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The New Citizenship Guide Presents Newcomers With A Deeper Picture of Canada

November 25, 2009

Earlier this month, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney unveiled Discover Canada (PDF here), a new guidebook for immigrants preparing to take the citizenship test. While the release of a government brochure rarely becomes headline news, this particular publication generated a surprising amount of excitement. Adam Chapnick, writing in the Ottawa Citizen, could hardly contain himself:

For the first time in our history, individuals seeking to become Canadian citizens will be provided by their future government with a reasonable, balanced assessment of the national past. Having studied the comprehensive document, I believe they will be better prepared for the realities of Canada today than the millions of immigrants who have come before them.

This seems a bit over the top, considering that new immigrants merely need to absorb enough of Discover Canada to scrape through a test and are then free to begin forgetting its contents. Nevertheless, the way Canada chooses to present itself to newcomers is important, if only because of what it says about how we perceive our country and ourselves. Accordingly, I went through the slightly masochistic exercise of comparing Discover Canada to the older guide that it replaced, A Look At Canada (PDF here, for now). To my surprise, Chapnick has a point: the new guide really is better in a lot of respects, and worse in only a few. Uncle Jason seems to have got this one broadly right.

Perhaps the most discussed passage in the new guide is this ringing statement of “the equality of women and men:”:

In Canada, men and women are equal under the law. Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, “honour killings,” female genital mutilation, or other gender-based violence. Those guilty of these crimes are severely punished under Canada’s criminal laws.

This was greeted with jubilation in some quarters, and I suppose it’s not so bad. It can’t hurt to warn new immigrants that they’ll face penalties if they pummel their spouses or circumcise their daughters on Canadian soil. Still, the word “barbaric” does seem unnecessarily subjective and judgemental, especially considering that cosmetic procedures not so different from the milder forms of “female genital mutilation” are becoming increasingly popular in the West. I appreciate that there’s a substantial difference between operating on a young girl with no say in the matter, and operating on a paying customer – but is the difference really so vast that we can solemnly describe the one thing as barbarism, while the other is just cosmetic surgery? Perhaps the guide should merely have noted that honour killings and female genital mutilation are illegal in Canada, and left it at that.

In any case, that one blurb about barbaric cultural practices is something of a distraction from the more substantive new element in Discover Canada, which is a sense of historical depth. The section on “Canada’s History and Symbols” in the older guide was only two pages long, and started with Confederation on July 1, 1867. While bits of historical information were sprinkled in elsewhere, they didn’t really add up to much.

Discover Canada, on the other hand, has ten sumptuously illustrated pages of Canadian history, running from pre-Columbian times to the end of the Second World War. Like the rest of the guide, the section reads like something out of a junior high school textbook, but it’s still nice to see. I even learned a few things by reading through it, for example that there was a proposal in the 1920s to incorporate some British possessions in the Caribbean into Canada. Who would have guessed? Similarly, Discover Canada has some welcome discussion of Canadian symbols, from the beaver to the maple leaf, and is admirably emphatic about the role of the Queen as our head of state (one hopes that Michaëlle Jean will take note).

John Ivison, in the National Post, argued that all this discussion of history, symbolism and the monarchy meant that Discover Canada was nothing less than a brilliant move by the Conservatives to “rebrand” (how I’m beginning to loathe that word) Canada in their own image. It’s true that the guide has some suspicious twists of emphasis, dispensing with public health care in a single rather ambiguous sentence while waxing poetic about our economic links to the US and sometimes paying exaggerated attention to the role of religion. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see Discover Canada as Conservative propaganda. The guidebook is essentially what it should be – a reasonable crash course in Canadian history, geography and civics, conveying useful information about modern Canada without pretending that the country sprang from the brow of Zeus as a finished product in 1867.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 25, 2009 4:35 pm

    Great post! No brooding required here, just, um, well, maybe later, some parsing?
    Enjoyed the “Uncle Jason” tag – it’s a canadasworld thing, eh?

    Thank you for taking the time to post both v.1 doc of what entrants to this nation will be asked to read and v.2. Although I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the ultimate line of your reasoning re “barbaric” etc I agree with your flagging of that language. It presupposes, “We here, civilized, when it comes to women, you over there, not so much.”

    Interesting to read your clips of other commentators on “our national past” –

    Currently,two books by UVIC’s Patricia E Roy sit on my piano and wait their turn, ( after a great bolus of books on A/Stan – sigh.)

    1. White Man’s Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants 1858-1914
    2. The Triumph of Citizenship: the Japanese and Chinese in Canada, 1941-67
    Also at UVIC there’s John Price’s revisionist work on pacific north west history and Empire.

    I guess it would be impractical and onerous for Uncle J and his staff to delve even a little into “the new historians” approach to our “national past.” and then condense that into an immigration booklet.

    A local historian here in Vancouver spoke to me recently and her comments very much echoed yours.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      November 26, 2009 10:35 am

      Your parsing is welcome any time… and yes, I think you’ve ensured that Jason Kenney will always be semi-officially known as “Uncle Jason” in Canada’s World circles.

      I hope you’ll give us your thoughts on those books by Professor Roy once you’ve had a chance to read them. Discover Canada does mention the experiences of early Chinese and Japanese immigrants, including the head tax, the Chinese contribution to building the CPR, and the internment of the Japanese during the Second World War. I don’t know if this would satisfy your “new historians”, but then, there’s only so much that can be crammed into a citizenship guidebook. A government-issued document also has to reflect a reasonably broad consensus, which means that some interesting and bold ideas will inevitably get left out.

      Revisionists can sometimes get carried away in any case, especially when their work is partly driven by political concerns (however praiseworthy in themselves) as opposed to academic curiosity about neglected aspects of history. Some balancing of perspectives isn’t such a bad thing.

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