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Learning about 9/11: Attacks part of identity, racism lesson in Canadian classrooms

Dialogue continues among students of varied backgrounds about how they see the larger world
Désirée Bouchat, a survivor of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, looks at photos of those who perished, in a display at the 9/11 Tribute Museum, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in New York. While Sept. 11 was a day of carnage, it also was a story of survival: Nearly 3,000 people were killed, but an estimated 33,000 or more people evacuated the World Trade Center and Pentagon. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Most undergraduate students sitting in a class about Canada’s military history at the University of Calgary have never known or can’t remember a world before Sept. 11, 2001.

David Bercuson, an associate professor in the university’s history department, says educating successive generations about events leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States has been odd.

“They take it in stride. But I think they think, ‘OK, well, you know, it’s just like the invasion of Normandy,” Bercuson says.

“The hardest thing about teaching students this kind of history is to get them to feel it. Books (are) something anybody could absorb. But what was it like for the people who were there?”

Bercuson says 9/11 not only transformed the way teachers educate their students, it also changed their own perspectives.

Retired Edmonton high school teacher Robert Gardner, who contributed to the Canadian Social Studies textbook, agrees.

“In the hours and days immediately following the attacks I would be pulled out of what had been a relatively comfortable and familiar teaching practice into a much more demanding and complicated circumstance,” Gardner wrote in the book.

“I found that I had to significantly expand my knowledge and understanding of the intricacies of world history, cultures and religions.”

Gardner says in the book that memories of the 9/11 hijackings and suicide attacks are vivid. And the lives of more than 2,200 students he taught after that day also changed.

Heated and divided classroom debates over the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan took place among the students from all over the world, including India, Africa and the Middle East.

“9/11 was an event of such significance that everyone had an opinion or a question,” Gardner says in the book.

“What began to transpire was a real dialogue among students of varied backgrounds about how they saw the larger world. Who were the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’? What did justice mean in a world of militarism, terrorism and oppression? What things in life were worth fighting for?”

The attacks changed high school curriculums across the country and are a key component of analysis for both high school and post-secondaryhistory and politics students.

For example, Ontario students enrolled in Grade 10 Canadian History are expected to assess how government policies following 9/11 were significant for different non-Indigenous groups in Canada.

Those students are then encouraged to write a poem or rap about the war in Afghanistan or write a blog about border security since 9/11.

As hate crimes spiked after 9/11, Ontario’s education minister has said racism has also become a component of the school curriculum.

“In June 2021, Ontario announced its intention to invest in a plan to counter Islamophobia in publicly funded schools,” says Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce.

“These resources will provide information about Islamic practices, values and misconceptions, root causes of Islamophobia and ways to help end Islamophobia, racism and discrimination.”

The effects of 9/11 are something Bercuson says he tries to get his students to try to figure out themselves.

“There’s a lot of noise out there all the time. People are listening to the radio, they’re watching the internet … all kinds of intelligence agencies at different times in history are trying to find out as much as they can about what’s going to happen,” Bercuson says.

“I want my students to know that governments could have known (about the attacks).

“If they had known, things would have turned out differently. It’s more of a lesson of how we deal with future conflicts.”

—Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

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