Canada’s citizenship study guide for newcomers is getting an ‘unvarnished’ makeover. Here’s how it’s evolved — from 1947 to today

Posted on June 28, 2021 in Equality History

Source: — Authors: – Canada
June 26, 2021.   By Douglas Quan, Vancouver Bureau

For more than seven decades, the federal government has published a citizenship study guide for wannabe Canadians — a booklet that touches on Canada’s history and geography, its political structure and key tenets of what it means to be a good citizen.

The current version, however, hasn’t been updated in more than a decade, drawing criticism for using outdated terminology and leaving out or sanitizing darker moments of Canada’s past, including attempts to forcibly assimilate Indigneous Peoples.

In 2015, one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s “calls to action” included that the information kit for newcomers “reflect a more inclusive history of the diverse Aboriginal Peoples of Canada, including information about the Treaties and the history of residential schools.”

The current guide includes only one paragraph on residential schools.

After years of delay, and in the wake of the recent revelations of hundreds of unmarked graves being found at the site of former residential schools in Kamloops, B.C., and Marieval, Sask., the federal government now says it expects to roll out later this year a revamped study guide that will present a more “honest” portrait of the country’s past and present.

“The new guide will give aspiring Canadians an unvarnished picture of our country’s history, including extensive information (on) its darker moments,” said Alexander Cohen, press secretary for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino.

He said the guide will include a section outlining the government’s attempts to compel Indigenous Peoples to adopt European customs through policies “designed to end Indigenous ways of life, languages and spiritual beliefs.”

“It includes thorough descriptions of the horrors of residential schools, like physical and sexual abuse, and the fact that many children died in residential schools and were buried in unmarked graves,” he said.

“It emphasizes the lasting effect of residential schools on both individuals and Indigenous communities writ-large, stressing that ‘these impacts will continue for generations.’”

The new guide will also touch on the history of slavery in Canada and the Underground Railroad; discrimination against Chinese immigrants through the head tax; the Komagata Maru incident that saw more than 350 South Asian migrants denied entry to Canada; the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War; the demolition of Africville, a community of Black Canadians in Halifax, in the 1960s; and Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women.

It will also include an acknowledgment of the existence of systemic racism and efforts to combat it, as well as new information on a variety of historically under-represented groups, such as Francophones, women, Black Canadians, the LGBTQ2 community and Canadians with disabilities, Cohen said.

People profiled in the guide will include Olivier Le Jeune, one of the first enslaved Africans brought to New France; Boyd Whiskeyjack, board member of the Edmonton 2 Spirit Society; Indigenous leaders such as senators Murray Sinclair and Nora Bernard; prominent feminists, such as aircraft designer Elsie MacGill and Idola Saint-Jean, the Quebec journalist and champion of women’s suffrage; and refugees, such as Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella and Victoria City Coun. Sharmarke Dubow.

As the government prepares to release the new guide, the Star decided to take a look back at previous iterations to see what sort of language the government has used to represent Canada’s history to newcomers and to define what it meant to be a responsible citizen.


Prior to 1947, people living in Canada were British subjects. But that all changed at the end of the Second World War, when Paul Martin Sr., then a Liberal cabinet minister and secretary of state, visited the Canadian war cemetery in Dieppe, France. It is said that visit inspired him to create legislation that would formally recognize Canadian citizenship.

The first version of the citizenship guide boasts of Canada’s emergence from the war as a “great nation.”

“Her vast resources, her agricultural and industrial capacity, exercise a profound influence on world affairs,” the guide states. “Her people, drawn from every racial group, are welded into a mighty democratic force through their love of freedom, hatred of oppression, and the steadfast determination that the powers of government shall be exercised by and through the people for the common benefit of all.”

Would-be Canadians are told Canada has the distinction of being first in the world in the production of newsprint, nickel, radium, platinum and asbestos. The quality of life in Canada is also said to be one of the highest in the world, due to “substantial” wages for industrial workers and “outstanding” production of consumer goods.

There is a lengthy recitation of the arrival of European settlers but scant mention of their interaction with Indigenous Peoples.

Citizenship applicants are told they must have “adequate knowledge” of English or French or have resided in Canada for 20 years. It is up to a judge to determine what is “adequate.” It is also up to a judge to determine whether an applicant has demonstrated good character.

“The definition of ‘good character’ raises a point involving wide differences of opinion as some judges are more strict than others.”


The 1964 version of the citizenship guide highlights Canada as a “nation of immigrants.”

“All have brought with them the traditions of their various countries and cultures. They have settled in Canada, have become a part of it but, at the same time, they have contributed to the cultural diversity which is characteristic of the country,” the guide states.

The guide notes that a “very small part” of the Canadian population is composed of “native Indians and Eskimos” who had been “living here for thousands of years before the first European arrived.”

“In this sense they are the most truly Canadian of the country’s citizens.”

Despite this acknowledgment, Indigenous people are only briefly mentioned elsewhere in the guide in the context of the fur trade and “violent wars … among the Indian tribes who had allied themselves with either French or British settlers.”

With a population of 19 million, Canada is seeing a decline in agriculture and rapid growth in manufacturing, commerce and urban jobs, would-be Canadians are told. More people are moving to cities and towns. Women are working outside the home more often and “many of those who work are married.”

There is a rather large section devoted to Canada’s cultural expansion. Theatre, opera, music, ballet, painting and other arts are said to be “flourishing.” Summer cottages, camping and motor trips are said to be very popular with many Canadians, as is indoor bowling during winter months.

New citizens are encouraged to not only obey the law, but to advocate for changes to laws if they feel it’s in the public interest to do so. They are also told stay on top of public affairs, including by listening to political discussions on radio and TV, and urged to participate in community affairs by joining local organizations or running for office.

“It may be that by concentrating on his daily work he can best serve the good of the people and the welfare of the nation. This may be true of the mother of a family, the scientist or artist, for example.”


In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Canada, under Pierre Elliott Trudeau, formally adopted policies of bilingualism and multiculturalism.

These developments are reflected in the opening pages of the 1975 citizenship guide.

“Newcomers find it an advantage to learn at least one of these languages for their everyday use in Canada,” the guide states.

“This does not mean by any means that you have to give up your own culture and traditions, as Canada is also officially a multicultural country. Through the Canadian government’s multicultural policy you can maintain your inherited culture and share it with your fellow-Canadians. In this way, all Canada will be richer, in developing a new identity that is drawn from all parts in the world.”

The guide goes on to define a “good citizen” as someone who has a keen interest in the community, a sense of responsibility for the common good, a respect for law, a respect for the rights of others, keeps up to date on public issues and is willing to share their talent, knowledge and experience to help solve local and national problems.

Besides voting, would-be citizens are encouraged to become engaged citizens by holding public meetings, writing letters to the editor, calling in to radio hotline shows and circulating petitions.

“In Canada such activities are not discouraged or forbidden by the government. Instead they are supported as a wholesome part of the democratic process.”


Pride in the different cultural and ethnic groups that live and work “together in harmony” is emphasized in the opening pages of the 1995 citizenship guide. So is the idea of equality. “We have shown how much we value this idea by having it written into the Constitution as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

For the first time, would-be Canadians are introduced to some of Canada’s symbols, including the beaver, the red-and-white maple leaf flag and the Queen as head of state.

The guide also devotes a section to the “Aboriginal Peoples of Canada.”

“When Europeans arrived in what is now Canada, they began to make agreements, or treaties, with Aboriginal Peoples. The treaty making process meant that Aboriginal people gave up their title to lands in exchange for certain rights and benefits. Most of the agreements included reserving pieces of land to be used only by Aboriginal Peoples. These pieces of land are called ‘reserves,’” the guide states.

“Today, Aboriginal groups and the Canadian government continue to negotiate new agreements for land and the recognition of other rights. Aboriginal Peoples in Canada are working to keep their unique cultures and languages alive. They are trying to regain control over decisions that affect their lives — in other words, to become self-governed. Aboriginal Peoples continue to play an active role in building the future of Canada.”

The guide expands on what it means to be a responsible citizen, urging people to, among other things, “express opinions freely while respecting the rights and freedoms of others,” “care for Canada’s heritage” and “eliminate discrimination and injustice.”


At the start of the 21st century, the citizenship guide’s opening pages highlight Canada’s “genius” for compromise and coexistence and for being a peaceful nation.

“Canadian history and traditions have created a country where our values include tolerance and respect for cultural differences, and a commitment to social justice,” the guide states. In the 2002 version, the word “tolerance” is dropped.

A nod is given to the millions of immigrants who have helped build the country. Indigenous people are said to constitute an important part of the country’s population and are described as “working to protect and promote their languages, cultures and traditions and acquire self-government.”

In describing the treaties that granted Indigenous people certain rights and benefits in exchange for giving up title to land, the 2002 version adds that each treaty is “unique and is seen as a solemn promise.”

For the first time, the guide devotes a section to the importance of sustainable development, noting that while economic growth is crucial for the future of Canada, “it cannot come at the expense of the environment.”

The notion of environmental citizenship is introduced. Individuals are encouraged to recycle, carpool and use public transit. The 2002 version tells people they should also conserve energy and water, plant trees and avoid using chemicals.


The most recent version of the citizenship guide was produced under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.

Newcomers are told they “must” learn about Canada’s history, symbols, democratic institutions and geography. The guide also impresses upon would-be citizens the idea of “shared traditions, identities and values.”

It emphasizes in its opening pages the various responsibilities of new Canadians.

“Getting a job, taking care of one’s family and working hard in keeping with one’s abilities” are described as “important Canadian values.” Serving on a jury is also highlighted.

Would-be citizens are told that there are different ways to help out in the community, including volunteering for a charity and “encouraging newcomers to integrate.”

Language reinforcing “the equality of women and men” is introduced for the first time.

“In Canada, men and women are equal under the law,” the guide states. “Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, ‘honour killings,’ female genital mutilation or other gender-based violence. Those guilty of these crimes are severely punished under Canada’s criminal laws.”

Serving in the Canadian Forces is said to be a “noble” career choice.

For the first time, the guide touches on how the arrival of European traders, missionaries, soldiers and colonists “changed the native way of life forever.”

“Large numbers of Aboriginals died of European diseases to which they lacked immunity. However, Aboriginals and Europeans formed strong economic and military bonds in the first 200 years of coexistence, which laid the foundations of Canada.”

There is a passing reference to how treaties “were not always fully respected.” A paragraph is devoted to how the government “placed” Indigenous children in residential schools.

“The schools were poorly funded and inflicted hardship on the students; some students were physically abused,” the guide states. “Aboriginal languages and cultural practices were mostly prohibited. In 2008, Ottawa formally apologized to the former students.”

More words are devoted later in the guide to the importance of hockey in Canadian culture.

Would-be citizens are told that after the first Métis uprising, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald established the North West Mounted Police in 1873 to “pacify the West and assist in negotiations with the Indians.” The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are described as “one of Canada’s best-known symbols” that has produced “some of Canada’s most colourful heroes.” (Scholars have in recent years challenged this romanticized version of the force’s historical role, arguing that they were involved in colonial “containment and surveillance” of Indigenous people.)

The guide includes a list of notable Canadians behind great discoveries and inventions.

They are all men.

Douglas Quan is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star.


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