We get the government we deserve
Recently the wife of a friend of mine successfully wrote her Canadian citizenship test and soon will become a Canadian citizen. Her writing of the test happened to coincide with the release of a new, revised Discover Canada study guide for the citizenship test by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. The release got the barest of notice in the media except for a momentary blip due to the Justin Trudeau political correctness flap over the use of the term "barbaric" in reference to the honour killings in the guide. Regardless, the two events in tandem piqued my curiosity.
Being born in Canada and thus having my citizenship automatically conferred to me, I had only the vaguest understanding of what questions might be in the citizenship test. I got on-line and after a brief search downloaded the newest edition of the Discover Canada study guide. As I thumbed through the guide, I was pleasantly surprised. It was a reasonable, easy to read and digest summation of all things Canadian in 68 pages; our rights and responsibilities, history, geography, economy and institutions.
Jacques Cartier (pictured below in a graphic from Discover Canada) was the first European to explore the St. Lawrence River and to set eyes upon present-day Quebec City and Montreal...
I thought back to my grade school days and the hodgepodge curriculum of the classes I sat through. I began to wonder about how I would have scored had I had to write the citizenship test. My thoughts soon progressed to pondering over how well my fellow Canadian-born citizens would do. We most likely all received a similar level of civic education in childhood; a disjoint glom of social studies, history and geography classes. Some classes were lead by dedicated teachers whose passion made the past, present and future of Canada come alive. But more often than not I recall being taught those who clearly held no interest in teaching this subject matter and had the barest of education in Canadian studies.
John Cabot, (pictured below in a graphic from Discover Canada), an Italian immigrant to England, was the first to map Canada’s Atlantic shore, setting foot on Newfoundland or Cape Breton Island in 1497 and claiming the New Founde Land for England. English settlement did not begin until 1610
Almost certainly very few of us had any further formal education beyond high school or perhaps junior high school as it has no longer been a requirement in seven of ten provinces to take a single class in history in high school in the past twenty years. The Dominion Institute's Canada Day weekend polls have shown a depressing annual decline of our civic literacy. This would lead one to conclude that probably more than one in two Canadians would most likely fail the citizenship test if they were challenged by it. South of the border, the situation is sadly similar.
A recent national survey of civic literacy, which posed to Americans similar multiple-choice questions as our citizenship test, found that their average score was 49%. Worse, elected officials showed an even lower knowledge of their own government, constitution and history, scoring an average of 44%.
Multiple studies have shown a clear correlation between civic literacy and political participation.
As recent events around the world have dramatically portrayed, people are fighting and dying for their right to have a say in how they are governed. But here, in arguably one of the most prosperous and free countries in the world, we seem to be sliding down a slope of complacency, entitlement and disengagement. With predictions of a similar result for the upcoming May 2 election as the record low turn-out in the 2008 Federal election, the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, who is believed to have said "that in a democracy, we get the government we deserve", resonate ominously.
Alexis-Charles-Henri Clerel de Tocqueville (below) in a graphic from Wikipedia Creative Commons
The first elected Assembly of Lower Canada, in Quebec City, debates whether to use both French and English, January 21, 1793. (graphic from Discover Canada)
We no longer recognize and value civic literacy as a cornerstone to a free, democratic and prosperous society. Why do we hold new Canadians to higher standard of civic literacy than those born here? We expect them to have a fundamental understanding of the underpinnings of Canada but do not expect the same for the rest of us. While educational curriculum resides within provincial jurisdictions somehow we need to find the political will and means to implement a mandatory national curriculum that as a minimum covers what is between the covers of the Discover Canada study guide. We could go further and make the passing of the citizenship test a nation-wide requirement of receiving a high school diploma or for gaining permission to drop out of school. Or perhaps easier, as a requirement for serving in public office.
At the very least, get yourself a copy of the Discover Canada study guide. Read it in your leisure. Test your refreshed knowledge and try one of many free on-line practise quizzes. Re-read the guide and re-test yourself as I did after I passed a practice test without flying colours. Spare a few hours or minutes and research the issues of this coming federal election. Discover the values, ideas and policies of the candidates and parties who vie to represent you in Ottawa. Then on May 2, go out to your local polling station and mark your vote. After all, as stated in the Discover Canada study guide, "the right to vote comes with a responsibility to vote in federal, provincial or territorial and local elections."
Map shows percentage of voter turnout for the 40th general election (2008).