OPINION | Kenney should listen to his health experts, not his education experts

There was definitely something troubling about the optics of the Alberta government’s news conference on Thursday at Calgary’s International Airport

For COVID-19 and the curriculum review, it's all about education, writes columnist Graham Thomson

Premier Jason Kenney took questions from UCP members during an hour-long question and answer session at the party's virtual annual general meeting Saturday. (Submitted by United Conservative Party of Alberta)

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read our FAQ.

Call it ironic or odd or surreal.

But there was definitely something troubling about the optics of the Alberta government's news conference on Thursday at Calgary's International Airport. Jobs Minister Doug Schweitzer announced an experimental program that will use testing and monitoring to reduce the self-isolating period for arriving international travellers down to just a few days from the current two weeks.

The idea has merit and is part of the government's push to re-open our pandemic-battered economy.

"Within safe guidelines, we've got to try to let people live normal lives," as Premier Jason Kenney put it.

But ironically or surreally, while Kenney was pushing for a return to normalcy, he had to take part in the news conference by phone. He has tested negative for COVID-19 but is self-isolating at home after coming in contact with someone who tested positive: Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard.

We all want to live normal lives but, as Kenney's phoning-in-from-home news conference underlined, COVID hasn't received the memo.

The government's brush with COVID-19 also raises questions about how seriously government MLAs have been taking the pandemic.

Last weekend, Kenney was criticized for not physically distancing himself from federal Conservative leader Erin O'Toole when they shared the stage at the United Conservative Party's online convention without wearing masks. Kenney testily dismissed the criticism but the two political friends were sitting close enough to play footsie literally, not just figuratively.

Last May, in an apparent wish to return to normal, Kenney repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as "an influenza." However, it is not the flu. It is a novel coronavirus that is more contagious and more deadly than the flu. But less understood. And there is no vaccine for it.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro at a news conference Thursday at the Calgary Airport. Premier Jason Kenney participated in the news conference by phone, as he is self-isolating at home. (CBC)

Despite record numbers of cases this week in Alberta, Kenney is hoping Albertans will get the pandemic under control by taking "personal responsibility" and listening to health experts.

It's all about education.

Curriculum review

On that front, we can be thankful that leading the public education is the province's much-respected chief medical officer, Deena Hinshaw, and not the government's hand-picked experts recommending changes to the K-4 education curriculum.

In a document obtained by CBC reporter Janet French, several advisers recommended a series of changes that would be funny if they weren't so disturbing.

Among them: teach first graders verses from the Bible as examples of poetry; teach fourth graders that most non-white Albertans are Christians; have children learn by rote long lists of names and landmarks; and ignore "sad" topics such as residential schools.

But some curriculum experts, such as Keith Barton at the University of Bloomington, think they are funny, in that they would make the Alberta education system a "laughingstock."

When faced with the leak of the embarrassing internal report, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange did what cabinet ministers have done since the dawn of time: insist it's just a draft document and no decisions have been made or finalized.

"There have been no decisions made, the curriculum is not finalized yet," said LaGrange on Wednesday, adding that the sad story of residential schools will be taught somewhere in K-6.

Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange tells reporters at the legislature the new provincial elementary school curriculum will include residential schools. Documents obtained by CBC show the government received advice to remove those lessons from the early grades. (Olivier Periard/CBC)

On Thursday, Kenney took aim at the critics — or as he prefers to dismissively call them: "people who style themselves as curriculum experts" — by accusing them of supporting the NDP's "ideological" changes to the curriculum.

This long-standing partisan complaint of Kenney's goes back to the 2019 election campaign where he promised to "shred" the NDP's "biased" curriculum. However, when reporters pressed LaGrange in August to give examples of political bias, she could only point to some vague anecdotes.

The former NDP government's curriculum review was massive and involved hundreds of educators including expertise from the Alberta Teachers' Association. The UCP has made a point of avoiding the ATA whenever possible. After seeing the leaked document this week, ATA president Jason Schilling said he had lost confidence in the government's curriculum review:

"It is much more clear now why the government ended the agreement with the ATA last summer to work together on curriculum: teachers would not support this direction for curriculum."

And what are we to make of Kenney's handpicked experts?

One of the "subject matter experts" is Chris Champion, a history writer and former staff member to Kenney when Kenney was an MP in Ottawa. Among Champion's writings is a 2019 article where he said that teaching the perspectives of First Nations was a "fad."

Kenney has defended Champion as "a respected Canadian historian." Critics have pointed out that Champion is not a curriculum expert but he does possess that most valuable quality in a government advisor: he's a friend of Kenney's.

It's a story similar to that of Paul Bunner, Kenney's former speechwriter whose writings included an article calling the residential school system a "bogus genocide."

You have to wonder what Kenney was thinking. As premier, he has made an effort to build bridges to Indigenous people but he has also made a point of hiring friends who have expressed such noxious views.

It's ironic and troubling.