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Alberta’s draft curriculum will make the province a laughingstock

Canadian PoliticsEducation

The United Conservative Party’s new draft K-6 curriculum is plagued with basic errors and out-of-sequence historical narratives. Photo courtesy Jason Kenney/Twitter.

Leaving aside the stomach-clutching hilarity of some parts of the new Alberta draft K-6 curriculum (someone thought kids need to learn about old-time jazz musician Mart Kenney, who just so happens to be the current premier’s grandfather), the social studies section contains some pretty serious errors of fact.

In the summer of 2020, Angus McBeath, chair of the province’s curriculum advisory panel, took pains, at times both rambling and incoherent, to emphasize the importance of “facts” and “sequential history.”

“They should be learning Alberta history, they should be learning Canadian history ‘cause we are part of Canada,” McBeath suggested, “and we should be learning world history. Sequentially.”

For a ministry that has made a big deal out of insisting that ‘facts’ and ‘sequential history’ are important, this draft curriculum is plagued with errors of fact and out-of-sequence narratives.

It comes across instead as a confusing collection of information cobbled together from random Wikipedia entries. But where Wikipedia usually gets its facts straight, this draft curriculum often gets its facts wrong. And where it gets its facts straight, it seems, those facts were literally lifted from Wikipedia.

Consider, for example, one of the grade 4 “learning outcomes.”

“Students examine how fur trade rivalries, early explorations, North West Mounted Police rule, and Treaties led to early settlement and to the transfer of Rupert’s Land to the Dominion of Canada.”

Anyone who studies Canadian history will recognize straightaway problems of both fact and sequence in this learning outcome. For one thing, it is phrased in such a way as to make the transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada seem like it was an orderly, trouble-free real estate deal.

What the learning outcome omits, of course, is Louis Riel’s and his followers’ resistance during the Red River Uprising in 1869-70 to Canada’s efforts at unilaterally walking in and taking the place over.

For another, it’s unclear to me how the Mounties and the treaties could possibly have led to the transfer of Rupert’s Land from the British Crown to Canada.

The transfer, in 1870 (and not 1869 as the curriculum elsewhere asserts), took place before the creation of either the Mounties or the numbered treaties. The arrow of time just doesn’t bend that way.

And the North West Mounted Police didn’t ‘rule’ anything. They were instead a federally-organized militia designed specifically to carry out Canada’s colonization of the northwest.

Further, Rupert’s Land, generally understood as limited to all of the lands whose waters flowed into Hudson’s Bay, was only part of the transfer region.

Any informed curriculum writer ought to know that the actual transfer region also included what was then called the Northwest Territories, including present-day Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, parts of northern Ontario, Québec, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Or, consider another part of the grade 4 curriculum.

“Women, mostly Métis, were present in fur trade country and many intermarried with traders living a la facon du pays (in the fashion of the country).”

Let me get this straight: most of the women in the Northwest were Métis? What happened to all of the Indigenous women who weren’t Métis? Also, the phrase a la facon du pays doesn’t refer to how traders lived; it refers to marriage according to the custom of the country (following the Indigenous practice of marriage).

I could go on (and on and on) picking out errors, but perhaps one more glaring example will do.

The grade 4 draft curriculum suggests that Captain John Palliser’s expedition to the northwest between 1857 and 1860 (and not 1859-1862 as the draft curiously asserts) “awakened people to the existence of a fertile triangle and encouraged agricultural settlement.”

This is the exact opposite of what Palliser’s report on the potential for agricultural settlement in the region actually concluded. Palliser’s Triangle, the report observed, was “desert or semi-desert in character, which can never be expected to become occupied by settlers.”

Of course, as many have already noted, getting kids to memorize random facts, even if they’re correct facts, without giving them any historical context might make them good at rote memorization, but it won’t teach them critical thinking skills. It might well make them hate history to boot.

As others have also identified, the draft social studies curriculum in particular perpetuates out-dated Eurocentric thinking.

The United Conservative Party has already made Alberta a bumbling laughingstock, with its ‘war room’ attacking children’s cartoons, its massive investment in a pipeline to nowhere, its war on doctors and nurses in the middle of a pandemic, its super-secret inquiry meant to expose imagined enemies of Alberta’s oil and gas sector, its unfulfilled promises of jobs and pipelines and prosperity, and its bungled response to the pandemic itself.

Adding in an error-riddled social studies curriculum that would find a nice home in 1950 seems entirely on-brand.

Eric Strikwerda teaches Canadian history at Athabasca University. He is the author of The Wages of Relief: Cities and the Unemployed in Prairie Canada, 1929-1939 (AU Press, 2013). At present he is working on a history of western Canada following Canada’s acquisition of the region in 1870.

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