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French-Canadians, identity and historical consciousness: narrating the collective past

Posted by Stéphane Lévesque
7 October 2014 - 3:12pm

Setting the stage

Let me begin with a short exercise. Take a moment and write down, in your own words, the history of your country, your nation, or your homeland (patris) as your know it. Then, summarize your own historical account in one phrase, one tweet.

This is the task that we put before some Franco-Ontarian high school students and beginning history teachers from Ottawa, Ontario.  Without formal notice, we dropped into their classrooms on a cold winter day with laptop computers and asked them to complete a short online demographic questionnaire followed by this open task: Please tell us the history of Ontario as you know it.

Using our laptop computers, participants could write their story in the way and structure they wished with only one rule: the duration of the task was 60 minutes. 

Like many critics in Canada (e.g., Jack Granatstein, Coalition pour l’histoire), we were curious to see whether young French Canadians from Ontario were largely ignorant about their collective past or whether their identity and education had shaped their historical consciousness.

In order to examine empirically the possible relationship between historical narrative and collective identity, we went beyond this narrative task and asked participants some additional questions through “identity mapping.” Students were asked to chose between different pairing circles overlapping gradually on a continuum (Me vs. Canada; Me vs. Ontario; Me vs. French Ontario). This allowed us to establish each participant’s self-reported sense of belonging to Canada, Ontario, and French Ontario. 

So what?

To our astonishment, the great majority of students took our “surprise” study very seriously. Stories from participants vary considerably, notably between high school students and beginning teachers. The former produced significantly shorter historical accounts (average of 106 words per text compared to 468 words).

Students also made greater historical inaccuracies (confusing dates, names, etc.) and were more likely to offer presentist stories (accounts with no direct connection to the collective past). In other words, high school students showed greater difficulty in generating a historical account of Ontario, sometimes confessing their helplessness with a catchphrase like: “Honestly, I don’t recall anything….”

But beyond the length and limitations of the stories produced, we were struck by the similarities in “narrative orientation,” in how participants structured their story in reference to a usable past for contemporary meaning-making. Both groups still privileged a vision of history (48% students and 50% teachers) characterized by a militant, nationalist orientation, commonly known as la survivance (the “survival”). For example:

I know that, to protect themselves, Francophones have developed strategies to preserve their language, their culture, and their religion with the establishment of catholic school boards. With these, the French population of Ontario is still alive as people fought tooth and nail for survival despite strong assimilation pressure. (Univ-17)

The general features of this narrative orientation include:

  • An emphasis on the historic tensions between French and English Canadians (with traumatic events like the Conquest, Regulation 17, Montfort Hospital);
  • A need to fight and preserve a common heritage and language for the future of the French community; and
  • An aspiration for nation-building either through self-protection or self-government (depending on the views). 

And what about identity?

Perhaps more interesting, and novel in Canadian research, is the correlation between participants’ historical accounts and their sense of belonging. Until now, no study had demonstrated empirically the link between identity and historical consciousness as expressed in narrative form. We found in both groups strong relationships between their identity and the type of narrative they produced.

In fact, the more participants reported a strong sense of belonging to at least one of the communities (Ontario, French Ontario, Canada) the more their narratives presented militant orientations. In the views of participants classified with “high identifier,” the dominant narrative orientation is that of the positive militancy, which highlights the noble and glorious exploits of heroic figures who fought for the French Canadian cause (language, education, health care, etc.), and envisions a positive future for the survival of the community. We dubbed this narrative orientation the “just cause” – because it provides a vision of the past based on actions seen as fundamentally right and just.  

So what should we do?

Far from being historically disconnected, our participants showed much greater relationship with the collective past than stated publicly. They displayed a sense of chronological time and were able to structure into historical accounts particular visions of the past that they use to orient their own conceptions and distinctive sense of belonging to Ontario and Canada.

This is not to say, however, that our young participants have complex visions of the past. Many high school students displayed a traditional and fragile form of historical consciousness. Their accounts were remarkably short, simplified, and informed by a single interpretative framework, that of “la survivance.” This trend became obvious to us when analyzing the intra-narrative coding (the phrases of the text) which reveals a poor use of multiple interpretative lenses to structure their stories (e.g., social history, multiculturalism, anti-racism, etc.). In many ways, students' accounts mirror the dominant view of French Canada as found in collective memory. In this sense, their historical learning is very much shaped by the "cultural" curricululum of French Ontario and French Canada. 

For years now, students in the province of Ontario learn in school to develop a variety of skills and competences, including “historical thinking” a disciplinary approach to the past that Peter Seixas, and myself, have studied and proposed to teachers.

But I believe this is not enough. The notions of “narrative thinking” and “historical consciousness,” so fundamental to identity and meaning-making, are still largely absent from students’ formal learning experience – despite curricular policies and objectives inviting teachers to consider students’ prior knowledge.

This troubling state-of-affairs reminds us of the crucial difference between “education” and “schooling,” between learner’s social, real-life, and meaningful learning experiences - and the structured and formalized learning processes taking place in school. If school history is to play a significant role in shaping the education of young Canadians, it must find new ways to engage and complexify their narrative visions of the past. Failing to do so leaves students highly vulnerable to political manipulation and abuses by those who fashion collective memory without debate.

This blog post is an abbreviated version of the paper presented at the School vs. Memory: Conflit, Identity and Coexistance. Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, Prague, 10-11 Oct. 2014.

For a complete version of the paper, click here


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