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Our Canadian History is Different

by | Feb 29, 2024 | Curriculum, Deep-ish Dive | 0 comments

How is ADRABA’s Canadian history differentIsn’t history just history

If you read Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, you might conclude that “[t]he History of the world is but the Biography of great men.” And so, for you, history might be Sir John A. MacDonald, John F. Kennedy and Napoleon.

If you read Edward Gibbon, you might conclude that history has profound lessons to teach us, like how the Roman Empire collapsed because of a loss of civic virtue among its citizens.

If you read Howard Zinn, history would question inequality and highlight efforts to create more just society – and excoriate the textbooks churned out by big publishing houses and giant corporations as sorely inadequate.

If you were amenable to the industrialist (and raging antisemite) Henry Ford, you might say that history is “more or less bunk.”

Canadian history is not immune to these challenges and spin. I share a quote early on in ADRABA’s Canadian history class from L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”

As visitors, we can be tourists who keep everything at arm’s distance, always remaining within our bubble of comfort while we passively consume “their” culture. Or we can step outside of what we’re used to, ask questions and be open to hearing the answers.

ADRABA courses are designed to facilitate the latter. Though they share course codes with high school offerings across the province of Ontario, our courses have been deconstructed and rebuilt to integrate Jewish learning and different perspectives.We also give students space to ask questions, challenge verities and  a variety of methods to demonstrate what they have learned beyond the traditional paper and pencil test and exam.

This is especially true in how we confront Canadian history. The design of our Grade 10 Canadian history course (otherwise known as “CHC2D” in the course calendar) was inspired by an offhand comment from a big supporter of ADRABA. Sholom, he and I were sitting over a coffee at United Bakers and he asked us what we were thinking about teaching next. We had been kicking around a number of ideas. We wanted to repurpose a course that not only fulfilled graduation requirements, but could also work as a “reach ahead” credit. (“Reach Ahead “is a program that offers students currently in Grade 8 the opportunity to take a high school credit.) We landed on Canadian history. We would look at modern Canada from the perspective of different “outsider” communities looking in: Francophones, Indigenous Canadians, and, most prominently, the Jewish community.

“Sounds great,” our supporter said. “But could you come at it from a different angle? Say, through sports?”

I know. You’re thinking sports is frivolous, the stuff of spectacle on network television. It’s definitely not something that would merit serious consideration for a curriculum. But if you add sports to the many lenses we use to scrutinize and survey our past, that “foreign country” takes on new contours.

Take Fanny Rosenfeld. Heard of her?

At first glance, her story is a familiar one. She was born in a small town in the Pale of Settlement in 1904, and like many thousands of her fellow Jews, her family found themselves looking for a safer place to live, one with less poverty and persecution. Fanny came to Canada as an infant, and with her family, settled in Barrie, where they already had family. At the time, Barrie did not have many Jewish families, but the Rosenfelds eventually established themselves in the small city.  So far, this is a typical Jewish story.

What happened next was atypical.

From a very young age, Fanny excelled at sports. She ran track. She also played basketball, softball, lacrosse, ice hockey and tennis. While at Barrie Collegiate Institute, she led the school’s basketball and track team. Her teammates began calling her “Bobbie” because of her short, bobbed hair.

When her family relocated to Toronto (to a house a block and a half from mine) in 1922, “Bobbie” joined the Young Women’s Christian Association hockey team AND the Young Women’s Hebrew Association basketball team, leading the latter to the provincial championships.

I could go on… There’s a lot more story here! Bobbie eventually returned to her first love -– track and field – and dominated the sport.  She became an international star at the 1928 Summer Games in Amsterdam, where she won multiple medals for Canada.  When she returned, she transitioned into her next passion – sports journalism – where she wrote a column for over 20 years about women’s sports.  One could say that she single-handedly lifted women’s sports out of obscurity in Canada.

Bobbie’s story is but one of the many stories of individuals who, though seemingly on the outside, contributed to creating the inclusive Canada we know and appreciate today. For Bobbie, sports was the way that she, that strange kid with the strange accent and traditions, could feel more at home and part of Team Canada.

The same could be said for prize fighters Sammy Luftspring and Baby Yack as well as the Raptors’ “Super Fan” Nav Bhatia. Or the Jewish fans of Team Canada that went to Moscow for the 1972 Summit Series to smuggle Judaica to Soviet refuseniks.

These stories and more are what make up our curriculum, but they also make up Canada as well.