Historic Knowledge, National Identity and the Role of the State: Assessing the Impact of Celebrations of the 400



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Historic Knowledge, National Identity and the Role of the State: Assessing the Impact of Celebrations of the 400th Anniversary of the Founding of Quebec City
Jack Jedwab

Executive Director

Association for Canadian Studies
October 12, 2009

Knowledge of national history on the part of the population has become a growing preoccupation on the part of government. Officials increasingly believe that such knowledge is important for citizen participation, enhancing belonging to Canada and the social integration of new Canadians. There have however been few attempts to empirically validate the relationship. Instead, there has been a tendency to survey Canadians about their knowledge of selected events in Canada’s history and assume that if such knowledge is limited a weak sense of belonging to Canada is self-evident. Two further assumptions underlie the assumed link between knowledge of national history and belonging to Canada. First, that national history is invariably a source of pride in country something which is clearly not inevitable (many countries do not possess proud national narratives). Second that knowledge about the nation is a pre-condition to a sense of belonging. Arising from the latter assumption it is further assumed that newer Canadians have a weaker sense of belonging because they presumably know less about the country’s past or the historic narrative with which they identify is not Canadian. How, where and why one learns the national story can vary considerably?


Undoubtedly, awareness of milestones or pivotal events in a country’s history is important in the construction of a national narrative. It follows therefore that celebration or reflection around historic milestones can help raise awareness of the nation’s past. As government sees a role for itself in educating the population about the country’s history, it is inclined to support commemorative events that support this objective. At the primary and secondary level in Canada’s schools, it is provincial governments that are responsible for education and therefore for the history curriculum. Of course not all historic milestones are occasions for celebration. Alternatively they may be cause for celebration by some and not by others.

The questions are crucial to policy-makers as they legitimately pursue the construction of national belonging and promote knowledge about the country’s history. Under certain circumstances, the politics associated with making the link risks undercutting what might otherwise be a valid purpose. The question will be the object of debate at a national history forum on November 5-6 in Moncton, New Brunswick.

That which follows will look at the extent to which the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City had some impact on fostering a sense of belonging to Canada and whether in particular the contribution of the government of Canada was appreciated by the population. Each level of government contributed to the celebrations but not surprisingly they were not insulated from ongoing debate about the place of Quebec within Canada.


The analysis is based on a public opinion survey commissioned by the department of Canadian Heritage entitled “Awareness of Québec’s 400th Anniversary Celebrations” The survey was conducted between February 26 and March 1, 2009 by firm Decima Research amongst 2035 respondents with a margin of error of 2.2 percent 19 times out of 20.
As observed below though a majority of Canadians say they were aware that 2008 marked the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City, Anglophone Canadians were evenly divided in terms of their awareness.



Were you aware that 2008 marked the 400th anniversary of the foundation of Québec City?

English

French

Total

Yes

49,6%

94,6%

59,8%

No

49,7%

5,2%

39,7%

Don't know/refused

,7%

,2%

,6%

Total

100,0%

100,0%

100,0%

As observed below a majority of Canadians agree that the 400th Anniversary reinforced the sense of belonging to Canada. However as further observed there is a split between English and French respondents with the former more likely to think that such celebrations reinforce a sense of belonging and the latter more divided in this regard. Indeed paradoxically the split between francophones somewhat resembles the percentages that respectively support federalism and sovereignty. Of course confirming such an observation would require an ability to correlate opinion on national unity with the question on belonging to Canada. Still it remains tempting to conclude that those francophones who possess a disproportionately stronger sense of belonging to Canada are more likely feel reinforced in their sense of belonging while those not feeling any meaningful sense of belonging do not come away changed from the celebrations.



How much do you agree: Celebrating the 400th anniversary of Québec City reinforced one's sense of belonging to Canada.

English

French

Total

Totally disagree

11,4%

12,4%

11,6%

Somewhat disagree

15,2%

32,2%

19,1%

Somewhat agree

40,9%

30,3%

38,5%

Totally agree

27,0%

20,5%

25,5%

Don't know/refused

5,5%

4,6%

5,3%

Total

100,0%

100,0%

100,0%

If however francophones were split as to the impact on belonging to Canada of the celebrations, the youngest cohort and those over the age of 45 were most likely to think it had such an impact while the 25-44 group were least inclined to think so.


How much do you agree: Celebrating the 400th anniversary of Québec City reinforced one's sense of belonging to Canada.

Francophone

18-24

25-34

35-44

45-49

50 and over

Totally disagree

7,7%

20,0%

13,5%

11,8%

11,7%

Somewhat disagree

33,3%

36,5%

33,8%

21,8%

27,3%

Somewhat agree

25,6%

31,8%

29,7%

34,1%

32,7%

Totally agree

30,8%

10,6%

17,6%

28,4%

23,4%

Don't know/refused

2,6%

1,2%

5,4%

3,8%

4,9%

Total

100,0%

100,0%

100,0%

100,0%

100,0%

Despite their lesser awareness of the 400th anniversary celebrations Anglophones across the age spectrum are more likely to agree that they had an impact on reinforcing the sense of belonging to Canada.


How much do you agree: Celebrating the 400th anniversary of Québec City reinforced one's sense of belonging to Canada.

Anglophone

18-24

25-34

35-44

45-49

50 and over

Totally disagree

6,2%

7,6%

13,2%

13,3%

12,9%

Somewhat disagree

23,1%

15,6%

16,8%

17,0%

12,4%

Somewhat agree

46,9%

50,8%

43,2%

35,8%

35,8%

Totally agree

17,7%

22,2%

21,2%

30,9%

32,5%

Don't know/refused

6,2%

3,8%

5,6%

3,0%

6,4%

Total

100,0%

100,0%

100,0%

100,0%

100,0%

There is wide agreement with the statement that the 400th anniversary represented a historic milestone for Canada.




The 400th anniversary of Québec City represented a historical milestone for Canada.

English

French

Total

Totally disagree

4,9%

3,7%

4,6%

Somewhat disagree

7,3%

14,1%

8,8%

Somewhat agree

35,2%

40,2%

36,3%

Totally agree

48,4%

40,0%

46,5%

Don't know/refused

4,2%

2,0%

3,7%

Total

100,0%

100,0%

100,0%

And equally important a sizeable majority also agree that the celebrations were an opportunity to learn more about the history of the country.





The Québec City 400th anniversary celebrations were an opportunity to learn more about: The history of our country.

English

French

Total

Totally disagree

4,9%

3,0%

4,5%

Somewhat disagree

4,4%

11,1%

5,9%

Somewhat agree

35,7%

46,1%

38,1%

Totally agree

49,1%

36,5%

46,3%

Don't know/refused

5,9%

3,3%

5,3%

Total

100,0%

100,0%

100,0%

Even though a clear majority of Canadians may not come away from the 400th anniversary celebrations with a stronger sense of belonging to Canada, the vast majority agree that the government of Canada should support such celebrations where they provide opportunities to learn more about the history of the country.




The Government of Canada should support events and activities that give Canadians an opportunity to learn more about Canada and its history, like the 400th anniversary of Québec City.

English

French

Total

Totally disagree

5,3%

3,5%

4,9%

Somewhat disagree

4,8%

8,7%

5,7%

Somewhat agree

31,3%

40,8%

33,4%

Totally agree

56,0%

45,8%

53,7%

Don't know/refused

2,5%

1,3%

2,3%

Total

100,0%

100,0%

100,0%

Conclusion



The Decima survey reveals that Anglophones and francophones in Canada agree that celebrating milestones in history provide important learning opportunities for the population and that the government should support such initiatives. Indeed Quebecers are quite amenable to the contribution of the federal government in this regard insofar as the 400th anniversary celebrations were concerned. However it would be difficult to make the case that such initiatives strengthen the sense of belonging to Canada amongst Quebecers. At best the effect of such support seems neutral. Hence the survey sheds little light on the whether the promotion of historic knowledge reinforces national identity. Still, the survey suggests that the federal government should support such projects as part of a process of supporting national heritage or promoting stronger ties between Canadians.

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