Chronicles: Canadian students need to learn about Canadian heroes

On July 1, Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey was belatedly named to the Order of Canada.

On July 1, Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, whose courageous stand against thalidomide spared untold thousands of children from being born with life-altering deformities, and made her a household name, was belatedly named to the Order of Canada.

Certainly the timing (more than half a century after the fact!) couldn’t have been any tighter as, just five weeks later, Dr. Kelsey passed away, aged 101.

Of all the laudatory press coverage of both the award and her death, that which most resonated with me was by this newspaper’s editor, Andrea Rondeau.

In an editorial upon Dr. Kelsey’s recognition by the Canadian government, Andrea wrote, “Kelsey is someone who is more than deserving. Every Canadian should know her story.”

Precisely the point (not just in the case of Dr. Kelsey but of all Canadian heroes) I’ve been making for almost half a century!

What is it about we Canadians that we just don’t seem to want to recognize and to honour the thousands upon thousands of Canadian men and women who built this nation with their blood, sweat and tears? So very few of them won the fame that Cobble Hill-born Kelsey did; few have schools named after them. Few are remembered at all.

How can this be? The answer is, there’s been a terrible disconnection between Canadians of the past two-three generations and their heritage. They know next to nothing, care even less (yes, readers, I’m being liberal with the tar and feathers) about how they got here.

In a world of strife we live in one of the most fortunate nations on the planet. We have all the freedom and amenities we could realistically hope for. But this freedom didn’t come free! In building lives for themselves, Canadian pioneers cleared the way for those who followed. They did the heavy lifting, often at tremendous personal cost; we enjoy the fruits of their labours. In fact, we’ve so used to the good life that, likely, few of us ever give serious thought as to how they — we — come to be in such an enviable position.

And we can’t even trouble to pay homage? The problem, as I see it, is in our schools. More accurately, it’s because it’s not in our schools that we’ve lost touch with our roots. Quite simply, we don’t teach history the way it should be taught, the way it’s taught in other countries.

The United States, to name one, certainly places value on its history in its school curricula. Walt Disney may have made Davy Crockett a kids’ hero in the 1960s but you can bet every American kid who watched TV knew beforehand who and what Davy Crockett was.

Hell, he was my childhood hero, too, thanks to TV, because we didn’t have any Canadian heroes of our own to idolize. By that I mean we didn’t have any recognizable Canadian heroes. And if we did, how could we kids know about them? I didn’t encounter Canadian history until Grade 8 — and then it began at the beginning, so to speak, with the arrival of the French in Quebec then worked its way, ever so slowly, westward.

I was 14 before I discovered that we had our own rootin’ tootin’ Wild West history right here in B.C. But I had to find out about it on my own.

But I’ve told that story before. The point that I’d like to make today is that, as Andrea noted, Dr. Kelsey’s is a story every Canadian should know. Not from reading her obituary but from having been introduced to her in the classroom!

It would be so easy, this revival of educating our children about Canada. The secret is in the presentation: it must be fed them in palatable doses, not crammed down their throats with dates and events that are, well, so bor-ing even for a diehard history buff like me.

This dearth of Canadian history in our schools wasn’t always the case. There was a time that the duties—yes, duties—of Canadian citizenship, particularly as British subjects, were taught in the classroom, almost to the point of being para-military with cadets, flags and drilling on a parade square.

I’m not suggesting this for a moment. What I am pleading for is that Canadian students be taught about their forebears—the good and the bad—in a way that will capture and hold their interest. History is boring? Get real! It’s the human drama—love, war, crime, sex! Mostly, it’s about the men and women, most of them unsung for all their contributions, who built the foundations for the Canada that we take as our due. We’ve had legions of ‘great’ Canadians besides Dr. Kelsey.

Who could possibly be bored when learning about real human achievement and struggle? Heaven forbid, children might even learn something that will set them on their life’s course and even inspire them to shoot for the moon instead of wallowing in self-gratification. Future Dr. Frances Kelseys.