N.W.T. Education Minister R.J. Simpson. Credit: RenewCanada.net Credit: RenewCanada.net

The news release from the Northwest Territories government doesn’t even mention Alberta, but just the same it’s a powerful symbol of what’s gone awry in the province to the south under the United Conservative Party Government of Premier Jason Kenney.

The release published yesterday in Yellowknife said that the N.W.T.’s education minister, R.J. Simpson, and his British Columbia counterpart, Jennifer Whiteside, were pleased to announce the two Canadian jurisdictions have agreed to partner on a new Junior Kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum.

There’s not a word in the statement about how for 40 years at least, the N.W.T. has used its neighbour Alberta’s K-12 curriculum as the foundation of its public education system.

Indeed, the N.W.T.’s long educational partnership with Alberta could easily have continued quite comfortably for another 40 years had it not been for the election of Kenney and his UCP Government.

It was in 2019, the news release noted, that the N.W.T. education department began to look into what it should do to modernize its school curriculum “to meet the needs of students in an ever-changing world.”

That was also the year, as it happened, that Premier Kenney, the scion of a private school principal, became premier of Alberta and had the opportunity to put his eccentric notions about education into practice.

He was heavily influenced by religious zealots and their private-school movement in the United States, and seized with the idea students were being “hard-wired with collectivist ideas” by a school system run by liberals. “That’s kind of a cultural challenge for any conservative party,” he told his friend, the right-wing commentator Ezra Levant, in 2016. “We’ve got to figure out how to break that nut.”

Alberta Progressive Conservative governments had been at work for years on a revision of the curriculum, work that the NDP government elected in 2015 had continued. It’s likely that curriculum, if the work had been completed, would have been happily adopted by the N.W.T.

But a few months after the UCP’s election, Alberta Education Minister Adriana Lagrange, doubtless operating on Kenney’s instructions, spiked that work. She ripped up a memorandum of agreement with the Alberta Teachers Association to collaborate on the curriculum, and hurriedly began cobbling together a new curriculum that would meet the premier’s ideological metrics. No teachers were involved in writing the draft.

The historian hired to advise on the social studies curriculum, a former political aide to Premier Kenney when he was a minister in the Conservative federal government, was known to have downplayed the deaths of Indigenous children in Residential School system and dismissed the teaching of First Nations perspectives as a “fad” and “agit-prop.”

The partial result was the K-6 curriculum released by the Kenney government in late March, panned by teachers, reviled by curriculum experts and mocked internationally as age-inappropriate, outdated, Eurocentric, jargon-riddled, inaccurate, unconcerned with developing critical thinking skills, and rife with plagiarism from such sources as the Wikipedia and Cotton Belt U.S. states’ textbooks.

Which brings us back to the N.W.T. Education Department, conducting research and consulting with educators, Indigenous governments and the Northwest Territories Teachers Association. What they must have made of Alberta’s “reforms” was politely left out of yesterday’s release.

But reading between its lines, it’s pretty easy to imagine.

“B.C.’s curriculum was very clearly the most aligned to the N.W.T.,” the news release says, noting that it “builds on students’ natural curiosity, inventiveness, and creativity.”

By contrast, the new Alberta curriculum emphasizes rote memorization of lists of facts and dates, and seems intended to stifle creativity, at least if it leads graduates to reconsider the policies traditionally associated with conservative parties, as per Kenney’s remarks to Levant.

“Crucially, Indigenous worldviews, knowledge, and perspectives are integrated in all of B.C.’s curricula in a meaningful and intentional way, and are reflected in students’ mandatory learning outcomes,” the N.W.T. release goes on to say. “B.C. designed its curriculum and assessments to be flexible, which allows the N.W.T. to adapt the curriculum to fit our territorial context and ensures that local Indigenous content can be integrated across the curriculum.”

“With an emphasis on Indigenous knowledge, and a focus on literacy and numeracy skills, I am confident that this curriculum will benefit all of the N.W.T.’s JK-12 students,” said Simpson.

“First Peoples’ principles, histories and ways of knowing are woven throughout our curriculum, and it allows for hands-on and career-centred learning to create equity and opportunities for all students,” Whiteside added.

“This an embarrassing blow to Alberta’s reputation,” said Sarah Hoffman, the Alberta NDP Opposition’s education critic. “Adriana LaGrange needs to explain: if this curriculum is not good enough for students in the Northwest Territories, why should anyone believe it’s good enough for Alberta’s kids?”

In early March, Hoffman warned that the N.W.T. was considering the switch.

Now that is has happened, she said yesterday, “this decision by the Northwest Territories should be a wake-up call for the UCP.”

Moving from the specific to the general, as one often needs to do to understand the impact of policy decisions, the Kenney Curriculum is a microcosm of much else that has gone awry under the UCP government, from the abandonment of efforts to diversify the economy, to the defunding of post-secondary education, to the ludicrous “Energy War Room,” to the deadly mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alas, this is a government that doesn’t accept the premise of the wake-up calls it keeps receiving.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...