As It Happens

Oilsands assignment prompts Alberta school to cancel dance after parent threatens teacher

The superintendent of an Alberta elementary school is standing by his teachers and staff after parents' angry reactions to a lesson about the oilsands.

Superintendent stands by teacher who had Grade 4 students compare pro- and anti-oilsands videos

Staff at an elementary school in Alberta cancelled a Christmas dance party last Thursday after a parent threatened to confront a teacher on school premises. The parent had expressed anger on social media about a recent lesson on the oilsands. (Seth Perlman/The Associated Press)
Listen6:28

Read Story Transcript

The superintendent of an Alberta elementary school is standing by his teachers and staff after parents' angry reactions to a lesson about the oilsands.

But after a parent threatened to confront a teacher on school premises, administrators at Iron Ridge Intermediate Campus in Blackfalds, Alta., cancelled a Christmas school dance.

"I think it's very, very evident that the teacher was being very balanced and very fair … and really in the spirit of the curriculum, and what's expected of teachers across Alberta teaching a social studies lesson," Jayson Lovell, superintendent of the Wolf Creek School Division, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

According to Lovell, a teacher at Iron Ridge presented his Grade 4 students last week with two videos about the oilsands: one from the Alberta government and one from Greenpeace.

A flare stack lights the sky from the Imperial Oil refinery in Edmonton. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Students then discussed the two videos with the teacher and were asked to write an opinion piece forming their own conclusion on the topic.

Later that day, a parent of one of the students in the class wrote in a Facebook post complaining about the lesson.

"The comment from the parent was very much believing that it was a very biased and one-sided approach from the teacher," said Lovell.

"And then from there it just took off."

School staff were made aware of the post about 24 hours later.

By then, Lovell said, many other parents had weighed in on the post. The discussion "moved, unfortunately, to some direct and indirect threats" to come to the school's upcoming Christmas dance event "and creating a problem at the school."

Other parents, he added, appeared to suggest organizing a protest at the school, or confronting the teacher in greater numbers.

The school called RCMP and under their advisement, cancelled the dance on Thursday morning. They hope to reschedule it for early next year.

"I think it's fair to say that our students and our parents were disappointed," he said.

The parent was issued a ticket by RCMP for violating Alberta's Education Act by disturbing or interrupting the proceedings of a school, police confirmed Tuesday. 

'These are complex issues'

The assignment, Lovell said, was part of a social studies unit with a central question: "How do Albertans deal with competing demands on land use?"

Students discuss conservation, solar and wind power, oil exploration and forestry, among other subjects, as part of the unit, which was originally developed in 2005.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, while he was leader of the official opposition, warned of what he said were efforts to "smuggle" left-wing politics into the classroom by the then-NDP government.

Lovell reiterated his support for his district's teachers and their approach to the curriculum when asked by Off whether he thought they were being pulled into a wider political debate.

"These are complex issues, and I would say our teachers don't shy away from having conversations with students ... and our families and communities ... in a way where we can be respectful, we can understand all sides of an issue, and really engage in a conversation that is going to ultimately lead to a better understanding," he said.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, while he was leader of the official opposition, warned of what he said were efforts to 'smuggle' left-wing politics into the classroom by the then-NDP government. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

But he also expressed disappointment that the debate escalated too quickly before they were able to respond to potential concerns from the parents.

"We really strive, as a school division, to create open opportunities and communication with our families around any aspect of teaching and learning. And I think that in this particular case, it didn't come to us in a way where we had an opportunity to respond."

Perhaps ironically, said Lovell, the school held a special presentation about "responsible use of social media and digital citizenship" for its students on Tuesday. A separate session was held for parents the same evening.

Jayson Lovell, superintendent of the Wolf Creek School Division, says he stands by the teachers at the school following the social media-fuelled controversy. (CBC)

Lovell said he's since spoken to the teacher whose class came under fire, and believes that he wouldn't change his approach to the lesson.

"He feels very strongly that he was adhering to the curriculum as it's currently written, and in the spirit of how to engage students and really have those conversations," he said.

"He feels very strongly about ensuring that his students have that balanced perspective."


Written by Jonathan Ore with files from CBC News. Produced by Jennifer Keene.