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Books pulled from B.C. district curriculum in what premier calls ‘crazy decision’

Click to play video: 'Classic books quietly pulled from school curriculum in Surrey amid parent complaints'
Classic books quietly pulled from school curriculum in Surrey amid parent complaints
WATCH: In B.C., a school district is facing backlash for removing some classic books from its recommended curriculum, a decision that was quietly made back in November. It's the latest controversy facing Canadian schools over whether to shelve certain books. Catherine Urquhart reports – Mar 2, 2024

The Surrey School District has quietly pulled four books from the reading curriculum for students in Grade 10 and above due to concerns about controversial themes.

In November 2023, a panel of 12 teachers decided to pull the books from the recommended reading curriculum.

The books will still be available in the library and teachers can apply to teach them, but they won’t be part of the recommended reading lists.

The four books are: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and In the Heat of the Night by John Ball.

Ritinder Matthew, the communications officer for the Surrey School District, told Global News on Thursday that the review of these four books began more than a year ago after feedback from parents and others in the community.

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“We received a lot of feedback from families of students not feeling safe in the classroom when these resources were used,” she said.

Using To Kill a Mockingbird as an example, Matthew said the review found the “portrayal of Black characters as one-dimensional, the use of the white saviour trope, the use of ableist language, the use of the N-word, noting it’s normalized in the text and not necessarily used as a slur, but often as another word for Black people. And that’s completely offensive and inappropriate.”

Matthew added that the district is recommending other books to use instead, such as Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Brother by David Chariandy, The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

“They give agency and voice to characters that are from historically racialized, marginalized or underrepresented groups who are in positions of power, strength or resiliency,” Matthew said.

Teachers can still use one of the four books, Matthew said, but they need to do so responsibly as outlined in the district’s policies.

“We’re not in the business of banning books,” Matthew added. “We want to make sure that our classrooms are safe and thoughtful.”

Education Minister Rachna Singh said she will talk with the school district about the move.

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“I know as a parent that this is what I want my children to (do): read the classics as I did, growing up,” Singh said.

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“But at the same time, I want not only my child but other students to be introduced to other authors as well. And that’s why I know school districts make those decisions.”

Click to play video: 'A ‘crazy decision’ to remove certain books from Surrey curriculum says B.C. premier'
A ‘crazy decision’ to remove certain books from Surrey curriculum says B.C. premier

To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book centred around events that took place near Lee’s family home in Alabama in 1936.

It deals with issues of rape and racial inequality along with class and gender.

Of Mice and Men, published in 1937, tells the story of two men during the Great Depression and has been criticized in the past for offensive and racist language.

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, published in 2007, is about a 14-year-old boy growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. It deals with issues of alcohol use, violence, bullying, bulimia and poverty.

In the Heat of the Night, published in 1965, tells the story of a police detective working in South Carolina during the Civil Rights movement. It deals with issues of race and bigotry.

Except for In the Heat of the Night, the other three books are all on the Top 100 Most Banned and Challenged Books: 2010-2019 from the American Library Association.

Alexie’s book tops the list.

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When asked about the books’ removal, Premier David Eby called it a “crazy decision” and that he’d like the board to reconsider.

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“With a single Google search, you can access the most offensive, explicit, racist, awful, extreme content,” Eby said. “With apps on their phones, predators from around the world can reach down to your kid’s phone and take advantage of your child, who is not prepared to respond to that, who hasn’t been given the educational tools to respond to that.

“I think that we all need to focus on the actual threats that are facing our kids.”

BC United Leader Kevin Falcon said the measure seems “unbelievable.”

To Kill a Mockingbird, you know, Of Mice and Men. I mean, these are literary classics that teach important stories about racism and the realities of life at a different time in the early 1900s or during the Depression,” Falcon said.

“We can’t have a situation that seems to be just exploding under this government. I don’t know if it’s ‘wokeism’ gone wild or what’s happening, but we can’t have books like that taken out of the school system. I think it’s wrong.”

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Florian Gassner, an associate professor of teaching in the department of Central, Eastern and Northern European studies at the University of British Columbia, told Global News the move seems like a measured call and teachers might want to use different books that address the same themes.

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“As far as process is concerned, I find it commendable and remarkable that the district came together to set up a process and that they tried to get representation, I assume, from multiple schools, (and) I had to assume, from multiple stakeholders,” he said.

“But it seems that they were very circumspect in this regard. At the same time, it does seem that this was an ad hoc committee, that this is not a process that exists on a larger scale.”

Gassner said there could be other books and reading materials to teach students about race relations and other difficult subjects.

“The question is whether new books have been written in the meantime that can be used as more efficient tools and especially more efficient tools that don’t run the risk of retraumatizing young people.”

Matthew said the decision around the books aligns with the B.C. government’s K-12 Anti-Racism Action Plan.

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