“What is Canadian Studies?” #GenYAsksY and the Classroom of Canada

The following post is the fifth in a series that features collaboration between the Acadiensis blog and the students in Jerry Bannister’s undergraduate and graduate Canadian Studies and History classes at Dalhousie University.

by Joy Ciccarelli-Shand

On October 26th, 2016, I attended a public forum entitled “The Precarious Generation: Millennials Fight Back,” hosted on Parliament Hill by NDP MP Niki Ashton. I was there as an observer, nothing more, but I was jittery and excited – it was my first time being at any kind of conference, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Precarious living, in case you haven’t encountered the term before, is characterized by a work experience that is short-term, low-paid, contract, and without benefits. Conditions like this are not only the norm for many young people, but the only kind of work we’ve ever known. Precariousness contributes to a number of social issues, including poorer health, higher stress, greater mental illness, and an inability to contribute to the tax base. Finance Minister Bill Morneau recently spoke about precariousness in the House of Commons, saying that workers should get used to the “job churn.” Of course, Canada’s youth will be the ones generally bearing the brunt of this, as we support our aging parents, our failing economy, and our ailing planet without any of the securities that past generations have had.

Attending “The Precarious Generation” forum proved to be quite the education. I felt compelled to go, in part, because in the last couple of years, I’ve become much more involved with activism both at my university and in my community of Halifax. I’ve served on my student union council, marched in protests, written on sidewalks, attended meetings, panels, readings, and lectures. Coming to understand and engage with political issues like precarious work is an ongoing process that for me feels like surfacing from the bottom of the nearby ocean. And it has been, largely, a process of learning about history: colonial history, labour history, the histories of race, gender, and queerness. It has been about learning the history of oppression and injustice, all of it situated in this place we call Canada.

I am a student of Canadian Studies. Even in speaking to other students at the forum, I was asked “so… what is Canadian Studies?” They had all chosen fields like political science, economics, industrial relations, law – you know, the useful stuff. Why would you want to study Canada? The job market isn’t exactly kind to people with vague-sounding Arts degrees, you know.

Tina Loo, an environmental historian at UBC, writes about Canadian historians and Canadian Studies departments as “species at risk.” According to Loo (and many others), our national narrative has gone out of fashion – students see it as irrelevant, so teachers don’t teach it. The result is the increasing precariousness of our own democracy, as young people develop into adults who are disengaged with and apathetic about our country’s governance. The lurking danger, of course, is that this apathy will lead to political stagnancy, or worse, fascism. For Loo, formal post-secondary education is the key to sparking political engagement, and Canadian Studies is therefore necessary for the formation of good citizens.

I disagree with this thesis, in part. I’ve become politically aware through my university degree, but I’ve also been drawn to political activism by listening to the people in my community and learning about their life experiences. Neither of these avenues is mutually exclusive, of course, except that “higher” education does exclude anyone without financial means. While Loo’s argument is tantamount to a call for universal post-secondary education, something I wholeheartedly support, the academy is not the only place where critical thinking, exploration, and intellectual engagement happen. At the same time, thousands of young people are now being shut out of universities, not only because of the immense monetary and emotional costs, but also because the traditional learning format – lecturer at the front, PowerPoint, filling previously empty minds with facts – is completely unbearable to so many potential students.

So, where do we go from here? What is the future for Canadian Studies, or for post-secondary education (if there even is one)?

This is my answer:

If universities – and Canadian Studies departments – want to survive, they have to start asking who gets left out, and why. In order to even begin to address the structural barriers that lie at the heart of our education system, we need to radically reorganize our institutions: it’s not solely a matter of getting students out of the classroom and engaged in the broader community, but of redefining the “classroom” itself. How do we do that? Well, we can start with creating programs that value, promote, and credit experiential learning.

I missed almost a week of classes to attend the Precarious Worker Forum, but I’m not sorry – I learned just as much there as I would have in class. Experiential learning has many benefits: it aids memory, helps build connections, supports job networking, provides novel exposures, and builds social skills. Moreover, it gives students the opportunity to apply course concepts in real-world settings. For those of us in Canadian Studies, what could be more obvious? We learn about Canada, so Canada should be the classroom – all of it. Our faculty is already an interdisciplinary one: it’s not a big stretch to imagine an integrated component where students are credited for attending workshops, planning events, or even making public art.

Our Canadian political discourse of late has relied heavily on a narrative of anti-intellectualism. As scholars, we need to take some responsibility for this narrative: the academy has long been an elite and exclusive place, and lived experience is something that we look down on as messy, impure, and lesser-than. Students who don’t fit the “ideal” mould – because they’re black, poor, queer, Indigenous, disabled, or otherwise – are pushed out with comfortable regularity. Our institutions need to start viewing knowledge as something that is for everybody, and a good starting point is to establish programs that foster engagement with the people “out there,” in the world.

Experiential learning encourages students to become leaders, and Canada needs more leaders. There can be no greater goal for a scholar than that.


Joy Shand is a white, working class, settler woman and a long-time student transplant to Halifax, NS, where she studies at Dalhousie. Her main research interests include immigration policy, Canadian multiculturalism, and Indigenous-state relations.

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About cslumkos

Corey Slumkoski is an associate professor of history at Mount Saint Vincent University.
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One Response to “What is Canadian Studies?” #GenYAsksY and the Classroom of Canada

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of March 26, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

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