REGINA—With climate and energy issues dominating much of the political debate, the question of how and what students learn about these issues in our public schools has become an increasingly contentious issue. This is especially the case in Western Canada, where recent comments by conservative politicians and pundits like Alberta Education minister Adriana LaGrange and Danielle Smith try to characterize the public-school curriculum as biased and even outright hostile to the oil and gas industry. Right-wing provocateur Ezra Levant has gone so far as to characterize public school teachers as the country’s “most powerful anti-oil lobbyists” where every “teacher’s kit in Canada whether officially coming from the leftist universities, or coming right in from environmentalist lobby groups into our schools, is anti-oil, anti-industry, anti-energy.”
In Crude Lessons: Fossil Fuel Industry Influence on Environmental Education in Saskatchewan, authors Emily Eaton and Simon Enoch examine whether conservative claims of anti-oil bias in our public schools have any validity in Saskatchewan. Through interviews with teachers, educational employees, administrators and representatives from oil-industry sponsored third-party educational organizations, the authors conclude that conservative fears of bias are entirely without merit.
“Rather than one-sided pro-environmental advocacy, we found that oil industry-sponsored programming, materials and perspectives are readily available and promulgated in Saskatchewan schools,” says co-author Simon Enoch. “Rather than educators eager to critique the oil industry, we found the industry exerts a tremendous social power over the classroom where teachers are often reticent to raise environmental issues for fear of backlash from parents and the community. And rather than environmental instruction that radicalizes students against the oil industry, we found it to be profoundly conservative, solely fixated on individual lifestyle choices that mirror the types of market-based environmentalism that has long been promoted by the oil industry,” Enoch concludes.
The authors conclude that it is the oil and gas industry that exerts an undue influence over how climate issues are taught in our schools, promoting a type of environmental education that will ultimately leave students ill-prepared for the realities of climate change as it soft-pedals the scope and extent of changes required to adequately address this planetary-scale threat.
- Courses with climate change and energy outcomes are concentrated in a few science courses, which not all students take or schools teach. Students often have little opportunity to actually learn about these issues in Saskatchewan.
- Three oil industry-sponsored third-party organizations have been active in Saskatchewan public schools over the past decade; Society Environment and Energy Development Studies Foundation (SEEDS), Inside Education and the now defunct “Energy in Action” program sponsored by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
- Industry-sponsored third-party environmental educational materials neglect industry contributions to climate change, are silent on the industry’s documented record of climate policy obstruction and eschew collective responses in favour of individual life-style choices as the best means to combat climate change.
- School budget cuts often leave teachers with little choice for professional development on these issues that are not industry-sponsored.
- Pre-packaged lesson plans sponsored by industry take advantage of increasing time pressures on teachers who are often over-worked and under-resourced.
- The oil industry often exerts what the authors call a “social power” over the classroom – particularly in oil-producing regions – with teachers fearful of backlash from parents and the community if they are perceived to be insufficiently pro-industry in their teaching.
- The authors argue the Social Sciences are the more appropriate place to entertain industry perspectives, where industry interests and motivations can also be critically assessed by students. However, currently, social science course outcomes in Saskatchewan have largely neglected energy and climate change issues.
Contact the Authors:
Simon Enoch: 306 924 3372
Emily Eaton: 306 596 2838
About the authors:
Simon Enoch is Director of the Saskatchewan Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He holds a PhD in Communication & Culture from Ryerson and York University with a research interest in corporate social responsibility and political ecology. He has published in the Canadian Journal of Communication, Theory and Science and Foucault Studies.
Emily Eaton is an associate professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Regina. Her books include Fault Lines: Life and Landscape in Saskatchewan’s Oil Economy (University of Manitoba Press, 2016) and Growing Resistance: Canadian Farmers and the Politics of Genetically Modified Wheat (University of Manitoba Press, 2013).
This report is part of the Corporate Mapping Project, a research and public engagement initiative investigating the power of the fossil fuel industry in Western Canada. The CMP is jointly led by the University of Victoria, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Parkland Institute.