Canada

Why Canada so urgently needs to update its citizenship materials

The Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship says it will replace ‘outdated terminology and ideas’ this year — four years late

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More than a decade after its publication and at least four years after it was promised, an update is coming this year to the Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship study guide.

The current guide, created in 2009 and lightly updated in 2012, is provided to newcomers to learn about the nation’s history, culture and ethics in advance of the citizenship test they must pass to become Canadians. The study guide is, in essence, a distillation of how the government wants the nation to be seen and of the foundational touchpoints it wants immigrants to understand.

The guide has been criticized for its many misrepresentations about Canada, either by omission or part-truth, because it contains highly controversial statements that, critics say, have continued to whitewash the country’s historical treatment of First Nations and other minorities.

The entries for Indigenous and First Nations populations appear dismissive. Treaties, for example, “were not always respected.” Residential schools “inflicted hardship on the students.” The Inuit and Métis are together afforded just paragraphs.

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The study guide provides a mere glimpse — by necessity — of many elements of our history and culture, but some topics are given greater weight than others. It emphasizes Canada’s relationship to the monarchy and our military history, while the section covering Modern Canada presents just half that amount of information.

“We agree with many Canadians that the existing guide is significantly outdated,” said Alexander Cohen, press secretary to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marco Mendocino.

“It hasn’t been updated for over a decade and contains outdated terminology and ideas — particularly regarding Indigenous peoples. The new guide … will be comprehensive, diverse and honest — helping new Canadians get a sense of Canada’s long history and their role in shaping our shared future.”

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The updates will focus on three themes: relationships, opportunity and commitment, Cohen said in an email.

“The new guide will include, among many other things, more information about a wide variety of historically underrepresented groups, like francophones, women, Black Canadians (highlighting the story of Africville in Nova Scotia), the LGBTQ2 community and Canadians with disabilities. It will also highlight the contributions of prominent individuals from these diverse communities.”

Cohen added that the process of updating the guide “included extensive consultations with leaders from the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Métis National Council as well as groups and individuals representing racialized communities, women, Francophones, the LBGTQ2+ community, persons with disabilities, historians, academics and parliamentarians.”

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The new guide is to include a section on anti-racism efforts in Canada, he said, including a discussion of the systemic racism that exists today, as well as the evolution of rights and freedoms.

The new study guide “will be comprehensive, diverse and honest,” the ministry responsible for immigration and citizenship says.
The new study guide “will be comprehensive, diverse and honest,” the ministry responsible for immigration and citizenship says.

In its 2015 final report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to address statements in the citizenship study guide. Its 93rd Call to Action wanted “the federal government, in collaboration with the national Aboriginal organizations, to revise the information kit for newcomers to Canada and its citizenship test to reflect a more inclusive history of the diverse Aboriginal peoples of Canada, including information about the Treaties and the history of residential schools.”

Its 94th Call to Action wanted the government to “replace the Oath of Citizenship with the following: ‘I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada including Treaties with Indigenous Peoples, and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen’.”

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Moderate progress has been made on implementation of the two items, the Assembly of First Nations says in its report Progress on Realizing the TRC’s Calls to Action.

“The Government has shown progress on Action #94, with the recent introduction of Bill C-8, An Act to amend the Citizenship Act, which is at First Reading at the time of publishing,” the December 2020 document says. “For Action #93, initial discussions have taken place with work yet to materialize concrete results.”

Truth and Reconciliation Commission chairman Justice Murray Sinclair, centre, and commissioners Marie Wilson and Wilton Littlechild in 2015.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission chairman Justice Murray Sinclair, centre, and commissioners Marie Wilson and Wilton Littlechild in 2015. Photo by Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press

Newcomer Sharon Nyangweso, who moved from Nairobi to Ottawa and has been studying for the citizenship test, found the guide disheartening and welcomes an updated version, and even a new methodology.

In an essay for Medium, entitled Guest in a Stolen House, she wrote that “we must take to task the education our new Canadian children will have about Indigenous people, and we must ensure that what they understand about this nation’s ancestors is as respected and highly regarded as their own ancestors’.”

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Annalijn Conklin of the University of British Columbia is keen to see change in behaviour toward Indigenous populations well before new immigrants even begin to study the guide.

in a Twitter thread with Nyangweso, she underscored the speed at which bias can quickly transfer to new immigrants:

Why Canada so urgently needs to update its citizenship materials

“Generally in 2021, this is a good opportunity to completely redesign a process,” Nyangweso told the National Post. “Attempting to have people learn about Canada within a mechanism that controls whether or not they will get the safety of citizenship isn’t a good way to have people learn anything. It’s important to engage new Canadians in a different way.”

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