Enhancing Canadians' knowledge of their country with Jack Jedwab of the Association for Canadian Studies

July 31, 2017

Dr. Jack Jedwab, President of the Association for Canadian Studies (ACS) and the Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration (CIIM), seemed destined for a future in Econometrics—that is, until a course in economic history sparked what would become a life-long interest in a topic he had yet to explore. Dr. Jedwab quickly realized that his affinity for visualizing and understanding most things in numbers could also be applied to the study of history.

"My interest in history began from the desire to learn more about my ancestry and a fascination with identities and origin. But in my work, I have and continue to harken back to my childhood penchant for numbers, writing what I like to call 'mathistory.'"

Switching majors, Dr. Jedwab would go on to earn a PhD in Canadian History from Concordia University. He is currently the Chair of the National Metropolis Conference, the country's largest conference on Immigration and Integration, and is the founding editor and publisher of the magazine Canadian Diversity. Since 1983, Dr. Jedwab has lectured at McGill University, the Université du Québec à Montréal and Concordia University in the departments of sociology and political science, and at the Institute for the Study of Canada. He is one of the national media's most quoted social science researchers and a leading public intellectual.

Now serving as the President of ACS and the CIIM, Dr. Jedwab has spent nearly 20 years striving to enhance Canadians' knowledge of both our history and our current realities through various publications, activities and programs, including as an advisor on Statistics Canada's 2001 Ethnic Diversity Survey committee. Well-known for its social research on topics ranging from health, religion and language to socio-economics and sports, the ACS researches, applies and analyzes a wide variety of Statistics Canada data in many of its publications and reports.

"It's so important to provide evidence-based work in our research, and doing that requires good empirical support. Whether you're studying history or migration and identities—to properly understand these topics, you'll need good demographics; good attitudinal data; good tracking; and, you'll also benefit from knowing the history of migration. While there's a limit to quantifying the human experience, this data enriches the research that much more."

Squaring the circle

The ACS initiates and supports multidisciplinary projects, activities and research in the study of Canada, focusing on how key historical events have and continue to shape both the composition of the population and perceptions about Canada. The organization has also broadened in recent years to target knowledge enhancement in a variety of other areas, including identity and migration, diversity, official languages, and through surveys designed to quantify how much Canadians know about the country's institutions. The ACS makes use of both qualitative and quantitative data such as big-picture data provided by the Census Program; social research derived from the General Social Survey; and, web-based public opinion data.

By pairing descriptive, opinion-based data with statistics, percentages and other empirical research elements, Dr. Jedwab says the ACS "squares the circle," producing a richer and more comprehensive understanding of its research.

The 'mathistory' approach

When Dr. Jedwab first arrived at the ACS in 1998, he found that there was a strong desire across federal and provincial governments to address what was regarded as a low level of knowledge among the country's youth in Canadian history. But learning history requires more than just understanding events in a chronological and thematic sense. Today, there's also a strong desire for historical knowledge to be applied practically and beyond the classroom. Dr. Jedwab does this by introducing and teaching SPSS Statistics, a software package widely used for statistical analysis. And, in another social science course this fall, his students will be tasked with running a mock-NGO, where they will study how to review, plan and prioritize a company budget.

"When I offer 'too many' statistics in my courses—and I'm perfectly willing to acknowledge that I do—I'm trying to equip my students with a particular skill set that will give them an advantage going forward. It's not just about knowing what year the War of 1812 occurred—it's also about having some good empirical skills. Teaching history offers many opportunities to do that."

Despite these efforts, a number of challenges lie ahead in communicating history, including the way in which Canadians consume, process and retain information. "Today, our society prefers to consume information in short bites and to see things visually, such as in a tweet. It's a big challenge to summarize often complex and detailed stories from our past in 140 characters. This means we need to think more critically about how people can retain what they've learned."

A demographic revolution

The ACS is striving to address these unique challenges, whether through publications, regular releases of public opinion data, or conferences that offer ample opportunities for dialogue, discussion and networking.

In 2017, the CIIM is organizing a series of conferences across North America, including one on Measuring identity, diversity and inclusion in Canada @ 150 and beyond from November 30 to December 1, 2017, in Gatineau, Québec. For Dr. Jedwab, this upcoming conference is a thematic extension of Statistics Canada's Speaker Series event on The story of Canada's ethnocultural diversity in numbers, in which he participated as one of five expert panelists. "I felt it was vital to continue the conversation and I wanted to find a way for us to do that together," he said.

The discussion will focus on the significant changes in the composition of the Canadian population and the evolution in research related to identities. "We've gone through a demographic revolution in the last 50 years. Change is inevitable and if it's properly channelled, change can be very positive. Diversity has been an extraordinary strength for Canada and I think we're going to continue to grow through some important debates about who we are."

Having worked in question formulation for more than 20 years, the measurement of diversity will also play a crucial role in Dr. Jedwab's work in the future. "We cannot effectively address inequities in society unless we quantify them, and without good stats, we cannot properly monitor progress," Dr. Jedwab said. "I've had the good fortune of working with the Census in several other countries and we're among the lucky few to enjoy such a rich collection of data. It gives Canada an advantage that can't be taken for granted."

To learn more about Statistics Canada's program of activities to mark Canada 150, visit Telling Canada's story in numbers.

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