Unwritten Histories

The Unwritten Rules of History

Fight or Flight: Bill 62, Masuma Khan, Nationalism, and History Education

A green glass cup is filled with colouring pencils in a variety of colours encompassing the rainbow. The pencil tips are slightly blunted, and the pencil look well-used.

I have to tell you, I had a really hard time figuring out what to write about this week. Between the current strike by college professors in Ontario, the attacks online against feminist and socially progressive scholars, and the latest insanity happening down south, there are so many current events emerging right now that it seemed impossible to figure out a place to start. But two not completely unrelated events stand out in my mind. The first is the passage of Bill 62 in my home province, and the other is the disciplinary action faced by Masuma Khan, a student at Dalhousie, for speaking out against Canada150 on Facebook. To my mind, these events have something important in common: they are both based around particular narratives of history and identity. So in today’s blog post, I’m going to talk about the events in question, imagined communities, the backfire effect, and why it is important that we teach history responsibly.


Some Background

Bill 62

First, let me give you a little bit of background. This week, the Québec Legislative Assembly passed Bill 62: An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodation on religious grounds in certain bodies. In essence, this piece of legislation requires that all people show their faces when they give or receive public services. This bill is targeted specifically towards women in Québec who wear either the niqab, which is a veil that covers the entire face and leaves only the eyes visible, or the burqa, which is a garment that covers the entire body. Both the niqab and the burqa are worn as part of an individual’s religious practice.


Masuma Khan

This summer, the Dalhousie Student Union decided that it would not endorse or participate in the university’s Canada day and Canada150 celebrations. This boycott was intended to be an act of solidarity with Indigenous individuals and communities and a protest against colonialism. This decision was put forward by the vice-president, Masuma Khan, who also added on her personal Facebook account:

“At this point, f–k you all. I stand by the motion I put forward. I stand by Indigenous students. … Be proud of this country? For what, over 400 years of genocide? #unlearn150 #whitefragilitycankissmyass #yourwhitetearsarentsacredthislandis”[1]

Both the union, and Khan specifically, were subject to abusive language for their behaviour, and the university claims that several complains have been made regarding Khan’s words in particular. This week Dalhousie’s senate disciplinary committee agreed to hear the case, something that may result in disciplinary action against Khan consisting of counselling and writing a reflective essay. The goal of the punishment is apparently to “teach [Khan] how to talk about racism in a more collaborative way.”

Expert Tip: The term “white fragility” was coined by Robin DiAngelo, and refers to the idea that white people never need to think about race or racial privilege, and are therefore unprepared to handle any meaningful discussion on the subject. It is often used alongside the term “male fragility,” which refers to the inability of men to deal with meaningful discussion on gender, sexism, and privilege.


Imagined Communities, Nationalism, and History Education

There have already been some absolutely fantastic responses to both of these, so I won’t repeat those arguments here.[2] But, from my perspective as a historian, I feel that these two incidents point to continuing flaws in history education in Canada.

As I have said many times before, the ways in which we teach Canadian history matters. This goes back to Benedict Anderson’s (who else almost writes this as Benedict Arnold? Or am I just strange?) concept of “imagined communities.” It is not physically possible for every single person in the nation of Canada to meet or to know one another. However, we are bound together by a shared idea about what it means to be Canadian. This idea is based on things like language, symbols, holidays, and — most importantly for our purposes — histories. In other words: no matter when or where we encounter other Canadians, we immediately feel a sense of kinship.[3]

Imagined communities are very important when it comes to nation-states like Canada, which are multi-ethnic democracies. In many ways, there are more differences between Canadians than there are similarities. But for a nation-state like Canada to function properly, a majority of its citizens need to “buy” into the idea of Canada itself.

For most of Canada’s history, this meant allegiance to the British Empire. If we could go back 100 years, we’d watch Canadians salute the Union Jack and celebrate Victoria Day as something other than an extra day off of work. However, beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, we slowly started to see a shifting towards an explicitly “Canadian” idea of Canadianness, though one that was still very much informed by our connections to the Commonwealth. As a result, the Red Ensign flag was replaced by the Maple Leaf Flag (which George Stanley designed after seeing the Royal Military College Flag), and we see Dominion Day was replaced with Canada Day.[4]

Both then and now, a central component of any nationalism is the idea that all citizens should have “pride” in their country, a sentiment largely based on a celebration of a shared national history. We can see this in textbooks from the last century, as well as within the outcry that happens whenever someone suggests changing the name of a school or taking down a monument. The way that history is taught is an important part of the formation of such a unifying, linear, largely celebratory, narrative. This is why you still have people who insist that Canadian history should acclaim the nation’s achievements rather than chronicle its changes over time, both good and bad.

This is why history education is central to the creation of imagined communities.[5]

We must remember that education is never neutral. The goal of education, especially at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, is to prepare students to be “good citizens.” Courses are intended to equip them with the skills that they need in order to succeed in civil society. History courses, in this context, are important because they create a shared story that all Canadians, regardless of their personal histories, can buy into. While there are minor variations, you will learn essentially the same information no matter which part of the country you happen to live in. And yet, for most of us, this history bears little to no relationship to our own pasts. In 1763, my ancestors were likely eating potatoes in a shack in Russia; they neither knew about nor cared about the Conquest. But that’s the point: the history that I know is Canadian, not Russian.

The way that history has traditionally been taught in school also serves to create categories about who does and doesn’t count as Canadian. I’ve already talked about this at length in previous blog posts, so I won’t belabour the point. Instead, I will simply quote myself:

The truth is that what we, as historians and as Canadians, say and do matters, and the way that we tell our history has real-life implications in the present. And when we continue to tell Canadian history from a settler perspective, we send a message that marginalized communities and their stories, and by extension their present lived realities, don’t matter.[6]


The Backfire Effect

At this point, you may be wondering, what is she getting at? In today’s world, nationalism informs how we see ourselves as individuals. This nationalism is inextricable from our personal sense of selves. While we mostly associate this kind of feeling with Americans, Canadians are not immune. I may be a critical historian who hates everything, but even I get teary eyed when I see Canadians opening their doors to Syrian refugees, and then remark to my long-suffering husband, “see, this is what makes us Canadian!” When this sense of self is challenged, in any way, most of us instinctively become angry and defensive.

This is a phenomenon called the “Backfire Effect.” Hold on to your horses, friends, and get ready for some science (I promise it won’t be too painful!). The term “Backfire Effect” refers to the psychological phenomenon whereby, when presented with information that contradicts strongly-held beliefs, individuals respond by clinging even more tightly to their beliefs. In such cases, the brain responds by going into “fight or flight mode,” because the brain interprets this intellectual challenge as a physical threat.[7] Such confrontations activate the same part of the brain as the area that responds to physical pain.[8] The reason for this is what is referred to as “Identity Protective Cognition,” whereby individuals automatically move to protect their core beliefs, or the beliefs that are fundamental to their identity.[9] In other words, humans are emotional, illogical, and contradictory.

While I absolutely agree that racism is very much at the heart of both Bill 62 and the response to Masuma Khan (the fact that both cases involve Muslim women of colour should not escape you), I think they are also about history education, identity, and belonging.


Bill 62 and Québécois Identity

 If you’ve spent any time on this blog before, you are already familiar with my own encounters with the Québec history education curriculum. But for those you aren’t, the entirety of what I learned as a high school student in Montreal reduced 300+ years of history down to an epic battle between the French and the British. I learned that the French were good, that the British were bad, and that ever since 1763, the British (and then English-Canada) have been oppressing French-Canadians. From the sounds of things, 20 years (ugh) hasn’t made much of a difference. As Christian Laville and Michèle Dagenais have already pointed out, the new history curriculum provides a very narrow interpretation of the term “Québécois,” as someone who is descended from one the original settlers of New France. Laville and Dagenais tie this to the notion of Quebec as a “distinct society” that is united. However, the end result is that this narrative effectively reinforces the idea that the only legitimate Québécois are those individuals who are descended from those original settlers, and completely ignores all other people also happen to live in the province.[10][12]

It should therefore come as no surprise that, given the dominant historical narrative in Québec of the Québécois as an oppressed people, many Québécois see themselves as being actively threatened by outsiders, whether these outsiders are English-Canadians, Jews, or Muslims (or all three!). 

As some political writers, like Sadiya Ansari, have noted (with respect to Bill 62):

It’s absurd to argue that these women — it’s estimated that there are fewer than 100 of them —  are a threat to Quebec’s secular culture, but their image is powerful, because they represent the kind of difference some Quebecers are uncomfortable with.[11]


Masuma Khan and Canadian Identity

A very similar dynamic is also at play with Masuma Khan’s case. As I was writing this blog post, the Nova Scotia Advocate published a really fantastic response to Dalhousie University by Darryl Leroux, protesting the treatment of Masuma Khan.[13]  In it he describes in detail the racism that is systemic to Canadian universities and the extent to which white individuals are invested in maintaining the status quo. I think that Lerroux is, as usual, spot on here. But I would also argue that this is about the discomfort that many (white and non-white) Canadians feel when confronted with the truth about the treatment of Indigenous peoples in both the past and the present. I am no exception to this. When I was first introduced to the idea of settler colonialism, my first response was to lash out. How dare anyone tell me that I am privileged and that I am benefitting from the oppression of people? It took me a few years, but I eventually changed my mind when confronted with overwhelming evidence – historical and contemporary. (And thankfully, the people who introduced me to settler colonialism, Emma Battell Lowman and Adam Barker, are dear friends of mine and have forgiven my stupidity. Love you guys!) But my point is that very few people — even liberal, left-leaning, and educated people — are willing to accept that Canada is a colonial state, that was founded upon and continues to exist in large due to the exploitation of Indigenous peoples. The recent “Monument Wars” attests to this.


So What Now?

I wish had a happier story to tell you. Because the reality is that changing people’s minds is really hard. But it essential that we do so, and I believe that education, and particularly history education, has an important role to play here. I would again echo Levesque’s thoughts on history education:

To be truly usable, students’ stories of Canada must be more complex and multidimensional in nature. In order to play a more productive role in this process, history educators need to be more conscious of and proactive in providing students with what I call engagement in narrative competence. [….] Students must come to understand and appreciate that there are diverse, and possibly contradictory, narratives of the collective past that coexist within a national historical culture. [14]

The history that we learn in school is fundamental to how we see ourselves as part of our larger nation, whether that nation in Québec or Canada. Our nationalism depends upon historical myths that are intended to tie us all together. That is why there is so much emphasis placed on portraying Canadian history in a positive light. The problem with that is that, in doing so, we label some histories as acceptable and others as not, and in doing so, create categories that define some people as “like us” and some people as “other.” It is up to historians and history educators to disrupt these narratives.

It is essential, therefore, that what we teach in Canada at all levels is truly representative and unflinchingly honest, and embraces the multiplicity of experiences and histories both good and bad. I know I keep hammering at this, but I don’t think I can make this point strongly enough. It is not acceptable that Muslim women should be made to feel as if they are any less Québécois or Canadian than anyone else who makes their home in in either location. And it is not acceptable that a Muslim woman should be reprimanded for speaking uncomfortable truths about Canadian histories. That’s not the kind of Canada that I want to live in.

Special thanks to Stephanie Pettigrew and Catherine Ulmer for their feedback.

I hope you found this blog post interesting. If you did, please considering sharing it on the social media platform of your choice. And don’t forget to check back on Sunday for a brand new Canadian History Roundup. Fingers crossed the news is a big less depressing this week. See you then!



[1]  Brett Bundale, “Dalhousie student faces backlash for criticizing ‘white fragility’ of Canada 150: ‘Act of ongoing colonialism,” The National Post, October 20, 2017, http://nationalpost.com/news/canada/dalhousie-student-leader-faces-backlash-for-criticizing-white-fragility.

[2] On Bill 62: Chantal Hébert, “Quebec’s Bill 62 declares war on sunglasses,” The Toronto Star, October 20, 2017, https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2017/10/20/quebecs-bill-62-declares-war-on-sunglasses-hbert.html and Sadiya Ansari, “Bill 62: In Case You Were Wondering What Islamophobia Looks Like,Chatelaine, October 19, 2017. http://www.chatelaine.com/opinion/bill-62-islamophobia/. On Masuma Khan: Darryl Leroux, “An open letter to Dalhousie administration on its treatment of Masuma Khan,” The Nova Scotia Advocate, October 22, 2017, http://nsadvocate.org/2017/10/22/darryl-leroux-an-open-letter-to-dalhousie-administration-on-its-treatment-of-masuma-khan/ and this letter signed by more than 20 faculty members at Dalhousie. I would also recommend checking out this new article (Andrew Rankin and the Canadian Press, “Dalhousie student rep levels racism accusations at governors, Herald News, October 18, 2017, http://thechronicleherald.ca/metro/1512621-dalhousie-student-rep-levels-racism-accusation-against-board-of-governors, for more the the situation at Dalhousie. I would like to note in addition to all of these critiques that this post was made to Khan’s personal Facebook page, and that she is facing a backlash far more severe than the one faced by the male Dalhousie dentistry students who were implicated in a scandal late last year over misogynistic comments on Facebook . Calls for women and Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour to discuss race is a more “polite” fashion have a long history is a commonly-used tactic designed to de-legitimize their perspectives.

[3] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflection on the origin and spread of nationalism (London: Verso, 1991).

[4] For more on this, please see C.P. Champion, The Strange Demise of British Canada: The Liberals and Canadian Nationalism, 1964-68 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010) and Matthew Hayday, “Fireworks, Folk-dancing, and Fostering a National Identity: The Politics of Canada Day,” Canadian Historical Review 91, no. 2 (June 2010): 287-314.

[5] Jocelyn Létourneau, “Negotiating the nation: Young people, national narratives and history education,” London Review of Education 15, no. 2 (June 2017): 159-151 and Peter Seixas, ed., Theorizing Historical Consciousness (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).

[6] Andrea Eidinger, “(Re)Learning Indigenous History in Canada,” Unwritten Histories, June 27, 2017, http://www.unwrittenhistories.com/relearning-indigenous-history-in-canada/. Ugh, citing myself is so weird.

[7] For the science on this, see Jonas T. Kaplan, Sarah I. Gimbel, and Sam Harris, “Neural Correlates Of Maintaining One’s Political Beliefs In The Face Of Counterevidence,” Scientific Reports 6 (2016), https://www.nature.com/articles/srep39589. If you are allergic to science, you can check out this fantastic comic, The Oatmeal, “You’re Not Going To Believe What I’m About To Tell You,” http://theoatmeal.com/comics/believe (accessed October 21, 2017), or this video, “Adam Ruins Everything – Why Proving Someone Wrong Often Backfires,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8NydsXl32s (accessed October 21, 2017).

[8] C.N. Dewall, “Acetaminophen reduces social pain: behavioral and neural evidence,” Psychological Science 21, no. 7 (2010): 931-937.

[9] For more on this, you can also listen to this interview with Stephan Lewandowsky: “Episode 37: Professor Stephan Lewandowsky on the Backfire Effect,” Adam Ruins Everything Podcast, October 18, 2017. http://www.maximumfun.org/adam-ruins-everything/adam-ruins-everything-episode-37-professor-stephan-lewandowsky-backfire-effect

[10] Christian Laville, Mèchele Dagenais, “Opinion: Young Quebecers deserve a better history curriculum,” The Montreal Gazzette, October 13, 2016, http://montrealgazette.com/opinion/columnists/opinion-young-quebecers-deserve-a-better-history-curriculum. See also Jocelyn Létourneau and Sabrina Moisan, “Young People’s Assimilation of a Collective Historical Memory: A case Study of Quebeckers of French-Canadian Heritage,” in Peter Seixas, ed., Theorizing Historical Consciousness, 109-128, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).

[11] Ansari, “Bill 62: In Case You Were Wondering What Islamophobia Looks Like.

[12] Stéphane Lévesque, “History as a ‘GPS’: On the Uses of Historical Narrative for French Canadian Students’ Life Orientation and Identity,” London Review of Education, 15, no. 2 (July 2017): 242.

[13] Leroux,  “An open letter to Dalhousie administration on its treatment of Masuma Khan,” The Nova Scotia Advocate, October 22, 2017, http://nsadvocate.org/2017/10/22/darryl-leroux-an-open-letter-to-dalhousie-administration-on-its-treatment-of-masuma-khan/.

[14] Lévesque, “History as a ‘GPS’: On the Uses of Historical Narrative for French Canadian Students’ Life Orientation and Identity,” 242.


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  1. Excellent article that touches on a lot of the salient points.

    I’d add that there’s also the feeling that people are being attacked for identifying with or liking something, whether it be entities like Canada or Quebec or individuals like John A. Macdonald or Nellie McClung, when these people and entities are criticized.

    It’s a feeling of “these people/entities are bad and you are a bad person for liking them/identifying with them”.

    Obviously, that isn’t necessarily the intent of critiques like Ms. Khan, but that’s how a lot of people end up taking it, unfortunately.

    • Andrea Eidinger

      November 4, 2017 at 8:55 pm

      Yup. I think that connects to my point as well about core values, since an attack on someone’s role model is often taken as an attack against their moral worth.

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