No celebration for charter's anniversary

First published:
April 24, 2002

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom celebrated its 20th anniversary last week, but don’t expect most Canadians to bake a cake or light a candle.
As a nation, we do not get good marks when it comes to understanding our history or how our government works.
A recent poll conducted by the Dominion Institute, a think tank devoted to advocating more history in classrooms, showed almost half of Canadians could not identify John A. Macdonald, our first prime minister. Only 19 per cent knew Wilfrid Laurier was the country’s first francophone prime minister.
If that is not bad enough, a $48,000 study by the federal government found we have an abysmal knowledge of world affairs. Only 18 per cent of those surveyed could name all the countries in the G8, an international body made up of the richest and most powerful nations on the planet.
But don’t despair. Thankfully, our charter is similar to the U.S. Bill of Rights. And since we religiously watch those American cop and lawyer shows almost every night of the week, all is not lost.
Things like freedom of speech and freedom of expression are protected under both. But what that means is another story. For most people, freedom of speech is interpreted to be a licence to be rude. It also is meant to be a way we protect our ability to speak out against the status quo, expressing ideas that are new and innovative. It is our guarantee for diversity of thought.
As for freedom of expression, it does not just cover the ability of young punks to play deafeningly loud music from their cars on a spring evening. Thankfully, this protects our ability to represent our diverse ideas in any fashion we chose.
Sure, there are other similarities — freedom of the press, freedom of belief, equality for all. The list goes on.
For the most part, the charter is not something that affects our everyday life in an obvious way. It’s only when our municipal government tells us how to build a fence or when we want to be able to smoke in the bingo hall that people start to evoke their rights.
This all goes to show a little knowledge can go a long way even if it is misdirected and misunderstood.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We should not be ignorant of one of the most important documents in our country and a major piece of our history.
Which takes us back to history and the recent study. Three-quarters of Canadians are embarrassed by their lack of knowledge about our country’s history. Just about the same number say schools should have mandatory testing for history and social studies.
In Ontario and Alberta, provincial testing in elementary and high schools take place, but only in the areas of reading and math.
The survey also shows that despite the focus in recent years on math and sciences, six in 10 Canadians feel studying history is just as important as math and science.
The areas of study are specific. Besides Confederation and the two world wars, the constitution is ranked third in importance by those taking part in the survey.
All this must seem pretty obvious. Yet, it is not something those in power are quick to act on. Local school boards are too busy hacking and slashing budgets, along with closing schools, to focus on what is being taught. Subject matter being presented to students is dictated by Queen’s Park. Talk to any teacher and get ready for a resounding diatribe about the burden they face under the present government.
Justified or not, this doesn’t address the issue.
And that is why a national policy may be necessary. The survey found 81 per cent agreed the federal government should have a strong role in setting national standards for teaching Canadian history.
But pressure can also come from parents and others in the community. School board trustees need to know how vital history and social studies are to everyone. Canadians take pride in our accomplishments — the Macintosh apple, the first oil company in North America, the first publicly-owned utility, hockey, basketball and lacrosse, among others.
We also need to push for a large component of local history. Northumberland County has a rich and beautiful history. People like James Cockburn, a father of Confederation and the first speaker of the House of Commons is one example. Elias Smith, Jonathan and Abraham Walton, Uncle Joe Harris, Joseph Precious, Asa Barnum are only a few people who should be familiar to all of us in Northumberland.
The charter’s birthday passed with little fanfare. Maybe it is time to find a recipe for the future. That way we will know when to bake a cake.

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