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The Dominion Institute


Political history not our forte

Friday, January 11, 2002

Sir John A. Macdonald

OTTAWA - Canadians have an abysmal knowledge of their own history, with only half correctly naming Sir John A. Macdonald as the country's first prime minister, according to a new Globe and Mail/CTV poll.
Along with The Globe and CTV, the non-profit Dominion Institute released the survey today - Sir John A.'s birthday - as part of a campaign to persuade the federal government to institute a Prime Ministers Day holiday on the second Monday of February.

Canadians are not exactly clamouring for such a holiday - 47 per cent of those surveyed said it would be a good idea, while 52 per cent said it would be a bad idea.

But Rudyard Griffith, executive director of the Dominion Institute, said that's not bad support, given the poor knowledge that Canadians have of their former prime ministers.

"I think the fact that nearly half support the idea indicates Canadians do feel we haven't done enough to celebrate the accomplishments of our nation-builders," Mr. Griffith said.

"Yes, our knowledge of our political history is poor, but beneath that poor knowledge, I think there is a growing interest in trying to do new and different things that turn Canadians on to their history, that we're not treating our past as either an embarrassment to be forgotten or a series of irrelevancies that mean nothing to our lives today."

The institute - a national charity dedicated to improving Canadians' knowledge of their history - is hoping to build support for the proposed holiday.

Together with The Globe and CTV, it has created an Internet petition where Canadians can indicate whether they support the creation of a Prime Ministers Day and which prime ministers they think should be commemorated. Results of the petition will be presented to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien on Feb. 11, the second Monday of February this year.

In the survey of 1,000 adults conducted between Dec. 14 and Dec. 20, only 51 per cent could correctly name "the Scottish immigrant, skilled lawyer and Father of Confederation who became Canada's first prime minister." (The answer, of course: Sir John A. Macdonald.)

Only 21 per cent of Quebeckers answered correctly.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier - whom Mr. Chrétien has often cited as a role model - fared even worse in his home province. Only 17 per cent of Quebeckers could name him as Canada's first francophone prime minister, while 19 per cent could nationally.

Knowledge of recent history is not much better.

Only 49 per cent of respondents could name Pierre Trudeau as the prime minister who invoked the War Measures Act, famously declaring, "Just watch me."

Only 30 per cent of respondents aged 18 to 34 correctly identified Mr. Trudeau, while 46 per cent knew the name of Canada's first prime minister.

While their grasp of history was weaker than that of their elders, younger Canadians were more likely to support the idea of a February holiday honouring dead politicians.

Fifty-nine per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds supported the holiday, compared with only 32 per cent of people over 55.

Regionally, support for the holiday is strongest in Ontario (55 per cent) and weakest in Quebec (35 per cent).

Mr. Griffith said the Prime Ministers Day would be around the same time as Flag Day and Heritage Day in Ontario, providing the opportunity for a weeklong celebration of Canada's history.

He also noted there have been frequent proposals that Canada adopt a new holiday in February to give people a break in the long winter stretch from New Year's Day to Good Friday.

(The United States celebrate Presidents Day on the third Monday in February.)

"As a northern nation, we could sure use a holiday in those dark weeks of February," Mr. Griffith said. "If we leave everything up to the bean-counters and pencil-pushers, we'd be working 24-7."


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