The Example of Quebec
The case of Quebec is interesting to analyze from the point of view of the opposition described between the partisans of national history, on one side, and the adepts of a less national or non-national history, on the other. (Note that in Canada, education is in principle a provincial rather than a federal jurisdiction.)
Although Quebec’s social fabric has always been composite, it includes a culture over 400 years old that, at the turn of the eighteenth century, notwithstanding the presence of Aboriginal peoples, was by far the majority in its primary region—the St. Lawrence River valley. While Quebec society has always been somewhat influenced by immigration, it has been welcoming a sizable flow of newcomers every year for the past four decades. Moreover, we can safely say that young Quebecers are open to the world and becoming increasingly internationalized, at least in terms of their representations. The living, evolving culture of Quebec is subject to ceaseless inflows from elsewhere and is constantly readjusting to absorb outside contributions. In short, Quebec is changing. ‘Quebecness’ is undergoing a sort of silent revolution in comparison to what it used to be (Letourneau, 2013).
For some people this regeneration is the leaven of progress. For others it is a source of apprehension. For example, the Quebec government’s decision, suggested by a committee of independent scholars and advisers in 1996 (Lacoursiere, 1996), to reform the national history course taught in elementary and secondary schools caused some disquiet in the mid-2000s. What exactly would the reform, consist of?
Without going into detail (Letourneau, 2011), we could say that the government’s intention was to expand and redefine the object Quebec to include everyone who, since the colonial era and even prior to that time (e.g., First Nations people), had lived in the territory and, with divergent interests and different goals, contributed to the society that is still developing there today. In this way, the teaching of history would become a factor for social cohesion in the present, a priority objective for youth education in the minds of those decision-makers.
The government also wanted to add a layer of complexity to the concept the majority of Quebec youth held about their society, by drawing them away from binary visions of Quebec (French/English, Good/Bad, Us/Them, provincial/ federal, Here/There) and opening them up to the complications, ambiguities and paradoxes of Quebec’s condition over time. The history course would provide the pretext for asking questions, rather than hand down materials to be mechanically swallowed whole. It would also be a means of developing competencies rather than a vector for inculcating unconditional truths.
Ultimately, the government’s intention was to initiate adolescents into the history of Quebec society with the dual perspective of helping them understand their sociopolitical environment in the present and offering them the bases and tools for citizen participation in the future. In this way, history would become a building agent for the community which, in the 2000s, was a goal sought by many stakeholders, in light of the supposed apathy of youth with regard to community affairs.
The nationalist reaction to this proposal was no surprise. For nationalists, the government’s initiative could only weaken the nation, because it changed the traditional national narrative, on one hand, and made history a resource for moving into the future rather than an offering to honor the ancestors, on the other.
Beginning in the mid-2000s, therefore, nationalists denounced the new history course, claiming that it denationalized the collective journey and demoted Francophones in the development of their own nation. To further back up their argument, they added that the course was guilty of presentism in that it subordinated the study of the past to the political imperatives of today. Finally, they harped on the fact that the new history course—called History and Citizenship Education (HCE)—had less do to with the study of the past than the transmission of citizenship and critical competencies, which, to their way of thinking, was tantamount to hijacking the goal of teaching history. For the nationalists, history should be a (national) culture and duty.
In the social debate on the teaching of history in Quebec, the nationalists scored points, forcing the government to retreat. The HCE course was replaced by a history course (MELS, 2014) that is fairly traditional in its content, orientation and aims. The narrative presented to the youth reviews, in factual form, the grand political moments of the national journey. The horizon is entirely focused on Quebec society seen in its distinctiveness and developmental specificities. Finally, the divisions selected to articulate the historical trajectory of Quebec repeat the usual chronology of the nation. The new version of Histoire du Quebec-Canada intends to shore up the historical consciousness of young Quebecers and fan the flames of their patriotism in an era when, so it is said, historical references are ebbing away, with all the concomitant dangers for national cohesion.