Pamela Roach is an Assistant Professor in the departments of Family Medicine and Community Health Sciences at the University of Calgary.
As a Métis Assistant Professor and postsecondary educator who develops, delivers, and evaluates curriculum for higher education in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, I cannot stress enough the importance of developing children’s critical thinking and understanding of human rights through K-12 education. And I can tell you that there are many reasons to be concerned about the development and content of the draft K-6 curriculum recently released by the Alberta government.
Having attended Alberta school systems throughout Treaty 6 and Treaty 7 regions in the 1980s and 1990s, I have lived experience and insight into previous Alberta elementary curricula. Having just endured one of the most anxiety-provoking and stressful years as they tried to educate children safely with limited resources during the COVID-19 pandemic, educators, school administrators and staff are now faced with the added pressure of thinking of how they might have to implement a harmful curriculum with their students. Trying to do so will create ethical dilemmas and moral injury for teachers. While the draft curriculum as a whole is developmentally inappropriate, my critique here focuses on the draft Social Studies curriculum as one of the more problematic subjects that also does not consider the fact that there will be Indigenous students and staff in classrooms across the province, who will be expected to engage with the curriculum.
One of the immediate concerns when evaluating the Social Studies curriculum is that, as written, it is Euro-ethnocentric. There are points where the contributions of the western world are stated to be “enduring” and “valuable”, while those terms are not used in reference to Indigenous contributions (historic or contemporary) or other worldviews and cultures. Not only does this reinforce systemic racism, but also deeper, epistemic racism. The National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health describes epistemic racism as a form of racism that privileges certain worldviews over others. The repeated references to Indigenous people in the past tense was particularly noticeable in the Social Studies curriculum at all grade levels. Examples include: “had traditions…”, “lived in societies…”, “had languages…”. These references are harmful and perpetuates ongoing colonialism buy erasing the contemporary experience and presence of Indigenous peoples in Alberta. This creates a worldview that simultaneously validates resource extraction, environmental damage and subjugation and invalidates Indigenous rights, land claims, self-determination and sovereignty, as described by the UN General Assembly.
Very concerning was the lack of inclusion in the draft curriculum of anything about the Indian Residential School systems or Treaties until grade 5. The TRC Calls to Action, and specifically Call to Action 62 in the Education for Reconciliation section calls upon “federal, provincial, and territorial governments, in collaboration with Survivors, Aboriginal peoples, and educators, to make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students.” Additionally, the use of quotation marks around the word Survivors in reference to people who lived through residential schools is damaging, offensive and harmful. The children and grandchildren of Survivors will be sitting in Alberta classrooms across the province; if the draft curriculum is accepted they will have to hear their teachers devalue and minimize their families’ experiences, by not including relevant content at all or using quotation marks when doing so.
The draft curriculum is also exceedingly heteronormative with little mention and, in fact, deliberate exclusion of LGBTQ2S+ perspectives, lived experience, or acknowledgement of the existence of gender diverse people. Excluding gender diverse and LGBTQ2S+ people from the curriculum will not reflect the social fabric of a modern society. There are trans and sexually diverse students in all schools and they need to be able to see healthy versions of themselves represented in the material they are learning. Neglecting to do this causes mental and physical health issues for young people in our educational systems and leads to poor health outcomes later in life.
Finally, as medical educator, I have grave concerns about the impact of this curriculum to Indigenous patient and population health outcomes. Evidence demonstrates real impact to both physical and mental health from experiences of racism that harms individuals. Further to that, one of the strongest predictors of a medical learner’s likelihood to want to practice medicine in Indigenous communities or engage in Indigenous healthcare with positive attitudes has been shown to be their sociopolitical views of Indigenous people formed before entering post-secondary education. Education in K-12 plays a huge part in the formation of these views, and it is the responsibility of the government, as per the TRC Calls to Action to ensure that education prepares our children to participate in healthy societies. There will be long term and very real health impacts on individuals, communities, and the health system if this draft curriculum is piloted and/or implemented in Alberta classrooms.
While this downstream impact won’t be seen for years, the short-term impact will be on parents like me having to explain to my Indigenous children why they are learning racist information in their day-to-day education is immediate and tangible. Our children, educators, families deserve better.