Teaching

Historical Significance in Canadian History

Published on February 16, 2021

Series Introduction
By Lindsay Gibson, Catherine Duquette, and Jacqueline Leighton

In our April 30, 2020 Active History article “Why am I teaching about this? Historical significance in Canadian history” we described a French and English online survey entitled Significant Events in Canadian History/Événements importants de l’histoire du Canada that asked Canadian history teachers in K-12 schools, CEGEP (Québec), or colleges and universities to rate the historical significance of 100 events in the history of Canada using a 1-10 scale and suggest up to five additional events. Participants were also asked to select three factors that most influenced their decisions about which events are most significant, and answer ten demographic questions.

Three research questions guided our study: (1) Which events in Canadian history do teachers rate as most historically significant? (2) What criteria do teachers use to assess the historical significance of historical events, (3) What demographic factors influence teachers’ historical significance ratings?

In this three-part series on the CHA/SHC Teaching | Learning Blog we share the survey results and discuss possible implications for history education. In Part 1, we examine participants’ historical significance ratings of 100 events in Canadian history.

Part 1: Significant Events in Canadian History

Participants

A total of 393 teachers currently teaching Canadian history in a Canadian K-12 school, CEGEP (Québec), or college or university were recruited, and 270 teachers fully completed the French (n=77) and English (n=193) survey between March 30-May 14, 2020.

As seen in Table 1, participants from all ten Canadian provinces completed surveys, but there was only one participant from Newfoundland and Labrador and none from the three territories. Most of the English surveys were completed in Ontario (41%) and B.C. (26%), and the majority of the French surveys (71%) were completed by participants from Quebec.

Table 1: Completed English and French Surveys by Province (n=270)
Table 1 - 16 February 

Data Analysis

We developed two analytic categories, time periods and themes, to analyze participants’ historical significance ratings of 100 events in Canadian history (see Table 3). We classified the 100 events into six historical time periods and eight thematic categories. We utilized Cronbach’s Alpha to assess the internal consistency of the subcategories within each of the two analytic categories. As can be seen in Table 3, all sub-categories exhibit values of approximately .80, which demonstrates the close relationship among items. Time period sub-categories have slightly higher internal consistency (lowest is .86) than the thematic categories (lowest is .78).

Table 2: Time Period and Thematic Categories
Table 2 - 16 February 

Findings

Participants rate many events in Canadian history as historically significant (click here for the mean ratings of the 100 events).

·      All 100 events have a mean rating between 5.34 and 8.77. This suggests that participants considered all 100 events to be at least somewhat historically significant, even events with lower ratings. Furthermore, participants proposed 99 additional significant events on the French survey and 352 events on the English survey, but none of these events were mentioned more than nine times.

The mean historical significance ratings of the 100 events are tightly grouped

·      As illustrated by Table 3, there is little difference between the events at each historical significance (HS) level. This gap is particularly narrow for events with higher mean ratings. Sixty-four events have a mean rating above 7.0, 41 events have a mean rating above 7.5, and fifteen events are between 8.0 and 8.77. 

Table 3: Levels of Historical Significance (HS)
Table 3 N- 16 February

There is significant disagreement about the historical significance ratings of many of the 100 events.

·      Sixty-three events have a standard deviation (SD) above 2.0. The general pattern that emerges is that events with higher mean historical significance ratings have lower standard deviations and vice versa. Also, the events with the highest SD are from the most distant time periods (pre-1533 and 1534-1763), and focus on events in the Indigenous and European Colonization themes. This suggests that there is considerable disagreement about the historical significance of events from the Indigenous theme, particularly those that occurred prior to European contact.

The mean historical significance ratings are temporally and thematically diverse

·      Events from all six time periods and eight themes received a variety of high, medium, and low significance ratings. There are rare examples where events from one time period or theme were given consistently higher or lower significance ratings than other events or themes. For example, there was at least one event in the top twenty from five of the six time periods, but seventeen of the top twenty events are from the three post-1867 time periods.

The twenty events with the highest significance ratings are thematically diverse. 

·      As illustrated by Table 4, at least one event from six of the eight themes in the top twenty including Indigenous (6), Political (4), Social (4), Military (3), Quebec (2).

Events from the Indigenous theme are prominent in the top twenty most historically significant events.

·      Six of the seventeen Indigenous-themed events in the survey are included in the top twenty, and two in the top five (the Indian Act and the creation of government-funded Indian Residential schools).

There is relatively strong agreement about the historical significance of most events in the top twenty.

·      Seventeen of twenty historical events have an SD lower than 2.0.

Table 4: Twenty Most Significant Events
Table 4 N- 16 February

The twenty historical events with the highest historical significance ratings share several common characteristics.

·      Many of the twenty most significant events are colligatory concepts such as the Great Depression, Japanese Canadian Internment, the Second World War, and Confederation that tie together temporally separate events into temporal wholes (Kuukkanen, 2015). The events also had a profound impact on many people over a protracted period of time, they reveal important aspects in the past, they are relevant to the present, they are regularly mentioned in historical culture, and are central to provincial and territorial school curricula.

The twenty events rated as most significant do not form a coherent narrative structure or pattern.

·      The events included in the top twenty do not form the basis of specific anglophone or francophone national narrative templates described by Létourneau (2006), Osborne (2011), or Stanley (2006). Some events in the top twenty are examples of progress, others are examples of injustice and historical wrongs.

Conclusion

Given the sample size (n=270), and the underrepresentation of participants from some provinces and territories, ethnic groups, elementary and middle schools, and years of teaching experience, the findings cannot be applied to all Canadian history teachers in K-12 and post-secondary institutions. However, the sample is sufficiently large and diverse enough to make justifiable claims about this particular population of history teachers.

Participants’ historical significance ratings of the 100 events in Canadian history provide insights into the enacted curriculum, the specific content that students have the opportunity to learn about. We cannot assume that teachers’ historical significance ratings influence what events they teach about, however, we think it is plausible that the events teachers think are more historically significant are taught about more often and in greater depth than those they think are less significant.

In next week’s post we will discuss the criteria that participants selected as most influencing their historical significance ratings.

References

Kuukkanen, J.-M. (2015). Postnarrativist philosophy of historiography. Palgrave Macmillan.

Létourneau, J. (2006). Remembering our past: An examination of the historical memory of young Québécois (R. Sandwell, Ed.; pp. 70–87). University of Toronto Press.

Osborne, K. (2011). Teaching Canadian history: A century of debate. In P. Clark (Ed.), New possibilities for the past: Shaping history education in Canada (pp. 55–80). University of British Columbia Press.

Stanley, T. J. (2006). Whose public? Whose memory? Racisms, grand narratives, and Canadian history. In R. W. Sandwell (Ed.), To the past: History education, public memory and citizenship in Canada (pp. 32–49). University of Toronto Press.

 

 

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