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Elections: The Future and the Past

Posted by Katherine Joyce
11 October 2011 - 3:04pm

This fall, more than half of Canada’s provinces and territories will have a provincial election. Ontario, PEI, Manitoba, and the Northwest Territories had their election last week; Newfoundland and Labrador and Yukon Territory will have their election this week; and Saskatchewan will have its in November.  Elections are ostensibly about the future, but the campaigns and the results can tell us a great deal about the tenor of the times. The rhetoric that candidates use and the promises they make can tell us about the issues that resonated with the voters in that era. With that in mind, I have two possible activities that can bring the elections into the history classroom.

The first involves trying to understand how the present election will be remembered in the future. Using the six concepts of historical thinking, as identified by the Historical Thinking Project, have the class write a history of one of the current elections. This activity should focus on using primary source evidence, attempting to establish historical significance, and looking at continuity and change. If you’re interested, read Daniel Little’s blog post and Krista Sigler’s column to get sense of the possibilities of the history of the present using a variety of resources.

The second involves using historical election advertisements to better understand their historical context. To begin with, Elections Canada has a resource on the history of the vote in Canada, which can help the class understand who was able to vote in various time periods. Then, you’ll need to find some election ads!

Two websites provide a good starting point. The Living Room Candidate is a website which, among other things, hosts a collection of television ads from American presidential elections from 1952-2008. A much more recent website, Election Ads: Canadian Campaign Advertisement Vault, is beginning to provide an archive of Canadian election ads, from both federal and provincial campaigns.

The Living Room Candidate has several lessons plans in addition to its collection of past ads, including one which is for a lesson on political ads in their historical contexts. If you are teaching an American history course, you can use the lesson plan directly; if not, modify it to suit your needs. The lesson plan suggests watching several ads from a specific election campaign, having a discussion, having the students complete some additional research, and then returning to a discussion focusing on how much historical information can be garnered from the ads.

It’s always useful to make use of current events in the classroom, and the history classroom is no different. There are many ways to do it, but you can always use current events to excite students about history.

How did you use the provincial election as a "teachable moment" in your classroom?