Indigenous leaders, elder feel used by Alberta government tactics to bolster new curriculum

Some Alberta Indigenous leaders and an elder say the Alberta government manipulated them to endorse a new elementary school curriculum they do not support.

Chief withdraws his endorsement of K-6 drafts, says he feels like a 'token Indian'

Lubicon Lake Chief and Treaty Eight Grand Chief of education Billy-Joe Laboucan spoke in favour of the UCP government's new curriculum drafts at its March 29 news conference but says he had only seen a brief summary at the time. (CBC News)

Some Alberta Indigenous leaders and an elder say the provincial government has used them or misrepresented their positions to gain endorsements for a new elementary school curriculum they do not support.  

On March 29, as Education Minister Adriana LaGrange released proposed drafts of a new curriculum in every subject, in English and French, Lubicon Lake Chief Billy-Joe Laboucan was invited to speak.

Before the news conference, Laboucan had seen only a page-and-a-half summary of how the curriculum would include First Nations, Inuit and Métis history and contributions.

"I have reviewed the K-6 curriculum draft and I very much support it and see it as a really good start," he said at the time.

But when he later saw the hundreds of pages in the actual draft curriculum, his perspective changed.

Revisit the draft

"I felt betrayed, because, I mean, they sought my advice, and I said yes. And I was a bit misconstrued," he said in an interview last month. "It made me look like the token Indian."

Successive provincial governments have been trying to modernize the curriculum for a decade.

Laboucan said the United Conservative Party's draft has regressed not only from the former NDP government's proposed draft but from the curriculum currently in use.

The drafts propose students begin learning about treaties in Grade 4 and residential schools in Grade 5. That's too late, says Laboucan, who is also the Grand Chief of education for Treaty Eight, in northern Alberta.

Last month, the Sovereign Nations of Treaty Eight wrote to Premier Jason Kenney telling him to revisit the draft curriculum. The letter, co-signed by Laboucan, says the "glaring absence" of First Nations people from the writing process is "deeply offensive."

Adviser says process a 'slap in the face'

After facing criticism last year for initially hiring a slate of all-male, mostly white curriculum advisers, the Alberta government asked five Indigenous elders to review the material and provide feedback.

One was Betty Letendre, a Métis residential school survivor who has worked for years with Edmonton schools to help teach students about Indigenous history and culture.

Betty Letendre, a Métis residential school survivor, has worked with Edmonton schools to help teach students about Indigenous history and culture. (Supplied by Betty Letendre)

She said the government on multiple occasions handed the group of mostly senior citizens hundreds of pages of documents and gave them one day, or a few days, to respond. They weren't allowed to consult any other experts and the conditions were inadequate for providing meaningful feedback, she said. 

She feels the government took advantage of her position and identity.

"You thought you were going to get … tokenized people to agree and to be the 'yes' people to this curriculum, and that's just like a slap in the face. Because we are not tokens," she said.

LaGrange has said in the legislature that all of Letendre's feedback was included in the drafts. Letendre disputes this, and says mentions of Indigenous people and history appear as an afterthought.

Validator hasn't seen curriculum documents

A standard government response when criticisms are levelled against the draft curriculum's Indigenous perspectives is to share a written quote attributed to Wilton Littlechild, a former Truth and Reconciliation commissioner.

The quote lauds the Alberta government for being first in the country to promise mandatory treaty and residential school curriculum — a commitment made by the former Progressive Conservative government. 

"I am honoured to be a validator of the new education curriculum and look forward to its transforming and positive change," said Littlechild's statement in the March 29 news release.

Littlechild told CBC that he had not yet seen the draft curriculum and can't comment on it until he has a chance to review it.

After the Métis Nation of Alberta called for a curriculum rewrite due to "monumental concerns about the Euro-American colonial undertones," LaGrange said the nation's education affiliate, the Rupertsland Institute, had been consulted on the drafts.

Lisa Cruickshank, director of Métis education and lifelong learning at the institute, noted that consultation is a "loaded term nowadays" and said the institute wasn't as involved as it wanted to be.

The drafts are incomplete and contain inaccuracies, such as mixed-up terminology and incomplete information about Métis scrip, she said. 

Treaty Six Grand Chief Vernon Watchmaker said the government needs endorsement from Alberta treaty leaders who are familiar with the draft curricultum. (Submitted by Vernon Watchmaker)

She worries that Métis people will be upset and disappointed if they are under the impression the institute supports the drafts.

It was only when their concerns became public that Alberta Education agreed to meet, she said.

Who speaks for First Nations?

Treaty Six Grand Chief Vernon Watchmaker said the government needs to seek informed endorsement from Alberta's treaty leaders.

Treaty leaders have also written to the government to share their concerns and disappointment. First Nations don't have to use the Alberta curriculum in schools they operate, such as ones on reserves, and they may look at alternatives, he said.

But that won't help students in provincial schools, Indigenous or not, learn accurate history about Alberta's original inhabitants, he said.

Ideally, the government will invite educators from Treaty Six to help improve the drafts' First Nations content for all students, Watchmaker said.

Laboucan said Treaty Eight schools will also look at accelerating the timeline for developing their own social studies curriculum to avoid using the province's.

Education Minster Adriana LaGrange's spokesperson says further consultation is ongoing with Indigenous individuals and groups about the draft school curriculum. (Sam Martin/CBC)

In a written statement earlier this month, LaGrange's office did not directly answer questions about whether the government's engagement with Indigenous people was superficial.

Acting press secretary Charlotte Taillon said Indigenous subject matter experts, including Letendre, were engaged for four months in 2020 and again in March 2021. She said First Nations, Métis and Inuit content will be taught in every subject and in every grade.

She called the draft a work in progress, and that Alberta Education employees would meet with some Indigenous organizations and individuals to discuss the curriculum.

"We're looking forward to working together to ensure students are learning a modern curriculum," the statement said.


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.