Alberta social studies curriculum adviser calls inclusion of First Nations perspectives a fad

Experts in Indigenous education and racial disparities in schools say the Alberta government’s hiring of controversial historian C. P. (Chris) Champion is troubling.

Chris Champion writes that colonialism exercise brainwashes children

In the blanket exercise, blankets represent land belonging to Indigenous people prior to contact. As the game goes on, the blankets become smaller, with large distances between them. Alberta social studies curriculum adviser Chris Champion said in a 2019 article the exercise brainwashes children to believe they are settlers. (KAIROS Canada/Facebook)

Experts in Indigenous education and racial disparities in schools say the Alberta government's hiring of a controversial curriculum adviser is troubling.

In July, the provincial government hired historian C. P. (Chris) Champion as one of eight subject area experts. Champion will review the social studies drafts of a new kindergarten to Grade 4 curriculum.

In an article published last year on the proposed new curriculum, Champion calls the inclusion of First Nations perspectives in school lessons a fad.

Champion writes that the KAIROS blanket exercise — an activity used to teach participants about the deleterious effects on Indigenous people when Europeans settled in North America — brainwashes children.

"The scientific tradition is that truth is discovered and authenticated," Champion writes in the spring/summer issue of the Dorchester Review, where he is an editor. "By contrast, the 'truth' of Indigenous elders sometimes contradicts the evidence."

Champion also came under fire last week for publishing, and recently republishing, a Dorchester Review opinion piece that casts doubt on the suffering of residential school survivors.

Champion previously worked for Premier Jason Kenney when he was a federal minister as well as the federal Canadian Alliance party.

In the 1990s, Champion also wrote for conservative magazine Alberta Report. He penned an article that suggested victims of school sex abuse scandals and forced sterilization exploited their suffering for financial gain.

He has not responded to interview requests.

The government has said Champion, a visiting research fellow at Queen's University this year, is an established academic who will provide "unbiased advice" based on his expertise.

Curriculum includes references to First Nations, Inuit and Métis knowledge

The existing drafts of the new K-4 curriculum, assembled and released under the former NDP government, include references to Indigenous and francophone knowledge and skill in every subject.

The government removed those drafts from the curriculum website last week. CBC News has copies of the documents.

If approved as previously written, children would learn how First Nations people used the moon, sun and seasons to tell time in math. In science, they would learn how Indigenous peoples categorized plants and animals.

In the draft curriculum, Grade 4 students would examine ways Indigenous people affected change and contributed to the vitality of communities, as well as examine how settlers affected change and contributed to the vitality of communities.

They would also "identify First Nations, Métis, Inuit, francophone, and diverse settler groups in Alberta who have been excluded from or included in decision making."

Kassandra Kitz, acting press secretary for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said the United Conservative Party government believes the curriculum should include more Indigenous perspectives.

"Their views and unique education needs have been captured in the curriculum development work done to date, and that won't change as we move forward," Kitz said in an email.

She said the government is still seeking an adviser with First Nations, Métis and Inuit education expertise. Champion does not hold the pen alone on the social studies curriculum, she said.

Professors say adviser's perspectives problematic

LaGrange has also promised a social studies curriculum that is "taught without political bias."

Indigenous education scholars say the government's hiring of Champion calls that into question.

Rebecca Sockbeson, an associate professor of educational policy studies at the University of Alberta, says Champion's perspective does not align with new teaching quality standards that became requirements last year.

Teachers in Alberta are required to understand and teach about the legacy of residential schools, treaties and governments' relationships with Métis people.

It's not just a matter of political will — governments and schools have a legal obligation to ensure Canadian children are adequately educated in the history of First Nations people, Sockbeson said. Hiring someone who doubts the experiences of residential school survivors is "reckless," she said.

"The earlier that we can introduce to children the truth about Canada's history, the sooner we can account for what has happened and ensure it doesn't ever happen again," she said.

Jonathan Anuik, an associate professor in educational policy studies at the U of A, says Champion's perspective on history education isn't new. For a century, some advocates have been pushing for more traditional, chronological history lessons that ultimately accept European perspectives on North America as gospel, he said.

"If we just teach a common Canadian history to every single student in this province of Alberta, those conflicts will just go away, because everyone will be assimilated," Anuik said, summarizing what they believe. "Everyone will feel proud of the province, proud of Canada, there won't be any more conflict. It's very simplistic."

The alternative is to tackle racism and inequality in classrooms, topics that can make both governments and teachers uncomfortable, he said.

Fellow educational policy studies professor Dia Da Costa said a problematic approach that alienates students is to frame European versions of events as factual and present the experiences of Indigenous people or immigrants as perspectives.

She said research shows students are more engaged when they see themselves reflected in their lessons — an important factor in Alberta, where a quarter of the population identifies as a visible minority.

Disengaged students can lead to adults not meeting their full potential, dropping out of school and other negative outcomes, she said.

"If you're committed to education being the foundation of a competitive economy, we need to ground that growth of the economy in the growth of people in it."

On Tuesday, the Sixties Scoop Indigenous Society of Alberta called on the premier to remove Champion as a curriculum adviser. Society president Adam North Peigan said his appointment perpetuates systemic racism.

"I'm getting very, very frustrated that everything we have tried to do, you know, to raise the issue to the premier of the province of Alberta has basically fallen on deaf ears," North Peigan said. "I don't know what more needs to happen in order for this premier to wake up and smell the coffee."

The premier also came under fire earlier this year for hanging on to his speechwriter, Paul Bunner. Bunner has penned articles critics have called racist, sexist and derogatory to LGBTQ people.


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.