The best way to teach history
National Post · Nov. 7, 2011 | Last Updated: Nov. 7, 2011 3:07 AM ET
For the last 19 years, students at Ottawa's Catholic Notre Dame High School have benefitted from a remarkable community program. Every Remembrance Day, local military veterans would come to the school and set up exhibits that the school's students would visit throughout the day. The students could interact with Canadian military veterans, and examine military antiques, including uniforms, items of personal gear and some disabled military weapons loaned from museums.
It's worth repeating: These weapons were permanently disabled and inert. They may as well have been made of straw for all the danger they posed. And yet, all the same, what would have been the 20th Remembrance Day Symposium (and was set to include veterans from our war in Afghanistan) has been cancelled. The reason given: The school doesn't want "guns or tanks" on its property.
Ridiculous. Displaying harmless military memorabilia, in the respectful hands of the men and women who carried it in our country's wars, is a wonderful way to make Canada's proud military history come alive to a generation that will, we hope, never come closer than a deactivated rifle to the horrors of total war. Canada, despite its small size, in two world wars, Korea and throughout the Cold War, punched well above its weight in military matters, and it's important that our children know that. Military history, often technical and far removed from the daily lives of students, is a particularly difficult thing to teach. An interactive exhibit that engages students is something to be embraced and emulated elsewhere, not shut down in the interests of keeping guns out of schools.
A second objection raised by the school committee that chose to cancel the symposium is more understandable, but still misguided. The committee expressed concern that immigrant students, who might hail from lands where military hardware was commonly on display in far less benign circumstances, may be upset by reminders of their troubled early years. We feel for any child that has witnessed the consequences of war and civil strife, but this is too flimsy a justification to separate nativeborn Canadians from a proud part of their military heritage. The painful and oppressive military history's of many of the world's nations does nothing to discredit our own proud martial accomplishments.
Also, we believe that children who grew up in war-torn lands would derive real benefit from the opportunity to engage with Canada's military veterans. If these children are to mature into knowledgeable Canadian citizens, they must realize that one of the great blessings of living in this country is that we have successfully avoided so many of the tragedies common throughout the world. That includes an unbroken history of effective civilian control over our Armed Forces, and its employment abroad in defence of shared Canadian values and at home to protect our safety and security.
This isn't Syria: Canadians have nothing to fear from their own Armed Forces. In cancelling the symposium, partially in deference to the sensibilities of those students born abroad, Notre Dame has followed its road of good intentions directly to an outcome that leaves all of students, regardless of their place of birth, poorer off.
Every year, as Remembrance Day approaches, there are a series of unfortunate news reports that remind us all that there are many who do not appreciate how much our veterans have done on our behalf. Memorials are vandalized or desecrated, poppy collection jars stolen. A group of students in New Brunswick, having missed entirely the lessons of sacrifice and duty taught to us by veterans, has announced plans to mark Remembrance Day with an 11-hour booze-filled bar-hopping session.
Clearly, there is much work to be done in educating Canadians about the debt of gratitude owed by all of us to those who have served our country, at home and abroad, in war and during peacetime. Innovative ways of connecting children with their military heritage are to be encouraged, not closed down in misguided effort to protect students' sensibilities.
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