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“It all started with a defeat…”: Québec Students and Narrative Thinking

Posted by Stéphane Lévesque
4 April 2014 - 7:50am

“It all started with a defeat…” is but one of the numerous catchphrases used by Québec students to describe the narrative experience of their province according to Jocelyn Létourneau’s most recent book, Je me Souviens? Le passé du Québec dans la conscience de sa jeunesse (Fides, 2014), published last week.

For the last 10 years, Université Laval Professor Létourneau has been interested in the historical consciousness of young Canadians. Refuting survey results showing abysmal lack of historical knowledge among youth, he collected over 3500 historical accounts of Québec high school and university students, asking them to write a short story and sum up in one phrase the historical adventure of their province. The results are both fascinating and troubling.

Despite what political leaders and the media claim, young Québécois are not historically disconnected nor are they amnesiacs. If many undeniably lack basic historical knowledge, often confusing dates and figures, their visions of history are nonetheless rich and telling. They are based on narrative structures which provide intelligibility and orientation to otherwise disparate and incoherent facts. Among the most significant events listed are “Jacques Cartier and the explorers,” “Les filles du roi,” and the “Conquest” of 1759, which top the list. Beyond the recurring themes and historical actors, one is struck by the students’ narrative orientation. One dominant template emerging from the stories of francophone Québécois is that of “la survivance” of a melancholic and unhappy representation of Québec’s place in Canadian history, and still hesitant about its future.

Why “la survivance”?

As professor, I find this narrative vision of Québec history troubling. Indeed, current school history programs, along with prescribed textbooks, have long abandoned the clerico-nationalist master-narrative of French Canadian history à la Lionel Groulx. As in other provinces, the focus is now placed on historical thinking and citizenship education. So why do these francophone students across the province continue to narrate a story from another epoch?

History education cannot be solely responsible for this state of affairs. In fact, the origins of this disjuncture are far more complex than simply the history to which students are exposed in their classrooms.  Historical consciousness, as demonstrated by students’ narrative ideas, originates from two interrelated sources.  First, the formal school curriculum plays a role, and secondly, collective memory is developed by the mass media, public culture, political speeches, monuments, and other sites of remembering. Young and adult Québécois participate in generating collective memory through a variety of activities, such as wearing the fleur-de-lys flag on Patriots Day (celebrated on Victoria Day), listening to French Canadian music from nationalist rap bands like Loco Locass or attending ceremonies on St-Jean-Baptiste Day. Participating in acts of collective memory provides a powerful way of linking people together, and in forging a common destiny and a sense of belonging. Collective memory also offers a practical way of orienting life over time through simple categorizations of groups (“us” vs. “them”). Despite its historiographical obsolescence, the story of la survivance of a poor alienated people, as recounted by Quebec students time and again, provides a satisfying explanation  for the contemporary significance of past conflicts between the English and French and reminds a growing generation of the significance of their minority situation – un petit peuple. Telling a story of la survivance also serves to establish the identity of its authors and advocates (the collective “we”), convincing them of the permanence and stability of their historical claims and expectations.

Teaching narrative thinking

Many historians believe that narration is the best way to transform the past into history. Distinguished philosopher Paul Ricoeur argues that “historical time becomes human time to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode.” Studies confirm that narratives facilitate students’ understanding and representations of historical time by providing learners with a mental template for charting meaningful facts and details in a storyline. One  has only to consider the popularity of historical movies (e.g., Schindler’s List, Gladiator, Passchendaele) to confirm this mental disposition.

However, current history programs in Québec – and elsewhere in Canada – no longer teach history through narratives. The focus is now placed on developing historical thinking and citizenship skills which are seen as necessary to inform critically thoughtful citizens. Students, in need of anchors for meaning-making and identity-building, thus struggle to mobilize school knowledge to support their practical life and understand present realities in reference to a usable past. In the absence of this essential narrative stitching together their historical learning, they are drawn to more readily available narratives supplied by the rites of collective memory.

It is no surprise that a recent report commissioned by the Parti Québécois recommends that  “Québec history programs be reconciled with its national narrative” so that all political, economic and social events fit one single story of “Québec’s singular experience.”  The 42-page report, which includes no less than 161 references to the “Québec nation,” aims to reconcile the official school history with collective memory. But such a curriculum will make it difficult for students to see the complexity of history and the multiple, divergent narratives that make up the Canadian story.  Twenty-first century students live in a multicultural and multinational world of competing stories and claims about the past.  As educator Sam Wineburg contends, historical consciousness does not emanate in neat concentric circles from the home, to the school, to the province, and to the nation.  

What Québec, and indeed, all Canadian students need in the circumstances is not an education that will enhance their collective memory but rich scholastic opportunities to make sense of competing historical narratives of Canada. This competence in “narrative thinking” can best be understood as the ability to use historical tools to appreciate how stories of the nation get created.  This in turn allows young people to ultimately acquire – or even craft - more valid narrative interpretations of the past than are offered publicly through the media and other sources of collective memory. Students can express preference for the story of la survivance for a number of good reasons  (identity, insecurity, etc.) but their interpretations would be impoverished if they were not expected to consider other possibilities and narrative orientations.  To be educationally sound, the historical narratives employed by students must not only be practically relevant to their lives, they must also be valid and admit to the existence and value of alternative narratives.  The future of Québec and Canada demands no less.

Access the original article published in French in Le Droit, 25 February 2014

Photo: The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West. Oil on canvas, 1770, from Wikipedia Commons.



Thanks for contributing this thought-provoking and insightful post Stephane. I have a couple of comments about your article. You claim that current history programs in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada, "no longer teach history through narratives" because the focus is now placed on developing historical thinking and citizenship skills. Although I agree that many provincial curricula have now placed some emphasis on historical thinking, I would argue that there is a large gulf between the prescribed curricula and the enacted curricula in these provinces, and it is possible that many teachers are still adopting a narrative approach in their practice that is either explicitly or implicitly offering a dominant narrative. 

Also, I don't think that when it comes to narrative thinking and historical thinking it is an either/or proposition. If students are taught to think historically they will be able to adjudicate between competing narratives and even construct their own defensible and reasoned narratives. That being said, it is important that future conceptions of historical thinking consider how the role of narratives, accounts and even historiography fit with the other second-order concepts that are currently being emphasized.

Reply to my blog post

Thank you Lindsay for your thoughful remarks. I agree with your two points. There is potentially a gap between what provincial curricula state and mandate and what teachers decide to do in class. Two elements to bear in mind here. 1) For this study, the Québec provincial examination clearly influences the way teachers 'interpret' the curriculum. Many teachers teach to the test. 2)Students' responses are from different classes in 11 different regions of Québec, taken before and after the implementation of the new curriculum (2006). We find no significant variations between students' responses between regions. 

Your last point about narrative thinking is crucial. We need to consider how historical thinking can empower students to (re)think their narrative vision of the nation. Simply presenting them the "concepts" in the context of a classroom activity (compare now and then, imagine you are a soldier in WWI, etc.) is unliekly to affect their narrative vision of history - and their historical consciousness.