Alberta government adds 8 new advisers to help shape revamped school curriculum

The Alberta government has appointed eight new advisers, including a former Jason Kenney staffer, to shape a revamped school curriculum.

Education minister promised to deliver a 'curriculum that is taught without political bias'

Alberta's Education Minister Adriana LaGrange has brought eight new curriculum advisers in to review subject-specific material - including a controversial pick for social studies. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

The Alberta government has appointed eight new advisers to shape a revamped curriculum for K-12 schools.

One of the advisers was a staffer for Premier Jason Kenney when Kenney was a federal cabinet minister.

The government has contracted the subject matter experts to provide advice for at least two months, according to Colin Aitchison, press secretary to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.

After the minister last week approved a new vision for student learning, work is expected to resume on the elementary school curriculum, which is supposed to be tested in classrooms starting in fall 2021. Work has been paused since the United Conservative Party was elected in April 2019.

The eight new advisers are in addition to 358 teachers and other experts already serving on eight curriculum working groups assembled by the former NDP government.

Aitchison said the additional advisers are necessary because voters told UCP candidates during the 2019 election the "NDP's curriculum process was clearly not working."

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Last week, LaGrange promised to deliver a "curriculum that is taught without political bias."

Critics say the government's choice of C. P. (Chris) Champion as a social studies adviser does exactly the opposite.

The author and visiting research fellow at Queen's University worked for the federal Opposition Conservatives for six years and then served as an adviser to Kenney from 2007 to 2015.

He also founded, and still edits, the history publication The Dorchester Review.

An authorless piece published in the review's first edition and republished online earlier this year, critiques history curriculum introduced by "left" governments.

The piece criticizes an Australian history curriculum for being "light on facts and heavy with guilt about aboriginals and immigrants."

The piece also says, "Here in Canada the preoccupation with victimhood has mostly centred on Japanese Canadians and residential school 'survivors.' "

Champion did not respond to messages from CBC News on Tuesday or Wednesday. Aitchison said Champion did not write the article, and the review publishes a diversity of opinions.

Past curriculum working group member Lindsay Gibson said Champion's appointment raises questions about the government's stated intent to include a greater diversity of perspectives in Alberta's curriculum. Gibson is now an assistant professor in the University of British Columbia's department of curriculum and pedagogy.

"By air quoting survivors, like, you're doubting that they're survivors? You're doubting that it was that bad?" Gibson said of the piece's reference to residential schools.

For decades, governments took Indigenous children from their homes and sent them to attend residential schools, where they were separated from their families, forced to speak English, and in many cases, suffered physical, sexual and verbal abuse.

A man in a dark suit speaks in front of microphones.
When campaigning to lead the conservatives in Alberta, and in Opposition, now-Premier Jason Kenney pledged to pause the NDP government's curriculum review and vowed that if any ideology was smuggled into the curriculum, he would put it through the shredder. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Gibson said a broader movement of people pushing for a "back to basics" approach to teaching history is out of sync with current research about how children learn best.

NDP MLA Janis Irwin, a former curriculum writer and supervisor with Alberta Education, said Champion's inclusion sends a poor message to people of colour looking to see themselves included in classroom lessons.

"It's concerning that he would publish something that has such harmful and racist views," she said.

Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on governments to make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, treaties and Indigenous people's history mandatory in Canada.

"When the minister is talking about bias in the curriculum, that is clear evidence of bias," he said of the Dorchester Review piece.

It is contradictory for the UCP government to accuse the previous government of smuggling ideology into the new curriculum, then appoint an adviser with political ties to the premier, he said.

Gibson accused the government of engaging in a "a high-level game of gaslighting" by complaining the NDP government had worked on curriculum review "in secret," then quietly appointing advisers with unclear roles.

"Does that mean at the end of the process it gets created, and they go into a dark room and just cross out things and add whatever they want?" he said.

He said aside from two education professors from the University of Alberta, the other advisers have no obvious experience in how to teach children. That's a big knowledge gap when reviewing curriculum, Gibson said.

Irwin noted the lack of female advisers.

Advisers will provide guidance, not write curriculum

Aitchison said the advisers will not provide prescriptive feedback, but recommendations to curriculum writers.

Their pay will be based on how many hours they work, he said, and will come from the existing $64-million, multi-year budget for revamping the K-12 curriculum in both English and French.

Although Champion has previously held political posts, he is now a member of the Canadian Armed Forces and an "established academic" and lecturer, Aitchison said.

"All of our advisers are providing unbiased advice based on their subject-matter expertise, and they were selected due to their experience in their fields of research," he said.

The advisers are:

  • George Georgiou, University of Alberta professor of educational psychology — literacy
  • David Chorney, associate professor of education, University of Alberta — wellness
  • Vladimir Troitsky, University of Alberta math professor — math
  • Chris Champion, visiting research fellow at Queen's University and author — social studies
  • William French, lawyer, translator and board member of The Shakespeare Company in Calgary — arts and literature
  • Cameron Macdonell, associate professor of computer science, MacEwan University — science
  • Marvin Washington, professor, Alberta School of Business, University of Alberta — diversity and pluralism
  • Onookome Okome, English professor, University of Alberta — diversity and pluralism

Aitchison said the department is also searching for advisers who are Indigenous and francophone.

The curriculum working groups will resume meeting this fall, Aitchison said. The members include 19 government employees, 41 seconded teachers, 10 Northwest Territories representatives, three Nunavut representatives, 11 Indigenous teachers, 16 francophone teachers, 25 academics, 145 public school teachers, 61 Catholic school teachers, seven charter school teachers and two private school teachers. The Northwest Territories and Nunavut use Alberta curriculum and exams.

Curriculum reform began about a decade ago under the former Progressive Conservative government.

In 2016, the former NDP government pledged to replace the entire K-12 curriculum within six years.

Unlike the current curriculum, which is a patchwork of subjects written at different times for different grades, the new curriculum is supposed to be more co-ordinated and include outcomes linked to literacy and numeracy throughout.