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UCP under fire for K-4 curriculum plans that suggest leaving out residential schools

Click to play video 'Proposed new Alberta social studies curriculum called ‘embarrassing’ and ‘ideological’' Proposed new Alberta social studies curriculum called ‘embarrassing’ and ‘ideological’
A document leaked to the CBC recommends, in part, not teaching elementary students in Alberta about residential schools. Fletcher Kent has reaction to the policy advice. – Oct 21, 2020

Draft documents of the United Conservative Party’s plans for Alberta’s school curriculum faced swift backlash Wednesday from education experts in the province.

The documents, which were obtained by the CBC, were written by advisors and cover extensive plans for what Kindergarten to Grade 4 students in the province could learn in Social Studies if the government puts the plans into place.

Some experts say the plans, if put into practice, would be a step backwards for Alberta, including a suggestion that students not be taught about residential schools.

“This really flattening of a lot of the questions and issues that we have to face today,” Dwayne Donald, an associate professor of education at the University of Alberta said. “A rejection I guess, of the need for us as a society to address those.”

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The document includes a note saying residential school learning should be held off, potentially until Grade 9 “when learners are more mature.”

“Because I studied curriculum, I tend to see curriculum as stories we tell, about the world and our place in it,” Donald said.

“What I see in this document… is a hearkening back to a particular kind of story that’s been told in Canadian schools for many generations.”

However, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said Wednesday, the documents are “just advice,” not a hard plan.

“We are ensuring that the curriculum as we bring it forward to the curriculum group, which is hundreds of teachers,” LaGrange said.

“Advice is advice, it’s not final. And no final decisions have been made.”

LaGrange added the government is “absolutely committed” to truth and reconciliation, and it will keep residential schools in Alberta’s K-6 curriculum.

“There have been no decisions made, the curriculum is not finalized yet,” she said.

Read more: Alberta government new school curriculum focused on ‘evidence, numeracy & literacy’: LaGrange

She said the curriculum advisors who put the document together were all short-term contracts hired by her department. She also said there were “hundreds” of teachers consulted.

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The general public will have access to the full curriculum plans in 2021, according to LaGrange.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney echoed LaGrange’s comments during a news conference on Thursday.

“We want a curriculum that provides key points of knowledge to develop a civic and cultural literacy in social studies, and so, that’s our goal,” he said. “Obviously that curriculum will include substantial content in respect to Indigenious history, including the tragic reality of Indian residential schools in Canada’s past.”

Kenney suggested those who are reacting to the leaked advice aren’t curriculum experts and their experience isn’t equal to the experience of those on the government’s curriculum panel, but assured residents the curriculum would be complete.

“I think the vast majority of people will see it’s providing young Albertans with the knowledge they need to make their own judgments, particularly on historical matters, for example.”

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said she did not believe LaGrange’s comments Wednesday.

“I don’t take the minister at her word,” Hoffman said. “I think she’s proven over and over again she can’t be trusted to keep her word. She chose, as did the premier, to surround themselves with people who would give them this advice.”

‘The truth about our history’

Marlene Poitras, the regional chief of the Alberta Assembly of First Nations, said residential schools are an important part of history that shouldn’t be held back from being taught.

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“That is our history. The truth about our history, and especially in this era of reconciliation, does need to be told,” Poitras said. “I think that the more people are armed with the truth about the information, on what our people have experienced — there would be less systemic racism that’s occurring.

“It should be taught in all elementary schools. When I was a student… we were never taught any of that.”

The chair of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Senator Murray Sinclair, said young children aren’t too emotionally vulnerable to learn about residential schools — and that survivors have shared their stories with young children and there’s no evidence it was damaging.

“There is no situation that has ever occurred that I’m aware of that there has been a complaint that the children are negatively impacted or damaged by the experience,” Sinclair said Wednesday.

“Children take things in at an early age, and I think that’s a good time to teach them about these things,” Poitras said.

“It’s a part of Canada. It’s a part of the country that we live in, that we share.”

The new curriculum is being put together after the UCP put forward a ministerial order in August to introduce a complete overhaul to the provincial curriculum. At the time, LaGrange said that it would be focused on “civic virtues, core knowledge and outcomes students need to succeed in school and throughout life.”

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On Wednesday, NDP Leader Rachel Notley said on Twitter the plans would essentially erase history.

“The UCP want to erase the parts of history they think are ‘too sad’ or ‘a fad,'” Notley said.

“The legacy of residential schools is a dark period in our history, that cannot be ignored if we are to continue down the path of reconciliation.”

The Alberta Teachers’ Association also condemned the plans Wednesday.

“I’m extremely disappointed in what I’ve seen in these documents,” said Jason Schilling, the president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. “To see the removal of these items from a curriculum is very concerning.”

Read more: Alberta NDP, Indigenous leaders renew calls for Kenney to fire speechwriter over 2013 essay

Donald said he believes a plan that excludes less positive parts of Canadian history is “inadequate” for modern children.

“As citizens, as a society, we need a new story,” he said. “The people who have been excluded in the past are continuing to be excluded.”

The ATA said Wednesday’s documents came as a shock, as prior curriculum plans it had been shown did include colonization in Canada and residential school plans.

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“I’m concerned about the transparency around this, and the rationale,” Schilling said. “They need to listen to teachers. I have requested a meeting with the minister to talk about our concerns with curriculum.”

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Education Minister Adriana LaGrange defends back-to-school plan – Sep 15, 2020

The document also outlines a number of ancient histories that would be taught to students in a “memorization” format, including Roman and Chinese dynasties.

Read more: Petition pushes for removal of Edmonton LRT Mural for ‘glorifying’ residential schools

The curriculum plan also suggests completely removing teachings about equity in social studies “because ‘equity’ is probably a politically partisan and charged buzzword.”

“This is not a model for creativity, this is not a model for innovation at all,” Donald said.

“This is a model for discipline and conformity.”

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Read more: UCP approves policy to create private health-care system in Alberta

It also says children will be taught that “most Albertans” of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and FIlipino backgrounds are Christian.

The plan also suggests using poems involving Biblical and First Nations creations verses as part of teachings in the younger grades.

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‘It was the worst years of my life’: Alberta elder opens up about residential schools on Orange Shirt Day – Sep 30, 2016

Schilling says a request he made recently to meet with LaGrange on the government’s current curriculum review efforts was rejected.

–With files from The Canadian Press