As the annual Council of the Federation meeting wrapped up in early July, the Premiers of all 13 Provinces and Territories made quite the splash online. It was not because of partisan quarrels or riveting policy discussions, yet it came from a simple photo (see left) tweeted by Scott Moe, Premier of Saskatchewan. The photo depicted the leaders, all of whom are cis-men and for the most part white.
Some of you might be asking yourself, what’s the big deal? From an equity standpoint it feels like Canada’s political landscape has been moving backwards in the past few years – it was just six years ago that women accounted for almost half of the 13 premiers. As the highest offices in our country continue to look the same, the presence of diverse perspectives at decision making tables are dying. As a white cis-male myself, I can attest to the fact that no matter how sensitive I am towards any issues, I truly cannot understand a reality I do not live. Therefore, if we want a country that is equitable for all Canadians, than we need representation of all Canadians. Obviously we have to recognize that there are numerous institutional and societal barriers that limit marginalized groups from participating in politics. These limitations are entrenched in the framework of our democracy and require significant work to change this narrative – however, I believe that civics educators can be the catalyst for such change.
Now you’re probably wondering, what do I need to do? Well, as a passionate civics educator, let me offer you some of my thoughts: firstly, we must recognize when there is a lack of diversity and call it out in our course material. According to Bell (2016), equipping students with effective critical thinking strategies is a pre-requisite to understanding systematic oppression in society. So, it is important to have frank discusses with students about how we normalize sameness and encourage them to analyze why we continue to do so. A great resource as a starting point is the Netflix documentary Knock Down the House, while it focuses on American politics it has great commentary on how the political systems often oppress equity seeking groups.
Secondly, we also need to recognize our successes. Despite the scarcity of diverse perspectives, there are still leaders of colour, with disabilities, and of various sexual and gender identities making leaps and bounds. These leaders can serve as positive role models for students who are underrepresented and help to validate their identities. A study on Gay and Lesbian role models in the media found that a majority of LGBTQ+ identifying students found a sense of admiration for queer characters on some of the most popular television. In fact, many respondents reported that they take strength from these characters and would like to “emulate [these] role models” in their own lives. Furthermore, I believe that providing positive political role models, it can inspire students to also use their voices for change.
Finally, we must engage students in the democratic process. Learning about political systems in a classroom can definitely be boring, especially for teenagers. Nonetheless, allowing your students to latch on to an issue they care about and run with it can show them that civics is fun! Academic Cather Gewertz calls this “action civics” – a process that not details how governments work but also take action. Teachers across the United States are using this approach and the success is prominent, according to Gewertz (2019) some Oklahoma classes even had bills begin heard at the state capital. While standing up for something they believe in, these students are gaining essential knowledge about our political systems. By taking this approach, who knows, maybe some students will become inspired to seek careers in political office?
So if you’ve come this far, you might be thinking does this really work? The answer: I don’t actually know, after all change is a slow moving process. Yet, I do know that something needs to kick start said change. Perhaps I am just an overly optimistic Civics teacher but I do believe that if we can inspire our students, a photo of our country’s leaders will look a lot different than it does today.
Written by Ryan Furlong