ABCs of the oil sands


Who gets to decide what students in kindergarten to Grade 3 learn and what they need to know?

In most places, the answer to that question will include teachers, parents, education experts, child psychologists and community members. In Alberta, that list also includes energy giants Syncrude and Suncor.

Last week, New Democrat MLA Deron Bilous revealed that the two bituminous sands companies were listed by Alberta Education as “key partners” and “stakeholders” in the prototyping phase of Alberta’s ongoing curriculum redesign process. What this means is Syncrude and Suncor will get to play an important part in determining the purpose, parameters, goals and objectives for K-3 education in Alberta. They will also get a direct say in what students should know by the time they finish Grade 3.

When questioned about why these companies were part of the curriculum-redesign process, Alberta’s Minister of Education Jeff Johnson responded, “If we’re going to build a relevant education system, we need the voice of the employer, the business community, economic development—we need those people at the table.”

While Johnson is correct that one of the roles of our education system is to prepare young people for the world of work, it is disturbing that he thinks our K-3 curriculum should be designed in such a way as to meet the needs of Syncrude and Suncor. Is the fear that, were it not for these companies at the table, nobody would think to include numeracy, literacy, social and technological skills in the curriculum? What could they possibly have to offer the curriculum-redesign process that teachers, parents, administrators and community members would not?

There really is no conceivable justification to have these folks at the table. What’s more, their presence can actually do damage.

One of the key functions of any educational system is the socialization of children—the development of critically thinking, community-minded, active citizens. This is done by creating ample space for discovery, questioning and independent thought within the curriculum and the program of studies.

This is not a process of prescribing ideology and world view, but rather a process of providing the knowledge, skills and space for children to independently learn how to reflect their values, beliefs and the critical process.

The problem is that huge energy companies like Syncrude and Suncor do not bring that same passion for questioning and critical thinking to the table. What they bring is a set of goals and objectives guided by a particular ideology. If you doubt that, spend some time looking at the “educational resources” prepared and distributed to elementary schools by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). These aren’t resources designed to create spaces for children to critically examine our current use of and dependence on fossil fuels, nor are they designed to encourage students to come to their own evidence-based conclusions about the costs and benefits of our current oil-based economy.

It is important to remember that Syncrude and Suncor are neither benevolent organizations nor public-interest advocates. They are private profit-driven corporations. Their mandate, as per Canadian law, is the maximization of share-holder profit. As such, it would be incredibly naive to presume their involvement in the curriculum redesign process would be about promoting the public interest or the long-term well-being of young Albertans.

Based on the example provided by the CAPP resources, it seems their interest in education is about ensuring that the next generation provides a compliant workforce and unquestioning supporters of the political and economic status quo—a population that won’t encourage slowing down or stopping bitumen production, increasing oil and gas royalties or demand free, prior and informed consent by First Nation communities before drilling is allowed on their land.

Alberta Education’s curriculum redesign process comes from a positive place and has the potential to do incredibly good things for the future of teaching, learning and assessment in the province. But the decision to include bitumen companies as key partners in its development risks completely undermining that potential and compromising the entire process.

The corporate interests of the oil and gas industry already guide almost every policy and decision this government makes, but inviting them to determine how our children are educated is a step too far, even for Alberta. V

Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta. The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute.

1 Comment

  • Is it wise or fundementally ethical for oil companies (or any private enterprise), to have any influence over the curriculum of our education system, or am I so painfully naive and ideallistic to not realize that schools are no more than prolitariat incubaters?

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