History experts make case against the new “Histoire Nationale”

By Yarema Kelebay and William Brooks

Following the publication of a green paper on education, the Quebec Ministry of Education decided to revise much of the province’s public school curriculum. One of the most controversial programs then under revision was the compulsory Canadian history course given at the Secondary IV level. The following case against that program was first published in the West Island News and Chronicle on Tuesday, November 15, 1979. It was later published as a cover story in Teaching History by the (British) Historical Society, London, UK, October 1980.

The Case: `Where is freedom when you cannot protect your children against Marxist and separatist teachings by some professor and your children are told you are a foul bourgeois and an exploiter?” – Roger Lemelin, President and Publisher of La Press, Montreal.

Recently the Quebec Ministry of Education has produced a combination of documents which amount to a detailed outline for a new history course. Since the new “Histoire Nationale” will be compulsory for all Quebec students wishing to obtain a high school leaving certificate, it would be valuable for all citizens and parents to know what it proposes to teach.

The proposed program divides our history into seven sections which the syllabus refers to as “modules.” It is worth noting the titles of the modules because they indicate the dominant themes in our new history.

They are as follows:

  • The Establishment of the French in the St. Lawrence Valley
  • Canadian Society Under the French Regime
  • The Conquest
  • The Rebellions
  • Quebec and Confederation
  • Industrialization
  • Contemporary Quebec

A systematic analysis of this program proves it to be unsatisfactory for the purpose of teaching an accurate understanding of Quebec’s history in North America.


St. Lawrence Valley

The first module deals with the establishment of the French in the St. Lawrence Valley. There is a great deal which this module omits. Very limited reference is made to such important European developments as: the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the competitive nation-state system, mercantilism and absolutism.

The rule of several European nations in the development of North America is ignored. Portuguese Spanish and British explorations are not mentioned. Only France’s contribution is dealt with.

The tendency is to emphasize the “frontier” or the North American conditions which shaped New France and play down the “intellectual baggage” of the Counter-Reformation French who settled on the banks of the St. Lawrence. In fact, there is more emphasis put on the contribution of the North American Indian to the culture of New France than to the entire Western European heritage.



The course also depersonalizes our history. Only two individuals are referred to by name in the first section. Jacque Cartier is recognized for his explorations and Samuel de Champlain for his choice of a site for Quebec. Nevertheless, the ghosts of these archaic adventures may look with pride on the fact that they constitute two thirds of the total number of individuals mentioned in a syllabus that spans five centuries of our past.

The third figure, who appears much later, is Maurice Plessis and even “Le Chef” is not actually referred to by name. He is reduced to an “ism” in an “époque.”

This elimination of individuals from our history is characteristic of some present tendencies among Quebec’s new collectivist intelligentsia. This may also explain why the primary role played by religious orders in the colony is largely ignored. The contributions of the Recollets, Ursulines, Jesuits and Sulpicians in educational, religious, health and welfare services has been relegated to what Trotsky called “the dustbin of history.” It is an invitation to dance on the ancestral grave.

At the end of the first module the syllabus suggests that for the purpose of discussion the students should move from a cursory look at fifteenth and sixteenth century developments in North America to a consideration of the problematic lives and future of contemporary Quebec Indians. It appears to imply that Europeans accomplished nothing in North America other that the destruction of the native peoples. Moreover, the inherent paternalism may also be insulting to modern Indians who might resent being depicted as some sort of endangered species that requires protection from the ravages of the twentieth century.


French Regime

The second module deals with “Canadian Society under the French Regime.” The major features referred to in this period are the fur trade, the seigneurial system and mercantile colonialism.

The approach is entirely socio-economic. It is a transparent exercise in Marxist “demythologising.” There are no people, no ideas, no religion, no customs, no art, no songs, no crafts, no architecture and no politics. There is nothing of what Marxists dismiss as the ideological “superstructure of society” or the “veil” which hides bourgeois reality: only the substructure or the dark economic relations.



This form of reductionism is an abuse of history to serve present purposes and an insult to the rich history of French Canada. The Catholic Church and its historical tradition are dealt with as an afterthought.

Later in the syllabus the emergence of the Parti Quebecois between 1968 and 1979 is given more attention than 350 years of the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec.

This is a re-writing of history with a vengeance. It reminds one of Stalin’s revisions of Soviet history after Lenin’s death in the interest of his political struggle with the Trotskyites.



Unfortunately the program does not improve as it moves along. On the contrary; it continues to use history as a smokescreen for propaganda intended to teach left-wing nationalism.


The British Regime

The third module is entitled: “The Conquest and the beginning of the British Regime.” At this point the syllabus begins to display a suspicious vagueness. The general objective is to “understand the effects of the British conquest (1759) and the American Revolution (1775) on the French colony on the St. Lawrence.”

The syllabus instructs teachers to: “Establish the relationship between the American rebellion and the Quebec Act of 1774.” We are not told what relationship is to be established. The syllabus then asks teachers to: “Characterize the loyalist migration.” But how are these United Empire Loyalists to be characterised? We cannot say for certain but strongly suspect it will not be as heroes of the Quebec proletariat. This open-ended approach could be interpreted as giving intellectual freedom to individual teachers but as the ancient Spartan warning has it: “Beware of the Greeks when they bear gifts.”

Finally, teachers are asked to consider the following question: “According to the evidence unearthed by contemporary historians what meaning would be given to the conquest?” Here we are in very murky waters indeed. What is this mysterious new evidence the syllabus speaks of? If it is sound evidence can it not be forthrightly introduced for discussion and the scrutiny of the relevant community?


Unwelcome intruders

From this point forward the syllabus regards English Quebecers as unwelcome intruders akin to “white Rhodesians.” The first mention English Quebecers get in what is also to be their history reads: “Explain the difficulties of the British Governors in reconciling the interests of the Canadians with the newly arrived Britishers.”

The implication is that English Quebecers have been nothing but trouble from the start. Their children are to be given no noble achievements to look back on. There is no mention of the Nor’westers, the Pedlars, the Protestant ethic, the commercial empire of the St. Lawrence, the War of 1812, the great migration to the West, canal construction and industrial development.

The suggestion is that the English simply arrived after the Conquest and the American Revolution and began to create “difficulties.” In general, the new syllabus seems to be highly informed by this kind of sentiment.


The Rebels – Darlings of the left

Module IV deals with the Rebellions of 1837-38. The objective is to “understand their origin and consequences.” Throughout 20th century historiography these little rebellions have been the perennial darlings of the left. So, once again, these pre-Marxian, bourgeois liberal nationalist rebels of Lower Canada posthumously come to life on the dance floor of dialectical reasoning. “Compare the demands of the Patriote Party with the demands of the commercial bourgeoisie” declare the syllabus writers! “Identify the phases leading to illegality, violence and subsequent repression.” The students are to be subjected to another cynical analysis of “class struggle.” Canada and Quebec’s history is to be again reduced to “warring interests.”

The program is permeated by a kind of depressing socialism the aim of which is the intellectual proletarianization of students. There is no attempt to give students a refined perspective on our complex past. What is offered as the “new” histoire nationale has not moved the curriculum forward from the Whig historiography of the nineteen thirties and forties. It has simply moved instruction leftward. It is the Marxification of Quebec’s history.


License to teach separatism

Module V on “Quebec and Confederation” is a license to teach separatism.

The general objective is to: “Understand the evolution of Quebec in the heart of a new Canadian reality.”

Confederation will be explained as an expedient short term solution to the political problems of the day. There is no mention of MacDonald, Cartier, Brown or McGee and no suggestion that men of vision set about to create a transcontinental nation distinct from the United States of America. Between the lines there is the unmistakable flavour of Confederation as a “Gang of Four” era.

The syllabus focuses on the problems created by a federal system and looks primarily at the so-called “repercussions” that the Conservative National Party had on Quebec. There is no talk of compromise and achievement; no acknowledgement of those who created a nation in spite of the difficulties of geography and the economic pull of the United States and no mention of the building of a transcontinental railway.

There is only the characterization of a victimized Quebec caught in a swirl of crass commercial interests.


Vimy, Ypres – forgotten

The sixth module deals with “industrialization between 1896 and 1939.” For this period students are asked to focus on: “Problems arising out of the coexistence of two national groups in Canada.” World War I is to be mentioned only with regard to its effects on Canadian autonomy. Vimy, Ypres, all the sacrifices are forgotten.

Although 60,000 Canadians died fighting for democracy and the liberation of France and Europe, they don’t appear to warrant a line in our new history.

The rest of Module VI gives the impression that the only consequences of industrialization worth studying are the “Great Depression and the rise of syndicalism.” To paraphrase a contemporary Italian thinker; like primitive tribal people in the Solomon Islands who failed to connect the act of love with childbirth nine months later, the authors of the syllabus do not connect the arduous discipline of factory work and mass production with their increased leisure time, appliances, cars and Sun Flight vacations.



The final module deals with “Contemporary Quebec” The aim of this section is to: “Understand the major changes in Quebec society from 1939 to 1976.” The major topics to be dealt with are: “the repercussions of World War II, the Duplessis Regime, the Quiet Revolution and the major characteristics of Quebec following the formation of the Parti Quebecois.”

Here the emphasis is on discontinuity.

This section of the course suggests that everything in contemporary Quebec is in a state of change. But permanence is also an important feature in history and permanence in history is not static. It manifests itself through continuity.

It is the French who gave us an expression that belongs at the center of any authentic historical perspective. “Plus que ca change, plus que c’est la meme chose. But nowhere does the syllabus invite this kind of reflection.

The authors assume that “l’époque duplessiste” was a period of static traditionalism opposed to change in Quebec society. But so-called Duplessism should be the subject of substantial discussion; particularly since the publication of Conrad Black’s recent biography of Duplessis in which he describes his Union National Party as the New York Yankees of politics.

Black argues effectively that Maurice Duplessis modernized Quebec. Even the Quebec government has taken a major step toward his rehabilitation by taking his statue out of storage and placing at the door step of the National Assembly.

Whatever Duplessis’ short6tcomings may have been, one thing is sure. During his time students in high school were not required to study him or his movement. Those who served the Department of education during “époque duplessiste” had the sophistication to know that serious history requires distance from events.


Free of Myth

It is of paramount importance that our history courses be as free as possible from myth, error and omission. History is a controversial subject. But controversy should exist within perimeters and limits.

Clemenceau once said that he didn’t know what historians would say about the First World War but he did know they would not say that Belgium invaded Germany. Students have a right to a good degree of dispassionate impartiality from their teachers and teachers have an obligation to avoid demonstrable distortion in their lessons. The new syllabus does not encourage such standards. On the contrary it invites distortion.

In summary, the syllabus contains several major shortcomings.

First the syllabus exaggerates the role of the “frontier” in our development and in so doing generally devalues and understates our debt to a unique Western European cultural heritage.

Secondly, it places a heavy emphasis on materialistic economic determinism at the expense of the moral, intellectual and spiritual forces that have shaped our society.

Thirdly, it discounts the role of the individual in history to a point that belies credibility. This creates among young people a fatalistic and at times pessimistic view of the past. The historical process is regarded as “inevitable,” the individual as passive and the idea of shaping one’s destiny all but obsolete.

Fourthly, the syllabus betrays a galloping revisionism. It is demeaning to both French and English Canadians in that it devalues some of our major historical institutions. The most glaring example of this is its treatment of the Catholic Church in Quebec.


Outright propaganda

Fifthly, the syllabus engages in outright propaganda. Behind a purposeful vagueness there are anti-English and pro-separatist allusions. These allusions are based on the assumption that Quebec is an “intelligible historical field” and can be entirely understood without reference to broader Canadian and European history. This will make it difficult if not impossible for students following the course to acquire a pan-Canadian perspective.

Sixthly, the syllabus is profoundly anti-capitalist. In a perspective that claims to be economic, the syllabus fails to mention a single private company, financial institution or major entrepreneur. It betrays a lack of understanding of the capitalist system which is based on the peaceful pursuit of profit and not necessarily unmitigated exploitation.

Finally the syllabus embraces a Marxist economic interpretation of history to the exclusion of all other perspectives.

This is not to suggest that Karl Marx has no place in the high school curriculum. We are not recommending a return to the disposition of the “Index” in the Counter-Reformation. Marxism is a tool of analysis, a school of thought and a part of our Western intellectual tradition. But Marx does not deserve to set the dominant tone or enjoy hegemony in our high school history courses because there is much evidence from the 20th century to suggest that Marxism may be an inherently tyrannical doctrine.

From the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 to the “boat people” from Vietnam in 1979 history demonstrates that most socialist experiments have been largely compromised.

The authors of the syllabus underestimate the historical link between capitalism and democracy on the one hand and Marxism and dictatorship on the other. The historical fiction on which our new histoire nationale is based is clear evidence that the left’s long march through our institutions has begun in Quebec. Unfortunately this is not progress and the outlook that informs our new history course is not so new.

In a recent article entitled “Forging Backward” Professor Graeme Decarie of Concordia University’s History Department stated: “What people remind you most of the high Victorians? Who are today are humourless, rigid, intolerant, bluenose busybodies? Who has a formula that codifies sin and provides a simple answer to every problem? What group exudes an intensity of moral righteousness to cow us into conformity? It is, of course, the Marxists. They, I fear, have become our puritanical censors, our prohibitionists and purity leaguers crushing us all under the burden of class guilt and economic sin.”


Kelebay is Assistant Professor of Education at McGill University. He holds a BA in History from Loyola College and an MA from Concordia University. Brooks holds an Honours BA in History from Loyola College and an M.Ed inn the teaching of History from McGill University. He also served as a member of the Quebec Ministry of Education Comite de Consultation en Historire from which he recently resigned.