Alberta is in the throes of a battle over what and how to teach children, where everything is political and the beliefs and sensibilities of the province’s future voters hangs in the balance.
It began in 2016, when the NDP government of the time promised to modernize the curriculum with more diverse cultural perspectives, greater focus on Indigenous history, and inclusion of sexual and gender minorities. Even then, conservative opposition members accused the government of creating an ideologically-motivated curriculum to indoctrinate children. (It’s similar to conservative criticism of schools teaching the 1619 Project.)
In 2019 the United Conservative Party (UCP) took power, and they declared their intention to undo the NDP’s work. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange promised a curriculum “taught without political bias.” In particular, she claimed her government could provide an “objective understanding” of social studies topics like history, geography, and civics.
Now, the CBC has released the “objective” K-4 social studies curriculum, and — surprise! — objectivity is in short supply.
A panel member’s comment on a deleted fourth-grade “equity” lesson from the Civics sector of the curriculum sums up the group’s bias pretty handily:
Equity is probably a politically partisan and charged buzzword. “Equity” sounds good but there is more than one way to understand it. The concept of “fairness” and later “equal opportunity” can be included in Civics. “Equal outcomes” (Utopia) can only be obtained by force, or by imposing injustice on other groups to help one group.
The denigration of “equal outcomes,” paired with an implied assumption that our society has attained equality of opportunity, is a core conservative concept that permeates the entire curriculum as presented in the leaked documents.
The role of colonial history and Indigenous issues is a central sticking point for a lot of critics. The document argues that it’s an inappropriate subject of study, “too disturbing” for children in the K-4 age bracket:
The ugliness of Dickensian schooling, boarding schools, 19th century discipline methods, and Residential schooling that applied to some Indigenous kids can probably be best saved for later when learners are more mature and are less emotionally vulnerable to traumatic material. For example, there could be a Grade 9 unit about benign vs. harsh schooling in the past, inclusive of all cultures not only Indigenous, but with regard to the particular problematic [sic] of Residential schooling even if it applied only to a minority of Indigenous children.
Acknowledged: The history of residential schools is upsetting. That makes the “emotional vulnerability” argument feel persuasive, but educators understand age-appropriate ways to cover potentially painful topics. Ever read a children’s picture book about slavery or the Holocaust? It seems pretty clear that the aim here isn’t to protect children, but to shield them from any criticism of Canada as a nation, even the parts of our history that are rightly called genocidal.
(It’s also worth noting the way the above comment’s unidentified author seeks to minimize the impact of residential schools by broadening it to include all instances of abusive schooling and emphasizing that only “some Indigenous kids” — “a minority” — were involved.)
And just as the curriculum is designed to protect Canadian nationalism, its take on religion subtly elevates Christianity in the guise of “basic philosophical and religious literacy.” Grade One students are expected to learn about the Abrahamic religions:
- Students can name three great religions that worship one God: – Judaism – Christianity – Islam
- All three of these religions came from the Middle East / Near East (Palestine/Judea and Arabia)
- All three are built on the idea that God revealed himself to humans (“revelation”) who have the capacity to discover the truth about Him
- Students can identify their symbols: – Star of David – The Cross – Star & Crescent
- Students know a bit about the stories behind: – Passover – Yom Kippur – Christmas – Easter – Al-Eid – Ramadan
Other religions? Other forms of belief? The possibility of a philosophy without religious belief? It’s simply not mentioned.
And while I understand why a school would gloss over the idea that God will torture a soul for all eternity if it guesses the wrong religion, I’m frankly at a loss to understand how you can explain Easter without it.
But, as with the omission of residential schools to present an unproblematic national narrative, the point here is to promote the prominence of Abrahamic religions (specifically Christianity) and keep other belief systems uncomfortably unfamiliar.
For that reason, any nods at land-based belief systems — which happen to crop up frequently in Indigenous traditions — has been struck out in the revised curriculum. The connection between faith and geography, the idea of land as a cultural teaching tool, and the concept of balance are all integral to understanding why belief systems develop, yet they’ve been dismissed with “sounds like mysticism” and comparisons to Star Wars.
Presented with the idea that land sustains human life — not actually a particularly religious idea, and honestly pretty demonstrably self-evident — a reviewer added this note:
One could equally say “water sustains everything,” or “the fire of the Sun,” or “Oxygen,” or “the Holy Ghost.” All would be true in their way.
It’s actually possible to make very compelling scientific arguments for the first three. The fourth has literally no supporting arguments outside of a specific religious tradition. The idea that these are in any way comparable says more about the curriculum’s creators and editors than about the curriculum itself.
Critics of the government’s curriculum review panel are unsurprised by the current draft, which education professor Carla Peck described as “very much a white, Eurocentric, western history” that’s out of touch with everything we now know about how children learn. Back in August, Peck pointed out that the panel itself failed to represent the diversity they needed to reflect in their work. Never mind including Indigenous or queer representation: the panel failed to even include any women, despite the fact that women make up the majority of teachers.
In that sense, the document is a success: The UCP chose to consult people who would reflect their ideological biases back to them as fact, and the panel delivered.
Dwayne Donald, from the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Education, says the document bodes ill for Alberta’s potential as an inclusive environment for all:
It just seems like the divisiveness is enhanced with this document… The people who have been excluded in the past are continuing to be excluded — their experiences, their understandings, their values.
And Melissa Purcell, staff officer for Indigenous education at the Alberta Teachers Association, goes a step further:
I feel incredibly worried by these recommendations and the impacts for First Nations, Métis and Inuit. It really, truly does feel like we’re turning back the clock and returning to the era of the Indian residential schools in Canada, when the government worked so hard to really work toward assimilation and colonization of the Indigenous people by removing any opportunity to share an Indigenous voice.
Minister LaGrange hastened to assure critics that the document is advisory, not binding, and “no final decisions have been made.” But there’s some very reasonable skepticism about whether her government will bother listening to the criticisms of the very people it excluded from the panel in the first place. Says NDP legislator Sarah Hoffman:
I don’t take the minister at her word. I think she’s proven over and over again that she can’t be trusted to keep her word. And she chose, as did the premier, to surround themselves with people who would give them this advice.
An introduction to the curriculum document emphasizes that the purpose of social science is to give children “building blocks” with which they can construct an understanding of the world around them. This curriculum leaves them building from an incomplete set, and that’s by design.
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