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"A wash of patriotism and national pride:" the narrow portrayal of war in Ontario textbooks

Posted by Dr. Rose Fine-Meyer
2 October 2014 - 10:12pm

This past summer I attended the ISCHE conference at the University of London, England with a focus on education and war. My paper "We cannot fight this war if we don’t eat”: The invisibility of war work in history textbooks in schools in Ontario, Canada, explored the ways Ontario textbooks have been presenting the First World War from textbooks published in the 1920s and up until current publications.

Since history textbooks have played a major role in the teaching of history, it is worth examining their contents. Most history teachers use the textbook as a foundation for organizing course studies-- then add supplementary materials from a range of resources. Therefore the organization of the content is important in understanding teacher pedagogy.[1] What I found digging through history textbooks in the OISE archives was quite surprising: except for the immediate post war period, Ontario textbooks have presented a fairly unified version of the war. Despite ongoing scholarship that has provided critical analysis to challenge what we knew about the war, textbooks have maintained traditional categorizations and organization. It's as if the textbooks exist in alternate reality.

What the textbooks reveal is that the study of war in Canada has had a strong nationalist flavor, with a celebratory commemorative focus. Textbooks portray war by carving up the events into defined categories that give few opportunities for students to engage in deep critical analysis. The need to understand, for example, the links between what took place on the "home front" and the war overseas is given limited attention. The ARM Lower 1948, Canada A Nation and How it Came to Be textbook, reduces the categories to: Cause of the War, Canadians in Action, The Home Front, and Post-war reconstruction.[2]  Forty years later, Oxford's Spotlight Canada, a popular textbook contains separate chapters on The Western Front, Technology (War in the air, War at sea), War on the home front, and The Peace settlement[3] --not much of a difference.

The interrelationships between what took place before, during and after the war are given sparse attention in history textbooks. Instead they provide a general, condensed and compartmentalized overview of the events of the war exposing students to consider only parts of what took place--deflecting from fundamental war interconnections--or how those relationships may link to the present. Combat chapters are separated from home front chapters--war work is confined to support status- and accounts of heroism leave students with a false understanding of the complexities and gravity of the war.

Textbooks simplify Canadian involvement in the war by stating that Canada went to war because of its loyalty to the Britain, revealing wartime propaganda that emphasized Canadian obligations to the British Empire---and calls for “private sacrifice and public service.” Duncan McArthur's 1944 History of Canada for High Schools textbook states, "The declaration of the war found the Canadian people united in defence of the motherland."[4]  But counter narratives are missing--labour unrest, peace activists, Indigenous peoples and women's organizations: all argued against the war. Henri Bourassa, Quebec Premier argued in parliament "It is the work of maniacs who glorify a horrible butchery in which people slaughter each other without knowing why."[5] Other groups were opposed as well: Religious groups such as the Doukabours and Mennonites had come to Canada on the promise they would not have to join the military, and farmers across the country were united in opposition to the war. Their voices are dimly present in, what Ken Osborne calls "a wash of patriotism and national pride."[6]

Textbooks avoid the obvious: War was good for the Canadian economy and production was massive.  All sectors of the economy were deeply affected: agriculture, manufacturing, forestry, and mining.[7]  Each day they did $2 million in business. Cargo ships, airplanes, chemicals, explosives, millions of artillery shells….and a multiple million dollar production of Food. With limited space, and a priority to cover the battles, war work is only touched upon.

Finally, textbooks present women in a unified voice: a “sisterhood of suffering and sacrifice.”  They are volunteer nurses, Red Cross workers, and munitions factory workers. Oxford's Spotlight Canada devoted 3 pages to explore how the war helped women "take an important step forward for women's rights."[8]  Notably, a 2008 textbook includes only 2 paragraphs about the experiences of women: On the “Bluebirds” to briefly discuss the over 3000 women who served as nursing sisters overseas [Bluebirds because of their blue uniforms], and as munitions factory workers.[9] Textbooks create an assumption that women’s experiences were similar to each other. In Canada, women were sent to internment camps, others worked endless hours on farms and in factories while running families, and still others were peace activists struggling to have their voices heard while maintaining humanitarian work with the Red Cross. These women would have had widely different experiences. Their placement as a unified voice, however, supports the textbook war narratives of a united nation.[10]

Teachers today can access hundreds of websites for primary and secondary documents related to the First World War. Bold steps are needed to reframe the categories and celebratory narratives employed in the study of the First World War—to explore more deeply the diversity of voices within nations in conflict, to consider  the interconnections between ‘war work’ and combat. This may provide additional opportunities for students to deconstruct what it meant for citizens to participate in a world war, provide critical skills to enable citizen dissent and to challenge the idea that citizens need to support war within their countries. War is not inevitable or worthy of celebration.


[1] David Pratt, "The Social Role of School Textbooks in Canada" in John Mallea, Jonathan C. Young, eds., Cultural Diversity and Canadian Education: Issues and Innovations, (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1984)

[2] R. M. Lower, Canada-A Nation: And How it Came to Be (Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1948) Historian A.R.M. Lower, of Queen's University partnered with high school history teacher J.W. Chafe. This book was revised in 1958 and many schools used the book until the 1970s.

[3] J. Bradley Cruxton and W. Douglas Wilson, Spotlight Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1980)

[4] Duncan McArthur, History of Canada for High Schools, 464 (Toronto: Gage, 1927, 1944)

[5] A. E. Hodgett's, Decisive Decades, The History of the 20th Century for Canadians (Toronto: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1960), 211 This was a popular history textbooks, 1960-1980.

[6] Ken Osborne, "Teaching Canadian History: A Century of Debate," in Penney Clark, New Possibilities for the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011), 55-81.


[8] Spotlight Canada, 85

[9] Don Quinlan et al, The Canadian Challenge (Oxford) 30

[10] See for example, Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw ed., A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland During the First World War (Vancouver, UBC Press, 2012)


* reduced version of a longer paper, forthcoming publication


Photo credit: Dr. Rose Fine-Meyer