglophones who participated in the 1837 rebellions, or the working-class anglophones who were some of Quebec’s first industrial workers. The fact that many anglophones — notably the Irish who were viewed as a sub-human race by British authorities — were also victims of the British merchant class simply does not fit with the chosen narrative.
To be clear, this is not to say that the crimes of the British regime and the English merchant class should be excluded or even minimized. To remove such details would be an even worse ideological instrumentalization of the curriculum. Rather the point here is that such crimes should not be the only thing students in Quebec learn about the history of the anglophone community. Some of the positive contributions to Quebec society should also receive at least some mention.
Problems with representation of First Nations
This reform also fails to address the longstanding problems with the representation of First Nations people in the curriculum.
Prior to the contemporary period, First Nations people are presented strictly through the prism of colonialism as people without agency. Then suddenly in the contemporary period they cease to be hapless victims because of their cooperation with the Quebec government. Incidences of conflict such as the uprising in Oka are reduced to decontextualized sidebars that exclude voices from the Mohawk community and say nothing of the duplicity and outright racist behaviour of officials from multiple levels of government.
It is also important to note that aside from a brief mention of residential schools the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have been ignored. This despite the fact that the reform was being planned at the very moment these recommendations were released. Quebec had a real opportunity to be the first province to implement these recommendations and has instead chosen to remain part of the problem.
But the problems are not merely about an ethnic nationalist vision. They are also about a politically conservative vision that wants to expunge from the historical narrative events and figures of a more progressive nature.
Perhaps the best example of this is the curriculum’s rehabilitation of Maurice Duplessis as a defender of Quebec autonomy. No reference to “La Grande Noirceur” or to the various tales of resistance to Duplessis’ authoritarianism. No mention of the Cité Libre journal or influential figures like Georges-Henri Levesque. The progressive and inclusive Parent Report (1963-66), which served as one of the pillars of the reconstruction of Quebec society, is also not worthy of mention.
Many presumed that with the election of a Liberal government, the last political remnant of the PQ’s turn towards the politics of ethnic nationalism would never see the light of day. In retrospect, such people badly underestimated the Liberal Party’s capacity to put the politics of austerity over and above any other concerns.
Seemingly unaware of the ideologically driven nature of the new reform, the Liberals released the details of the program last May. After a wave of public outcry from First Nations and anglophones, Education Minister Proulx announced the program would be put on hold for a year so the various concerns could be addressed. At that point critics of the reform breathed a sigh of relief as it seemed that government was finally taking action.
Then within a week of the minister’s commitment to put the program on hold, two things happened. First, one of the main publishers of the new textbooks posted a message on its Facebook page reassuring teachers that the textbooks for the new program had not been cancelled and would soon be available. Then, without any public admission from government that it was changing course, teachers throughout Quebec began receiving notices from their school boards inviting them to the professional development session for a program that would in fact be implemented in September.
Connecting the dots with austerity
The dots are not difficult to connect here.
The government was happy to talk about reforming the program until it realized that doing so would involve the additional cost of renegotiating contracts with publishers. Once that fact became clear it quietly backed away from its public commitments to reform the program and encouraged the school boards to go ahead with the program’s implementation.
The fact that the school boards acquiesced to this during the exact same week that the government announced that it was abandoning a controversial plan that would reduce school board autonomy had many wondering if a quid quo pro between government and school boards was at work.
So what we appear to have here is a government that would rather impose on the province’s students an intellectually stifling, ideologically driven curriculum that renders large swaths of the population invisible than deviate from its fanatical commitment to public sector austerity — austerity they hope will provide the fiscal room to offer another round of tax cuts before the next election.
The fact that this rotten curriculum is the co-creation of the worst politics of both of Quebec’s main political parties should be a cautionary tale for the next time Quebecers consider using their vote to exchange one political evil for another.