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The punchline to the bad joke that's Alberta's new primary school curriculum

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Mart Kenney conducting during a musical performance. Image: Still from "Canada Calling" documentary/NFB

Alberta's new social studies curriculum is pretty obviously a bad joke, but at least it's got an entertaining punch line.

To wit: Mart Kenney.

Curriculum experts and accredited teachers were shocked by the thoroughly politicized draft curriculum document circulated by Education Minister Adriana LaGrande on Monday.

But notwithstanding its ideological bias, cultural chauvinism and amateurish curriculum design, there's not much that can be done about the draft except to start over and do it again, said University of Alberta Education Professor Carla Peck, a literal expert on curriculum writing.

"It cannot be fixed by tweaking," she observed in a useful analysis published on her blog yesterday. "Alberta Education needs to go back to the drawing board to better understand the goals of a social studies curriculum."

That won't happen, but it raises the baleful and expensive possibility that every time a Conservative government is voted out in Alberta, we'll have to tear up the curriculum to get the public education system back on track.

Meanwhile, it was getting Premier Jason Kenney's grandfather, forgotten big band conductor Mart Kenney, into the Grade 6 curriculum's unit on music that struck a sour note.

Without that detail -- probably among the least important changes in the curriculum in terms of actual impact -- it might never have caught the outraged imagination of the public and made ordinary Albertans start paying attention to just how embarrassingly bad this new curriculum is.

This story would have had little traction with low-information voters, the kind the younger Kenney will be depending upon if he hopes to be re-elected in 2023, without such a telling detail. But everyone can understand nepotism, even when it only involves departed relatives.

Somehow shoehorning a politician's talented but almost completely forgotten grandfather into the provincial education curriculum unit rankles when many Canadian jazz greats history has deemed worthy of being remembered were ignored.

Dropping Mart Kenney's long-forgotten name into the curriculum was so tone deaf, you'd almost think the Alberta energy war room had been helping out with curriculum writing!

Writing in Exclaim! -- which bills itself as Canada's Authority on Music, Film and Entertainment -- you could almost hear Alex Hudson snickering as he described how "Kenney has now mandated that Alberta kids will be forced to learn about his grandfather's music."

"When I Get Back to Calgary," the song chosen for the unit, Hudson pointed out, "is sung by Norma Locke -- who just so happens to be Jason Kenney's step-grandmother." He continued, dryly: "Meanwhile, the curriculum omits genre leaders like Duke Ellington, or leading jazz/swing vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra."

The Globe and Mail's Emma Graney strove mightily to insist Mart Kenney had a really big name, as well as a big band, once upon a time in Canadian music. He did, she reminded us, get admitted to the Order of Canada for his high notes.

But unlike Glenn Miller, whose name the curriculum writers used to jazz up the same teaching unit, it wasn't big enough to prevent him from being almost completely forgotten by 2021. The military aircraft carrying the similarly white American big band leader disappeared somewhere over the English Channel on a flight to Paris in December 1944.

Of course, it's possible Premier Kenney didn't demand that old Mart, who died in 2006, be used in the unit, as Hudson suggested. A lot of Albertans, though, obviously feel it can't be ruled out.

Kenney certainly got shirty back on New Year's Eve 2015 with someone tweeted something mean in response to his praise for "a fun song written by my grandmother Norma Locke & recorded by Mart Kenney, When I Get Back to Calgary."

"Unfortunate you feel moved to attack my deceased grandparents on Twitter," huffed Kenney, then still the MP for Calgary Midnapore. "Happy new year."

Well, perhaps it was just someone who wanted to suck up to the premier who slipped Mart's name in. Maybe no one bothered check to see if this particular Kenney who recorded a song about Calgary was a relative of the premier who'd vowed to run the previous curriculum through the shredder.

Since Bobby Gimby, the songwriter and bandleader famous for composing CA-NA-DA, the centennial anthem ubiquitous in 1967, once played in Mart Kenney's band, maybe Mart's best-known survivor thought his grandad should have been as famous.

But does it really matter if Mart Kenney's mysterious inclusion in the Alberta curriculum was the result of incompetence, malice, or uninspiring musical choices with a local angle?

No matter how it came about, asking a group of 12-year-olds to listen to a creaky big band piece about Cowtown isn't going to make anyone sit up snap their fingers! Don't believe me? Listen for yourself.

The younger Kenney has some things beyond his name in common with his grandfather.

Mart Kenney also had political ambitions. He unsuccessfully sought the Liberal nomination in North York, a Toronto riding, in 1968. Fortunately, the elder Kenney had the good sense to fail politically before he could hold national office and do any serious damage. Later in life he was elected municipal councillor in Mission, B.C.

In addition, like the premier and despite having recorded a song about Calgary, Mart Kenney wasn't really from around here. He was born in Toronto, where he grew up, and lived his last years on the B.C. coast.

Meanwhile, sharp-eyed observers were noticing yesterday that controversial passages in the new curriculum are being revised on the fly without notification or comment. So perhaps Mart Kenney's presence in the curriculum will prove to be as ephemeral as his musical career.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: Still from documentary Canada Calling/NFB

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