History students hungry for a broader, more inclusive portrait of the past

Invigorated by recent social movements calling attention to marginalized voices, a new crop of history buffs has emerged eager to revisit the past to draw a more inclusive portrait of Canada. 

Students, new courses focus on a greater diversity of perspectives from the past

History students searching for broader picture of the past

2 years ago
Duration 2:14
Featured VideoThe social activism of recent years has prompted more questions about who is put on a pedestal, and more students are looking to learn about a broader picture of history.

Invigorated by recent social movements calling attention to marginalized voices, a new crop of history buffs has emerged eager to revisit the past to draw a more inclusive portrait of Canada.

There has been a downward trend for enrolment in history courses at U.S. and Canadian colleges and universities for years. However, amid Black Lives Matter protests across the globe, discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential schools sites and new consideration of previously lionized historical figures, interest in history classes appears to be growing as many Canadians are hungry to know more about our past to better offer insight into today.

"A lot of us are seeing these social changes and seeing these issues in our society, and we're wondering where it came from — and there's no answers to it other than looking to the past," said Fiona McCrow, a fourth-year history major who was recently elected president of the University of Toronto History Students' Association for 2021-2022.

Whether in the courses they're taking or the research they're conducting, McCrow said she and her history-studying peers are challenging "the traditional narrative of stories being told from a very particular and very limited perspective," in order to spotlight a greater diversity of voices from the past who have previously been ignored.

University of Toronto history student Fiona McCrow says she and her peers are challenging 'the traditional narrative of stories being told from a very particular and very limited perspective.' (Craig Chivers/CBC)

John Lutz attests to seeing a similar passion, curiosity and willingness to challenge in his recent students at the University of Victoria. He said he's seeing enrolment in history classes grow somewhat after a long, slow decline. 

"It's really exciting to see the idealism that seems to have been lacking for some years in the youth, as they get excited about social justice issues in a way we haven't seen in a long time," said Lutz, a history professor who specializes in teaching Indigenous-settler relations.

New history students are arriving 'filled up with passion,' says University of Victoria history professor John Lutz. 'I think they're shaking us up in a healthy kind of way.' (CBC)

Students come into class with more skepticism for the history they've previously encountered and are anxious to get behind those stories, he added.

"They come filled up with passion and I think they come with challenges to the existing ways of doing things and thinking in university … I think they're shaking us up in a healthy kind of way."

Canadian history is complex and benefits from a broader exploration, despite having "a reputation for being dull and boring, which is absolutely not the case," said Lutz. 

"As a history department, we're really embracing our social responsibility to both share the history and also the complexity of the history. People like John A. Macdonald were multifaceted. And I think our history is broad enough to tell the story both of John A. Macdonald as a father of Canada, but also the father of many of the policies that led to the displacement of Indigenous people." 

WATCH | Questioning history can spark discomfort — but this podcaster says that can be a good thing:

Embrace discomfort when challenging history, says podcast host

2 years ago
Duration 2:00
Featured VideoAs more Canadians question and push back against what we had previously learned about Canadian history, it can make for uncomfortable conversations, but is ultimately worthwhile, says Falen Johnson, co-host and co-creator of popular history podcast The Secret Life of Canada.

Over the past five years, Paul Gareau has seen firsthand a greater desire to explore Indigenous voices, history and contemporary issues as an assistant professor in the U of A's Faculty of Native Studies and now academic lead of Indigenous Canada, a massive, open online course at the University of Alberta.

Native Studies professor Paul Gareau hopes that for the non-Indigenous students taking the Indigenous Canada open online course, it's a starting point for deeper discussion about the legacy of settler colonialism and 'how to stand with Indigenous communities.' (Submitted by Paul Gareau)

Spearheaded by Indigenous scholar and education advocate Tracy Bear, the free, 12-module offering became the most popular online course in Canada in 2017, the year it launched, according to Coursera, an online aggregator of open online courses.

It's since had several significant leaps in enrolment, including more than 50,000 students who signed up the week after Schitt's Creek creator Dan Levy enrolled and promoted it on social media last August, and earlier this summer, when nearly 75,000 people enrolled in the weeks following the discovery of an estimated 200 potential burial sites near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.

Gareau, who is Métis, described the course as a kind of "Indigenous Studies 101."

It was designed to inspire "broader and deeper discussions of … that legacy of settler colonialism," he said. "And then also how to be allies and how to stand with Indigenous communities."  

Indigenous students have finished the course "with a stronger sense of direction and the language they need to push back against structural racism, to stand with their own communities and make better relations with other communities," said Gareau.

For non-Indigenous students, taking the course is more like starting on a path that Gareau hopes they'll continue on.

Thousands of people attend a 'Cancel Canada Day' event on July 1 at the Vancouver Art Gallery, in support of First Nations communities across the country. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"We're doing that work, but there's also other faculty. Hopefully this course will lead students in Manitoba to do Indigenous studies. And at McMaster [University in Ontario], to engage with … the Indigenous Research Institute there. We're hoping that this will be a good starting point."

After the course, for instance, many students ask for additional reading lists and suggestions for further courses to take, Gareau said. That has prompted the faculty to develop new offerings, including a course on unpacking stereotypes and another exploring Indigenous knowledge in the realm of science and technology.

'People really want to learn'

That curiosity for new perspectives on Canada's history is something broadcaster Falen Johnson has also discovered as she heads into a fourth season of The Secret Life of Canada, the history podcast she co-created and co-hosts with Leah-Simone Bowen. 

History podcast host Falen Johnson encourages people 'to get curious and start Googling around' to learn more about our past and its little-known perspectives. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

In 2017 — the same year the Indigenous Canada course launched, as well as the year Canada celebrated the 150th anniversary of Confederation — the two playwrights turned their passion for interesting, little-known historical stories into the popular CBC podcast. From the very first episode, "there was a huge interest in this subject," said Johnson. 

Similarly to Gareau, she hopes to give podcast listeners a taste of different historical perspectives to spark curiosity and empower them to dig further.

"We really do encourage people to get curious and start Googling around. Look online there, talk to people, go to the library.… There are so many great academics and historians doing this work in a really official way and we really want to elevate that work," she said. 

"I do think people really want to learn. I think people are ready … more ready than they've probably been before."

Back in Toronto, Fiona McCrow's "deep dive into Canadian history" during her first few years of university has changed her course of study. She'd intended to apply to law school after graduation, but she's now aiming to pursue a Master's degree with a focus on Canadian history. 

"Sometimes history is a reflection of the people who study it and who write it," said McCrow, who is of Chinese-Scottish heritage and emigrated to Canada from China when she was 12.

"The more voices that we have from different backgrounds, from different experiences and even different disciplines — because you can combine a history major with so many [areas of] studies — you round out this field of history with more perspectives and more accurate voices."

Protesters at Mount Royal University in Calgary have called for mandatory anti-racism courses for staff and students. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson and Nigel Hunt

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