What does being Canadian even mean anyway

Dear fellow teacher,

I am excited for your arrival in Canada. Canada has long been touted as a multicultural and accepting haven, and I am looking forward to how your arrival here in our school, as well as our country, can enrich the learning experiences of both our staff and students.

In your e-mail you asked the question, “what does every Canadian need to know today?” I am intrigued and impressed by your question because it strikes at the heart of my teaching philosophy, and speaks back to my own struggles as a beginning teacher. As an immigrant and former English Language Learner myself, I often thought about what it meant to be a Canadian, and what it would take for me to integrate myself into this society which I felt ostracized by. These struggles as a student continued into my time at teacher’s college, and it was at this point that I really began to consider the same question you have asked me in your e-mail.

My response is intricately linked to that of another scholar who came before me, one Patrick Dias, who proposed that we redefine your question from what to how. In other words, how do our students, our fledgling Canadians, come to know what exactly can be defined as Canadian? What are the questions they need to ask and the notions they need to problematize?

For me, the problem lies in the fact that too many teachers have previously tried to define what it means to be a real Canadian, and communicated these ideas to the student directly, viewing what it means to be Canadian as a “body of content to be handed over by the expert” (Dias 15). Instead, we must now assign a more active role to our students as learners, valuing their contributions to the classroom and actively using what they bring to the class as part of our learning curriculum.

I will give an example, just in case my theorizing and quoting is losing you. The first class that I ever taught as a teacher, during my practicum as a student teacher, was a Social Studies 9 class filled with diverse backgrounds and extremely bright young men and women. I was good at teaching the things that the textbook said was important, and the students were bright enough to process and learn all of these things as well. But there came a point when I felt that these students deserved to learn more than what the curriculum said was important, such as the English Civil War or the Fur Trade.

I decided to assign to them what I called an Inquiry Project, where I simply posed the question: “What historical event was important to your experience as a Canadian?” They were free to interpret that question, choose any event that was either 1) relevant either to their lived experiences or 2) a topic they wished to research more about. So, for example, one student chose to research the Tiananmen Square protests because that was her family’s reason for immigrating to Canada, and therefore the event had a direct relationship with the idea of her becoming Canadian. Another student chose to research the Korean War which, although it had nothing to do with his becoming Canadian, was integrally important to his identity as a Korean student. No one can deny that his identity as a Canadian is fundamentally affected by his former (or current) identity as a Korean.

I hope I am not losing you. But the fundamental idea behind it is the same reason why I am excited that you are joining us in the classroom. The students’ experiences and cultural backgrounds are the curriculum that they have chosen for themselves in my classroom. What every Canadian needs to know, therefore, is a way to navigate and negotiate these cultural experiences that they have all brought to the table in this discussion called “What does it mean to be a Canadian?”. Their experiences are always valid because only they can decide what being Canadian means to them. The teacher’s role is to facilitate the discussion, validate each of their viewpoints, and help them come to a conclusion about what “being Canadian” really means for them. Because who can decide for them how best to be a Canadian person if they won’t decide it for themselves? Instead of being told what to think about being Canadian, they need to be given the space as well as the tools to negotiate that identity for themselves.

Dias mentioned being distraught at the notion that students should all be taught “mythology and biblical stories” because they were always going to be referred to in a Canadian or American literary canon (Dias 15). I feel, similarly, that teachers cannot be dictating what all Canadians should know to the students because each student will, and should, have a different interpretation of what it means to be Canadian. I intend to respect and learn more about what they say on the subject.

And it is for this reason that your arrival is exciting. You will undoubtedly have more to add to our conversations about what being Canadian really means. It is always refreshing, and a necessary measure, that we should have an outsider’s voice tell us more about who we are. Because, in the end, we all began our journey in this country called Canada as outsiders. We all are in the process of negotiating what being Canadian really means to each of us. I hope your addition to our environment will enrich our conversations about this topic greatly.

Chris Yun

Works Cited

Dias, P. (1992). Cultural literacy, national curriculum: What (and how) does every Canadian student really need to know? English Quarterly, 24(3-4), 10-19.

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