'Offensive' online test about Indigenous Canadians symptom of larger problem in Alberta schools, say advocates

Advocates say outdated and offensive beliefs about Indigenous Canadians are still taught in the Alberta curriculum.

Areas of social studies curriculum still "very archaic,' says co-founder of an Indigenous youth coalition

Critics say this multiple-choice question from a classroom test is just one example of a bigger problem. (Facebook/Jody Whiskeyjack)

Offensive material about Indigenous Canadians in an online Alberta social studies test is a symptom of a larger problem, say advocates.

Nigel Robinson, co-founder of the Global Indigenous Youth Coalition in Edmonton, said he wasn't shocked because "outdated, offensive beliefs" about Indigenous people in educational material is "fairly typical."

"You'll see areas of the social studies curriculum that still is very archaic in the way it describes Indigenous people, in the way it describes how we have contributed to Canadian civilization and society," said Robinson. "A lot of it can be very troubling and needs to be unpacked still."

A multiple-choice test question made public Thursday on social media by a student, asked about the "positive effect" of residential schools.

Students could choose from four possible answers such as "children were away" from home and "children became civilized."

A photo of the question was posted to social media by an offended student from the St. Paul Alternative Education Centre, sparking swift apologies from the province and school officials amid condemnation from critics.

Alberta Education Minister David Eggen, the St. Paul Education Regional Division and the Alberta Distance Learning Centre (ADLC), which was responsible for the material, have all apologized. ADLC and the department of education say they both plan to review course material used by the learning centre.

But advocates say the incident is just one example of a much bigger problem.

Advocate Nigel Robinson says he still hears from Edmonton youth exposed to offensive Indigenous curriculum. (Hafsa Abdulle/Supplied)

Robinson, 28, who used to go to school in St. Paul, recalled problematic ways Indigenous people were described in his social studies curriculum. But he still hears similar troubling stories from youths he works with, he said.

When students read those troubling perspectives, they can start to believe is factual, he said.

"And to take that on as a reality, that can be very negative," said Robinson.

Robinson said outdated material about Indigenous people, as they are portrayed in curriculum for the English Language Learners program for newcomers, can also lead to negative views.

'Underpinnings of racism'

Angela Wolfe, associate director of the University of Alberta's Aboriginal Teacher Education Program, agreed that the problem highlighted by the online test question is not new. In fact it reflects views that are decades old, something highlighted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's calls to action, she said.

"Why are we still asking these kinds of questions, and asking these questions in high school?" Wolfe asked, noting it is important to acknowledge that "there is underpinnings of racism and subscription to stereotype" in Alberta.

'It is not on the way out. It is still current," she added..

Eggen said the online test incident reinforced the need for a review of the curriculum, currently underway in the province. 

"It also is I think an indication that we have still more work to do around education, not just for kids but for teachers and more senior officials as well," said Eggen. "To not allow this kind of thing to slip through."

He added: "We will be investigating every aspect of this to ensure that our history properly reflects the respect and sense of equality and justice that we want here in this province, and to make sure its an accurate reflection of the shameful history of residential schools that we wish to overcome through education, not ignorance." 

Robinson said he hopes a revamped curriculum will include "Indigenous perspective and not just settler perspective on Indigenous contributions to Canada."


Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and justice. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca

With files from Kory Siegers, Terry Reith, Raffy Boudjikanian