What we teach is who we are


“LABOUR HISTORY DOESN’T EXIST,” SAYS JIM WARREN. "There is just history. None of it happened without working people. But that’s not how we choose to teach history in our schools.”

Jim Warren is co-author of On the Side of the People: A history or labour in Saskatchewan and a professor of political science at the University of Regina. He says the history taught in our schools is “a Walt Disney version of reality.”

“The way we are now, the way we live today—everything—is pretty much a direct result of battles working people fought and won for themselves and all of us. The rights workers have, the right to form unions and the right to strike, are embedded in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It’s a big deal. But you won’t learn much about any of it in our schools.”

History is serious stuff

In his book 1984 George Orwell wrote: “Those who control the present control the past; and those who control the past control the future.” So, those in power know history has to be written and taught in a certain way—a way that will never cause anyone to question the wisdom of bosses, bankers or politicians

Working people have no place in that history. They were never anything but “troublemakers.” They always questioned authority. They always questioned the idea that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

The need to control history is never considered trivial and it never goes away.

A good proof of that is the fate of a gravestone in Estevan, Saskatchewan. It marks the graves of three miners shot down and killed by the RCMP in a miners’ strike there in 1931. The original engraving on the stone, erected by miners to honour their fallen comrades, gives the miners’ names and includes the words “Murdered by the RCMP.”

The phase, murdered by the RCMP, has been removed and replaced several times in the years since 1931. Each side determined to have their version of history be the one carved in stone.


Gravestone in Estevan in memory of miners murdered by the RCMP

Who decides what gets taught

Who decides what gets taught in school is always controversial.

Right now the new Ford government in Ontario has plans to revert to the sexual education curriculum used in 1998—a program of study that omits discussion of consent and LGBT issues. Many object to Ford’s plan. The Ontario Teachers’ Union plans to challenge it in court.

Students themselves are also speaking out, arranging province-wide walks out in protest of the outdated curriculum with support from their parents and teachers.

In Saskatchewan, in 1933, it was the desire to teach the socialist values of cooperation that caused concern.

The original 1933 election platform of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) proposed an education program that would include “the teaching of the principles of cooperation” and “the teaching of the origin of money and its function as a medium of exchange.”

The curriculum proposals were not a minor part of the early program. A CCF pamphlet proclaimed: “This is one of the most important planks in this particular program." The CCF leader, M. J. Coldwell declared: “We propose to stop teaching capitalism in the schools. We will substitute teaching cooperation for competition.”

Critics said such a program would introduce politics into the classroom. The CCFcountered with the argument that politics already existed in the classroom in the form of procapitalist history and economics.

The CCF came to power in Saskatchewan 1944. The plan to teach socialist values in the schools to counter capitalism had not been part of their campaign.

Labour history and workers rights a black hole

The teaching of labour history and workers’ rights in our schools has been a black hole for decades.

High schools do a once-over-lightly of unions and safety rules in the career studies and social sciences programs. But most courses that aim to prepare students for the future are very business-orientated as opposed to rights-orientated.

The need and desire to change this reality is persistent. Yet it is still pretty much left up to individual teachers to find ways to bring that history into the classroom.

Teachers unions often supply teaching aids on the issue. For example, Youth, Unions, and YOU: A Secondary Teacher’s Guide to Labour Studies for B.C. Schools is a joint project of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and the B.C. Federation of Labour.

“Hardball and Handshakes,” developed by the American Labor Studies Center and the Baseball Hall of Fame, uses the history of professional baseball to examine the relationship between employer and employee. The unit focuses on collective bargaining and is geared toward high school and college students.

The California Federation of Teachers’ Labor in the Schools Committee maintains a website, which features curricula and educational activities for elementary through high school students. Lesson plans, biographies of union leaders, and photographs of children at work reflect the long struggle by unions to improve the lives of working people.

Despite the lack of comprehensive labour studies material in the current curriculum, teachers can still find creative ways to introduce the concept of workers’ rights to their students.

Teacher puts labour rights on her curriculum

Last spring, for instance, Toronto teacher Hayley Mezei wrote a piece for the Elementary Teacher’s Federation of Ontario’s online magazine VOICE about the ways that she brings lessons about labour laws into her classroom.

One of the ways she did this was by talking to her 8th grade Language Class about Ontario Bill 148 or the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act 2017, which passed last November. The bill insured significant improvements for approximately 1.7 million workers in Ontario earning less than $15 an hour.


Hayley Mezei surrounded by her Grade Eight class

Mezei explained in her article that many students in her school are new Canadians who are trying to find their way in this country. She believed talking about the bill to her class would be something positive for her students and their families—even though it was not a part of the grade eight official curriculum.

“As a language teacher,” she explains, “I make choices every day about what materials I use in the classroom. I have chosen to structure part of my language program around topics that directly affect my students’ lives such as Bill 148 and other important legislation such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (in particular section 15, which refers to equality rights). My hope is that in learning about our rights, students will become better informed citizens and have greater control of their futures.”

Official classroom courses on these topics would be ideal, but until then, it’s important to encourage teachers to follow in the footsteps of Hazel Mezei and others currently leading the charge by bringing these topics to their students as relevant, everyday life lessons.

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California Federation of Teachers'
Labour in the Schools study materials




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