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Why is it so hard to teach the history of Canadian human rights?

Posted by Scott Pollock
22 October 2014 - 2:10pm

As I have mentioned in previous blog postings I have been teaching Canadian history for well over a decade now. During that time I have found resources for, and interesting ways to teach, a wide range of topics. One area that I continue to find challenging, however, is teaching about the development of our human rights in Canada.

Why is this? In large part I believe it is due to two powerful misconceptions that my students bring with them. First, students (or at least mine) approach the development of our human rights from a whiggish perspective, assuming that the broadening of human rights over time was both inevitable and natural. Second, students frequently fail to see the significance of our human rights (likely because they see them as natural and therefore struggle to imagine life without them).

Combating these misconceptions has been, in my experience, quite difficult. My most successful approach has been to focus upon historical instances where human rights have been denied and to engage students in historical perspective taking so that they can see why people at that moment were willing to deny important rights. I then try to illustrate how some of these same motives continue to exist today. So, for example, when discussing the internment of Japanese-Canadians during WWII, it is important to discuss the prevalence of racism in the 1940s, as well as the hysteria that often accompanies war. This can then be tied to the present by discussing modern instances where war has led to xenophobia. By highlighting how easily human rights can be denied, and illustrating that some of the factors leading to the denial of rights continue to exist, it is possible to challenge the simplistic narrative students seem to posses regarding the development of human rights.

Unfortunately, this approach is not always effective. What other approaches have people found helpful when teaching about human rights? What misconceptions undermine your efforts to teach about human rights?


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