Media Education in Canada

 In Additional Qualifications, Blog, Elementary, Recommended Resources, Secondary
by Barry Duncan, John Pungente SJ, and Neil Andersen
September 1, 2002


In 1922, Lewis Selznik, the Hollywood producer, is reported to have said: “If Canadian stories are worthwhile making into movies, then companies will be sent into Canada to make them.” Selznik’s dismissive words encapsulate a not uncommon attitude among some Americans – Canada is not a place where interesting things happen. But some of the most interesting stories in North
American media education are Canadian stories.

To understand Canadian media education and communications, we must first recognize some of our special collective character traits and our relationship to our neighbour to the south. Former Prime Minister Trudeau likened our living next to the United States to that of a mouse that sleeps next to an elephant: every time the elephant turns over, the mouse has to run for cover to avoid being crushed. Is it any wonder that we have such a nagging, ambivalent relationship with our American cousins?

Canada is a country that has many contradictions. On the one hand we love American brashness, their sense of adventure and risk taking and , above all, their popular culture. On the other, we need publicly to denounce them for Yankee arrogance and imperialist policies. Canadians have been described as a relentlessly polite people; too often we are put in the position of apologizing for being somewhat dull. Our national slogan might be, “I’m sorry.” To say that we are a conservative, basically law – abiding people, that we continually rank at the top of the United Nations Survey as the best place in the world to live, never seems to inflate our sense of pride.

As a country whose population of 30 million [there are more people in the state of California than in all of Canada] is all contained in a narrow band that stretches for some 4,000 miles across a continent, we are painfully aware of the importance of communications. We have made some major contributions to communications technology (the creation of the Anik satellite and Telidon); media theory (the work of Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, and Dallas Smythe); and media production (The National Film Board, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and our film industry). One of the most multicultural countries in the world, our large cities such as Toronto and Vancouver will soon have more visible minorities than the erstwhile white mainstream population. Immigrants’ on-going contribution to our cultural fabric should be seen in the context of our multiple and shifting identities. Cultural hybridity is alive and well.

Canadians have tended to define themselves by what we are not. The result is an amorphous, low key entity that resembles McLuhan’s notion of a cool medium, poorly defined, and encouraging us to fill in the gaps. McLuhan also noted: “The calculated ambivalence of Canadians is the most efficient way of maintaining a low profile, as a receptive ground for other people’s fantasies.”

Our semi-detached relationship with the United States has also encouraged an amazing comedy industry. There is intellectual substance here for a postmodern media and cultural theory, one that is playful, fluid and ambiguous. That Canadians read American popular culture ironically may be a collective character flaw but most of us see it as a gift. Seeing American stories on our television sets or up on the silver screen, a Canadian may be heard muttering, “That’s not us, but it’s damn close!”

The segue to Canadian media education is easy. All of our provinces have mandated media education in the curriculum, compared with only a dozen or so of the US states. The launching of media education in Canada came about for two major reasons: 1) our critical concerns about the pervasiveness of American popular culture and 2) our system of education across the country which fostered the necessary contexts for new educational paradigms.


In Canada in the late 1960’s the first wave of media education began under the banner of “screen education”. CASE (Canadian Association for Screen Education) sponsored the first large gathering of media teachers in 1969 at Toronto’s York University. As a result of budget cuts and the general back-to-the-basics philosophy, this first wave crashed in the early seventies. But by 2000 there was new growth in elementary and secondary school media education as media education became a mandated part of the English Language Arts curriculum across Canada.

Canada’s ten provinces and three northern territories are each responsible for their own education system.

Western Canada: British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, The Yukon and the North West Territories

In 1991, a group of educators and media professionals met in Vancouver to form the Canadian Association for Media Education (CAME). Their objectives are to educate Canadians about the media, to promote media education and to encourage Canadian cultural expression in the media. CAME sponsored its first provincial conference in February 2000.

In 1996, British Columbia was the first western provinces to put into effect the new Language Arts Curriculum. Media education is represented in two ways. First, media education is mandated in all Language Arts courses from K-12 as one third of the material taught. Second, media education is part of the Integrated Resource Package (IRP) which is cross curricular in all subjects from K-12.

British Columbia has still to develop the resources to put into effect these changes. There is a major need to address the question of teacher training in media education. This is true of every province.

Since the early 60s Media Education in Alberta schools has been recognized by a few teachers. But it was not until 1981 that a Viewing Strand was recognized as one of the strands (Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening) of the English Language Arts Program, Grades 1 to 12.

Since 1993, AAMA has continued to promote media awareness and to organize workshops each year, but the level of activity has been modest due to significant local, provincial and federal government financial and human cutbacks. An AAMA achievement has been to provide continuing critical and developmental input to the Western Canada Protocol (WCP) Curriculum Framework for the development of English Language Arts through the Alberta Department of Education representatives. This has resulted in major changes to the Alberta Department of Education revised English/Language Arts
curriculum Grades K – 12 including: significant emphasis on mandatory Media Education and, for the first time, the use of the term “media text”.

In Saskatchewan, Media Education is a part of the common essential Learnings and one of the supporting domains of the basic Language Arts structure. In core-content English courses, media studies are now required: video in Grade 10, radio in Grade 11, and print journalism in Grade 12.

Saskatchewan Education has mandated three options for Grade 11 English besides the required credits in English: Media Studies, Journalism, and Creative Writing. There is enthusiasm and a realistic attitude about ongoing updating of media studies resources by teachers but there is a great need for formal teacher training.

Manitoba’s new language arts curriculum has a mandated elements of media education under the title of viewing and representing. The Manitoba Association for Media Literacy (MAML), founded in 1990, aims at assisting individuals to examine the role of the media in society. MAML sponsors presentations and workshops; assists in the development of media education programs for Manitoba schools; and provides in-service opportunities.

Atlantic Canada – Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, The Yukon, The North West Territories

The Yukon and the North West Territories are members of the Western Consortium. As such they are developing media education components of their Language Arts Programs. Some teachers in these places are working on their own to introduce media education into their courses.

In 1995 an Atlantic provinces initiative – similar to the Language Arts Consortium in Western Canada – developed a common Language Arts curriculum in which media education figures prominently . The documents state that media education is a critical element of the Language Arts curriculum and make it part of every English course The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design Education Department has built into their courses components which raise the issue of media education. Summer courses have been offered by Mount St. Vincent in media education.

In New Brunswick, a media education course has been an option for some graduating students since 1990. In 1992, the provincial Department of Education began to allocate resources and curriculum suggestions for those teaching the Grade 12 course. Where the teaching staff is not available, or the enrollment of students prohibitively small to offer the course, the Department of Education offers Media Studies 12-0 as an on-line option.

When the Atlantic Provinces common curriculum was established, teachers of Language Arts at all grade levels in New Brunswick were encouraged to include some form of media literacy skills in at least one third of their classes. Likewise, the common curriculum promotes some form of media teaching in Social Studies courses.

The Department of Education has included media literacy courses in its summer Professional Development courses for the past two years. The University of New Brunswick is now offering a course in teaching media literacy applicable to either undergraduate prospective teachers and to more experienced teachers.

Central Canada – Quebec and Ontario

Over half of Canada’s population lives in Ontario and Quebec. Quebec’s Ministry of Education has developed a reformed curriculum that was implemented in elementary and secondary schools by 1999. Media education will be taught in a cross curricular pedagogical plan so that it is a basic skill and competence.

Ontario, where over one third of Canada’s population lives, was the first educational jurisdiction in North America to make media education a mandatory part of the curriculum. In 1987 Ontario’s Ministry of Education released new guidelines that emphasized the importance of teaching media education as part of the regular English curriculum.

In 1995, the Ontario Ministry of Education outlined what students are expected to know and when they are expected to know it. From Grades 1 through to 9 in Language Arts there are required strands – Listening and Speaking, Reading, Writing, Viewing and Representation. Further revisions to Ontario’s Language Arts curricula in 1998 ensured that media education is a required part of the curricula in both the elementary and secondary panel from Grades 1 through to 12.

One group above all is responsible for the continuing successful development of media education in Ontario. There were seventy people at the Association for Media Literacy’s (AML) founding meeting in Toronto in 1978. By the end of the 1980’s, the AML had over 1000 members and a track record of distinguished achievements.

In 1986, the Ontario Ministry of Education and the Ontario Teachers’ Federation invited ten AML members to prepare a Media Education Resource Guide for teachers. The 232-page guide is used in many English speaking countries and has been translated into French, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish.

Prior to the release of the Resource Guide, the Ministry seconded the AML authors to give a series of in-service training days to teachers across Ontario. Since 1987, AML members have presented workshops across Canada, and in Australia, Japan, Europe, Latin America and the United States.

The Ontario Resource Guide describes media education as being concerned “with the process of understanding and using the mass media. It is also concerned with helping students develop an informed and critical understanding of the nature of the mass media, the techniques used by them, and the impact of these techniques. . . Media education also aims to provide students with the ability to create media products.”

In 1989, the AML held an invitational think tank to discuss future developments of media education in Ontario. This led to two successful international media education conferences at the University of Guelph in 1990 and 1992. Each conference attracted over 500 participants from around the world.

In 1992, representatives from Canadian provincial media education groups met in Toronto to form the Canadian Association of Media Education Organizations (CAMEO). The purpose of the group is to promote media education across Canada and link together Canadian media education organizations.

The AML was one of the organizers of the very successful Summit2000: Children, Youth and The Media – an international conference held in Toronto in May, 2000. For the 1,500 delegates from 55 countries, Summit2000 was a unique opportunity for those who use and teach about the media to meet and talk with those who produce and distribute it.


Canadian teachers are, like most informed media educators, participating in an eclectic circus. We are enthusiastic pragmatists, selecting from a rich menu of critical, cultural, and educational theories and filtering them for classroom use. Because of the small number of trained teachers, the majority use only snippets from a variety of sources: a few quotes from McLuhan, English studies, a diatribe from Neil Postman, a bit of Noam Chomsky, and the rest culled from resource guides, mass media text books, articles, television documentaries and news programs.

As a generalization, there seems to be a world wide consensus about contextualizing media education within the frameworks of the British inspired ‘cultural studies,’ an Interdisciplinary approach to the construction of knowledge which problematizes texts and foregrounds representations of gender, race and class. The critical premises behind our resource guide (strongly influenced at the time by UK media educator Len Masterman) and our media textbooks – the majority written by the AML Executive – are compatible with comparable material emanating from Australia and the UK. Of paramount importance is the influence of the discourses that are attached to the subjects that teachers are trained in, in most cases English.

Audience study has foregrounded the importance of the pleasures of the text. It has helped us conceive of viewers as social subjects with multiple subjectivities. Similarly, texts are now seen as being polysemic – they convey many meanings and hence elicit many different readings

Audience study can lead us to learn about interpretive communities – Electronic Bulletin Boards on North American television programs, web sites containing information and gossip on daytime soaps, The X-Files, The Simpsons, etc.

When teachers examine their students’ cultural practices through knowledge of audience theory, they can not help but change the dynamics of their classrooms. The emphasis on finding out what the students already know about media and how they make sense of it should be the starting points for all media teachers. The work of UK media educator David Buckingham and his colleagues have contributed significantly.

Media and globalization

The increasing trend towards globalization of culture has been fueled in part by transnational media corporations and recent mergers. These trends suggest some important theoretical and practical challenges to our notions of cultural sovereignty and democratic citizenship.

Critical marketing and neo – conservatism

Educationally, the right wing conservative governments in several Canadian provinces are fearful of critical thinking practices, cultural criticism and knowledge of the formation of values and ideology. Media educators need to have informed perspectives on our right to democratic access to information, especially that which is constructed by governments and corporations. In 1994, Len Masterman recommended a new paradigm for media education: teaching critical marketing.

Media education and digital literacy

The new and converging communication technologies have left many media educators behind as the computer and technology departments in our schools have tended to dominate the discourses of technology. Educators and technocrats tend to resort to our old paradigms of thinking borrowed from traditional media thereby blinding them to new possibilities. As Marshall McLuhan reminds us, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the?future. The key concepts of media are certainly quite relevant to the digital technologies and the new literacies.


There are several approaches and roles for media education in Canadian classrooms. One of these is an ontological function in which students’ relationship with fantasy, reality, one another, and the world, can be sorted out.

Media education can also serve to enhance consumer awareness. Through an understanding of marketing concepts such as psychographics, demographics and market share, students can come to an understanding of the role that the mass media play in their lives and their roles in the socioeconomic system.

Another perspective served by media education deals with citizenship, particularly as it compares to consumerism. Students can consider the roles of citizenship and how understanding media messages can help them be more effective citizens.

A cultural perspective to media messages can be especially powerful. Considering issues of Canadian identity and American identity can further students’ understanding of who they are and how they fit into their local and global communities.

Whichever approaches are taken, authenticity is the key to relevant learning. Authenticity means that the media texts studied have interest and relevance in the students’ lives.

Classroom Practices

There are four main ways of approaching media education in the classroom. Whichever is pursued, the deconstruct/construct continuum is always useful.

1: Medium-based approach

Here the characteristics, strengths and weaknesses of a particular medium are focused upon. This may begin with a naming of parts, in which the parts of a newspaper and a newspaper page are identified and labeled.

2: Theme-based approach

A theme-based study involves several media. An issue – such as gender representation – can be identified and examined in terms of how it is communicated in a variety of media.

3: Stand-Alone approach

For many teachers, a media studies unit is a stand-alone unit within an English course. This means that they will choose a genre or theme and study it exclusively for up to two weeks.

4: Integrated Units

Integrating media studies into other classroom activities can be beneficial for creating some of the most authentic study, and also connecting the newer media, such as television or the World Wide Web, to older forms of communication, such as print or speech.

Sensitive Issues

Media education can be especially useful in helping students and teachers make sense of sensitive issues such as representation, sexuality, and violence. As the dynamic roles of males and females change in the evolving concept of the family, media representation provides an excellent springboard for discussion and analysis. Discussions around the representation of ethnic groups are especially useful for students trying to understand these issues and their own role in Canadian life. By comparing the media representations with the values honored in their homes and classrooms, they can make sense of these issues.


As in all curricula, assessment is a key component for implementation and authentication. AML’s Chris Worsnop has made media assessment an ongoing theme of his study and writing. His book, Assessing Media Learning (Wright Communications), is helping many teachers understand authentic media assessment.


At the classroom level, the implementation of media education skills has been uneven from school to school and District to District. Some school boards have established media education as a priority and have supported it with ongoing in-service and the appointment of media consultants. Other school boards have left implementation to the individual teacher.

The dedication of the individual teacher greatly influences the extent and quality of media education in the classroom. Associations such as Ontario’s AML continue to be the strongest ongoing supports for teachers pursuing additional expertise and ideas in media education.


There are a number of excellent media education texts written by Canadians since 1987. The more recent ones include the second edition of Mass Media and Popular Culture (Harcourt Brace, Canada, 1996) by Barry Duncan et al. and Media Sense (Harcourt Brace, Canada, 1998) by David Booth et al, which is in three parts – one for each of Grades 4, 5, and 6.

There have been several innovative ways of dealing with problems caused by copyright restrictions. The Media Awareness Network ( was formed to become a clearinghouse for
educational resources. The Network has become extremely successful. As well as a large database of sample teaching materials from many sources, both Canadian and international, the network has also developed some of its own resources, especially for helping children become media wise on the Internet.

Scanning Television (Harcourt Brace, Canada) consists of forty short videos, mostly documentary, copyright cleared for classroom use. The collection was designed mostly for secondary classrooms, and deals with all of the key media education issues identified in the Media Literacy Resource Guide.

Although much younger than its American cousin, Canada’s Cable in the Classroom provides a very useful resource for teachers from its 35 cable network participants. Each Cable in the Classroom program has been copyright-cleared for classroom use for at least one year from the date of original broadcast. Teachers are welcome to tape the commercial-free shows, usually in the early morning, and screen them for their students on as as-needed basis. Many of the broadcasts are accompanied by teachers’ guides, often posted on the Internet. Because Media Literacy is mandated across Canada, there is a strong commitment on the part of some Cable in the Classroom participants to media-related programming, knowing that their programs will see utilization across the country.

CHUM Television, which operates a number of national specialty channels, works closely with media education. CHUM is the first network to appoint a vice president of media education – Sarah Crawford.

CHUM’s music channel – MuchMusic – provides programs each month dealing with media education issues. These programs combine music and social or marketing issues. Such a combination makes the programs highly attractive to adolescents, a further bonus for teachers looking for authentic texts. Recent programs have dealt with the impact of HIV on the families of victims, the sponsorship of musicians and concerts by cigarette and beer companies, and sexism and violence in music videos.

Bravo!, Canada’s new style arts channel, also owned by CHUM Television, has offered since 1997, Scanning the Movies. Created and hosted by John J. Pungente, SJ, the show examines a first-run theatrical feature each month, and provides a study guide on the Bravo! website ( Designed for both teachers and parents, the study guides facilitate deeper understanding of movies.


A study of media education around the world shows nine factors which appear crucial to the successful development of media education.

  1. Media literacy, like other innovative programs, must be a grassroots movement and teachers need to take a major initiative in lobbying for this.
  2. Educational authorities must give clear support to such programs by mandating the teaching of media education within the curriculum, establishing guidelines and resource books, and by ensuring curricula are developed and materials are available.
  3. Faculties of Education must hire staff capable of training future teachers in this area. There should also be academic support from tertiary institutions in the writing of curricula and in sustained consultation.
  4. In-service training at the school district level must be an integral part of program implementation.
  5. School districts need consultants who have expertise in media literacy and who will establish communication networks.
  6. Suitable textbooks and audio-visual material which are relevant to the country/area must be available.
  7. A support organization must be established for the purposes of workshops, conferences, dissemination of newsletters and the development of curriculum units. Such a professional organization must cut across school boards and districts to involve a cross section of people interested in media literacy.
  8. There must be appropriate evaluation instruments.
  9. Because media education involves such a diversity of skills and expertise, there must be a collaboration between teachers, parents, researchers and media professionals.

Australia and Britain lead the world in media education. Although Canada has not had the years of experience that these countries have, it is clear that Canada now possesses many of the factors critical to the successful development of media education.



Neil Andersen, Instructional Leader English and Media Studies, Toronto District School Board, author of Media Works, writer of study guides for Scanning Television, Scanning the Movies, MuchMusic programs, and the recent Media Studies K-12 for the Toronto District School Board.

Barry Duncan, past president and founder of Ontario’s Association for Media Literacy, author of Mass Media and Popular Culture, teacher and media education presenter.

John Pungente, SJ, co-author of Finding God in the Dark, More Than Meets the Eye, producer of Scanning Television, producer and host of Scanning the Movies, teacher, president of the Canadian Association of Media Education Organizations (CAMEO).

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  • […] At the very moment when the digital universe offers students access to news and information from hundreds of sources in the US and worldwide, the courses present extremely middle-of-the-road approaches. They are a far cry from the media literacy concepts promoted and taught in what is arguably the birthplace of modern media literacy: Ontario, Canada, where media literacy has been required since 1987. […]

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