URSEL, Elaine. Discovering Canada’s Trading Partners. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2001. 80p. Resenha de: BRADFORD, K. J.. Canadian Social Studies, v.38, n.3, p., 2004.
A quick glance at the title of this Oxford Discovery Series text reveals that it was written specifically for the new (1998) Ontario elementary grade six social studies curriculum strand Canada and Its Trading Partners. Even with this understanding, some of the content in Ursel’s Discovering Canada’s Trading Partners appears at best confusing and at worst irrelevant. However, the topical incongruencies and slapdash manner of the Ontario curriculum are not solely to blame. As with all textbooks, authors make decisions about what to include and exclude and how to present the topics and information that are included. Limitations are placed on authors by editors and publishers and, considering that this textbook addresses one half of the grade six year yet is only 80 pages long, Ursel clearly had to make choices.
Ursel begins by explaining the idea of trade first through a short fictional story and then through a brief history of trade. The lemonade stand story is a fairly typical device in economics-focused books aimed at young people. The problem with continued reliance upon this idealization is that students are expected to make the considerable conceptual leap from understanding this summer pastime as trade to understanding that the complex and interrelated processes of national and international government rules and regulations, the commodification of non-renewable and renewable natural resources by government, industry and business, and the exchange of manufactured goods along with both practical and intellectual human services are also trade. It is simply too great a leap.
A history of trade is offered that is not only far too brief but is overwhelmingly eurocentric in perspective. Ursel includes a full-page world map and timeline to discuss and illustrate the history of trade. While all the continents of the world are included in the map, the written information is only about Europeans, early civilizations that have been claimed as part of Western Civilization, and the pursuit of worldwide European trade. The timeline begins with the Sumerians in 3000 BCE, moves through the Babylonians and Phoenecians to the Crusades and Marco Polo, and ends with Great Explorers in 1400-1600 CE. Due to this eurocentric geographical and ideological privileging, Ursel can make the following statements about the Crusades: Trade declined for 100 years after the fall of the Roman Empire. Many luxuries of Asia were once again traded and brought to Europe (p. 13, emphasis in original). Notwithstanding the typographic error 1000 years would be more accurate and the poor wording which makes these sentences oppositional and therefore confusing, Ursel states that all trade everywhere in the world was impeded at this time. This is hardly the case. Another example of the author’s eurocentric perspective comes in the few sentences explaining the trading time period called Great Explorers: As sailors set out to trade, they explored unknown lands. Their search for trade routes brought them to North America (p. 12). While these lands may have been unknown to the sailors in question, the representation of European explorers discovering already inhabited lands has long since been challenged and debunked. It was also disappointing to realize that North America is included in the trade timeline and map not to acknowledge the sophisticated trading that flourished between indigenous societies but as an addition to the established eurocentric storyline. To her credit, on the following page Ursel does acknowledge that aboriginal peoples engaged in trade with each other however, this is again set within the framework of how these alliances contributed to the European-focused fur trade. It is unfortunate that Ursel chooses to emphasize the history of trade from a eurocentric perspective; by doing so she effectively implies that the best purpose for trade, if not the only purpose, is to make profits and develop surpluses. She fails to acknowledge that trade can be a reciprocal, equitable and mutually beneficial relationship that meets needs as well as wants and that nomadic peoples as well as agricultural-based societies engage(d) in trade.
Ursel spends considerable time explaining the concepts of import and export before moving on to the largest component of the text: Canada’s trading partners. This section includes continental maps and pictures which both reinforce stereotypes of particular geographic regions, such as a rice field in China, and pictures that likely challenge stereotypical images of places, such as the photograph depicting Nairobi as a modern city. Due to curriculum requirements, there is a heavy emphasis on the various geographic and economic regions of the United States. Ursel also includes sections on Mexico and Japan; again, the curriculum requires that students study a trading partner from a geographic region such as the Pacific Rim. What is missing from this textbook and it is a glaring omission in my opinion is comparable information about Canada’s geographic and economic regions.
There are also several inaccuracies and confusing and overly simplistic explanations in the text that cause me concern. For instance, two of three pie charts are actually circular, horizontal bar graphs (pages 21 and 26). In her discussion of the American southeast, Ursel claims that New Orleans in Louisiana is the oldest city in the South, founded by the French in 1718 (p. 47). This is not true. The city of St. Augustine in Florida was founded by the Spanish in 1565 and has been continuously inhabited since then (http://www.ci.staugustine.fl.us/visitors/specialplace.html).
While Ursel makes some effort to explain why Canada belongs to trade groups such as La Francophonie and the Commonwealth, she makes no effort to explain the basis of membership in the G-8. Rather, she names the member countries while also explaining that the G-8, or the Group of Eight, meets regularly to discuss economic issues before they become sources of conflict (p. 74, emphasis in original). This example illustrates my biggest concern with this textbook. I appreciate that complex ideas such as international trade need to be simplified for young learners, however, I find this book leaning more towards simplicity rather than simplification. The conceptualizations and explanations of the processes of trade should be more thorough. For instance, Ursel could have more adequately explained that while it is governments who set the rules and regulations for trade it is usually companies situated within those nations that actually engage in capitalist trade.
Ursel glosses over the effects of trade agreements such as NAFTA in which trade disputes are ongoing and the roles played by organizations such as the G-8 in establishing and regulating inequitable global trade agreements. While the idea of cheap labour appears repeatedly throughout the text, for example, I think Ursel is less than honest with young learners about the real life repercussions of cheap labour on the lives of people like themselves and their parents. While she refers to cheap labour as a key component of economic success for companies, Ursel fails to explain that for those skilled and unskilled working class workers of the first world who have lost jobs or are continually threatened with job loss, loss of wages, working hours and benefits as well as for those workers in developing or poorer countries who may get those jobs but who have little or no job security, extremely poor pay, no benefits and terrible working conditions, cheap labour is not such a success story.
I also have concerns about the student activities called Something To Do included throughout the textbook. For example, in the International Trade Groups section grade six students are blithely encouraged to Role-play setting up a trade agreement between Canada and the United States to sell Canadian fresh water (p. 75). They are to practice their skills in setting trading rules and negotiating conflicts. What this exercise does not ask students to do is to think about and discuss who owns this resource; whether or not this renewable resource should be traded away or not; and how to ensure our own needs as Canadians do not become subservient to those of a larger market. It ignores the increasing dilemma of water shortages throughout the world and the glutinous North American overuse of this most precious and necessary yet vulnerable resource. As Ursel does mention environmental problems such as overhunting beavers during the fur trade (p. 16) and the devastating impact of overfishing on fish stocks (p. 23) connected to trade practices, I do not think it unreasonable to deliberately help students begin making real connections between the harvesting of natural resources in exchange for monetary profits and the ultimate consequences of these behaviours.
There is no doubt that the rushed manner in which the Ontario social studies curriculum was conceptualized has resulted in a fragmentary and knowledge-as-product perspective toward complex social processes. The emphasis on expediency rather than conceptual thoroughness in the curriculum reform process has directly resulted in substandard learning resources. Oxford University Press was not the only publisher to take advantage of the economic opportunity available in quickly supplying the school children of Ontario with textbooks. While the format of this book (photographs, maps, easily identifiable sections of information and sidebars) is appealing, the content falls short perhaps not of curriculum expectations, but certainly in terms of aiding substantive learning and understanding.
K. J. Bradford – University of Western Ontario. London, Ontario.