By Rachel Collishaw

I happen to believe that democratic citizenship ought to be the reason for education. As a long-time history and social science teacher, I believe that citizenship is the reason for keeping compulsory Canadian and World Studies courses. In the Canadian and World Studies curriculum, Citizenship Education gets its own Framework (p. 10), so that it is part of all courses in this curriculum. I would hope that all of us teach citizenship in some way in our classes, but the grade 10 Civics and Citizenship class is the dedicated space where our students explore these issues. This course asks students to engage in issues, and I found it difficult to have credibility with them, without engaging with issues myself. Teaching this class inspired me to become more involved in OSSTF and to speak up on issues I care about in my neighbourhood.

Some of you may have heard about a recent fight to save Civics and Citizenship in Ontario classrooms; some of you may have been a part of the political action. Maybe you tweeted or retweeted, posted or shared on Facebook, wrote letters to your MPP or the Minister of Education. Maybe you did this on your own or you discussed the issue with your Civics class. If you did, I want to thank you. Our voices were heard and the grade 10 Civics and Citizenship course is safe, for now. If we all stand together in solidarity, we can make a difference, but we must continue to be vigilant to ensure that we all work together to educate students about civic engagement and democratic principles.

Just in case you were distracted by the troubling civic issues south of the border in the last couple of months, here’s a recap of the events here in Ontario:

September 27th, 2016

Allan Hux, president of the Ontario Geography Consultants’ Association and the Ontario History and Social Science Consultants’ Association (OG-OH), is informed that there is a proposition at the student achievement division of the Ministry of Education to make Careers a full credit course, and to make Civics an optional credit. Members of the association are alerted and the item is put on the agenda of the next meeting.

October 4th

At the monthly meeting of OG-OH, all are agreed that removing Civics and Citizenship from Ontario high schools is a very bad idea. A subcommittee is struck, composed of Allan Hux and Jan Haskings-Winner, past-president of OHASSTA-AESHO, (Ontario History and Social Science Teachers Association @ohassta). Plans are made to put together the salient points and gather the research and evidence on why this is a bad idea, and to begin a social media and letter-writing campaign to save the Civics and Citizenship course. The letter-writing begins!

October 18th

The informal social media and letter writing campaign begins. Niagara teacher, OHASSTA member (and a 2016 recipient of the Governor General’s History Award for Teaching Excellence) Elizabeth Freeman-Shaw is the first to tweet to the #civicsmatters hashtag on this issue.

October 20th

OHASSTA sends an email to almost 1000 members – Civics and Citizenship Action Needed. Jan Haskings-Winner and many more begin the twitter campaign in earnest. Thousands of teachers across the province write letters to their MPPs and the Minister of Education Mitzie Hunter. Civics teachers engage their students in talking about the class they are in. Many start writing letters. Allies like Civix, Student Vote, Samara, DILA and other providers of civic programs and resources start to hear about the proposal and join the chorus of voices.

October 31st

OHASSTA president Sandra Kritzer sends a letter to Mitzie Hunter on behalf of the organization. The opening paragraph reads: “On behalf of the Ontario History and Social Science Teachers’ Association (OHASSTA) I would like to express our dismay upon learning that there is a discussion to reduce CHV2O, the grade 10 Civics and Citizenship course, from a mandatory credit to an optional credit. Our organization was shocked and disappointed to hear that removing Civics may be a topic under consideration. Removing Civics as a mandatory course goes against the fundamental principles outlined in the 2013 revised curriculum and in our democracy.”

Nov. 1st

An article is published in the Toronto Star – Pushing for Financial Literacy in the Classroom, which begins to explain the reasoning behind the proposal to extend Careers to a full credit, to incorporate financial literacy. Hmm. I thought we were all doing financial literacy all the time, just like we’re all doing citizenship education all the time?

Jan Haskings-Winner is quoted, though only oblique reference is made to the proposal to eliminate the Civics and Citizenship course:

“Financial literacy in school has been a hot topic for years. Following a 2010 report, the province began incorporating it throughout the curriculum in a range of classes. But the youth cabinet says it needs to be taught in a dedicated course where students can learn how to apply it in their daily lives.

Toronto high school teacher Jan Haskings-Winner believes it’s an important subject. She teaches her Grade 10 history class at Malvern Collegiate about the stock market and her Grade 12 economics students how to fill out tax returns. But she notes teachers have different comfort levels with money matters, so incorporating it in all subjects can be challenging.

Haskings-Winner is also alarmed at what the current re-view of career studies could mean for the Grade 10 half-credit that goes with it — Civics and Citizenship — because she considers civics critical in helping students become active and engaged citizens. However, Ministry spokesperson Heather Irwin said in an email “it is important to note that Civics and Citizenship will remain a mandatory part of the Ontario curriculum.”

Macleans publishes an article: “Why Ontario shouldn’t ditch high school civics classes.” In it, journalist Nathan Tidridge quotes Haskings-Winner and Kritzer and Ministry spokesperson Heather Irwin, who responded to him in an email with this statement:

“The timing and credit value (currently 0.5 credit) of the career-studies courses are part of this review, which may have implications for other courses, including the complementary 0.5 credit Civics and Citizenship course,” Irwin said. “No decisions have been made, however it is important to note that Civics and Citizenship will remain a mandatory part of the Ontario curriculum. The Ministry will continue to work with educators, parents and students to inform next steps in curriculum review.”

Tidridge ends the article on this note:

“The foundation of a robust democracy is an educated and active electorate. Rather than be abandoned, Ontario’s civics course needs to be appreciated and en-hanced. Similarly, the nine provinces and three territories that currently don’t ask their students to actively explore their systems of government need to start doing so. As one Grade 11 student put it, “Civics is the only class where I never asked myself, ‘When will I need to know this?’ ”

Nov. 3rd

On the first day of the OHASSTA-AESHO annual conference in Ottawa, the Minister releases a statement – published at the end of the online Maclean’s article.

UPDATE, Nov. 3rd, 2016: The office of Education Minister Mitzie Hunter sent us a statement in response to this story, which we’ve posted in full below.

Across all classrooms in this country, Ontario is unique to offer a dedicated Civics and Citizenship course to our Grade 10 students and let me assure you we have no plans to remove this mandatory course from the curriculum.

Instead, our plans are to make it better by working with educators, experts and NGOs like Student Voice, an organization dedicated to increasing student involvement in our democratic systems, to keep this course relevant, informative and invaluable for our young learners.

In Ontario, students currently must take two half-credit courses in Grade 10 that focus on preparing our students for the world beyond the classroom. These courses are aptly referred to as Civics and Careers.

As Minister of Education, part of my mandate is to review these courses to make sure they are relevant for today’s youth. For Careers, we are taking steps to make sure this course provides students greater opportunities to chart their postsecondary path and strengthen their understanding in the topics of financial literacy, innovation and entrepreneurship. For Civics, we are looking at new ways to enrich students with the knowledge and understanding of Canada’s democratic institutions. This means that discussions are underway about what these courses will look like in our curriculum. What this does not mean is that students are at risk of losing their Civics requirement.

The passionate outcry to protect the Civics course over the past few days was inspiring to me as a Minister of Education, but also as a member of the elected assembly whose main job is to serve the people who gave me this responsibility by casting a vote. Students have contacted my office and told me about how Civics inspired them to get involved in public service, to consider roles that enhance our freedoms and rights as Canadians, and for some very ambitious young leaders out there, I have heard about how this course has peaked their interest in one day having my job as a Minister of the Crown.

Ontarians should be proud that Civics exists only in our curriculum, and as other provinces take note of our focus on preserving, strengthening and making it better, I welcome feedback from educators, students and former students on the ways we can enhance both our Careers and Civics courses for years to come. It is a right and a freedom to be engaged in this very democratic discussion about education in our province, and keeping Civics in our schools is integral in shaping young people to become Canada’s next generation of engaged citizens.

Mitzie Hunter, MBA

Ontario’s Minister of Education

Nov. 23rd

The monthly meeting of OG-OH hears back from the subcommittee that Civics and Citizenship is saved, for now.

This story ends well, but we still have some work to do to ensure that teachers are supported in teaching this class that is at the heart of our democracy, as we all want to engage our students in the issues that matter to them. Join the ongoing conversations on social media, and share your thoughts, or what you’re doing in Civics by using the hashtag #civicsmatters. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue, and what we can be doing at a local and provincial level in OSSTF to continue to promote civics and citizenship education for our students.

Rachel Collishaw is a teacher in Ottawa and vice-president of OHASSTA-AESHO and OHSSCA (OG-OH).

Photo of Rachel at OHASSTA conference 2016 courtesy of Alan Skeoch

Rachel Collishaw
President of OHASSTA, currently on secondment to Elections Canada, working on civic education resources and professional learning for teachers.