In less than three months since Alberta’s draft K-6 curriculum’s release, educators across the country have released a torrent of criticism levelled at the social studies portion of the curriculum. Through labeling it as “Euro-ethnocentric” (Roach 2021), “laden with colonial history” (Patrick 2021), and complicit in perpetuating “paternalistic, Christianized, and militaristic” versions of history (Poitras Pratt and Markides 2021), few analytical stones are left unturned. More apparent to me however is how the curricular narratives construct not only a racialized and exclusionary Albertan “we”, but how that “we” also carries with it gendered intonations.
In April 2021, I ran a seminar on the intersections of gender and education policy for graduate students at the University of Copenhagen, where I introduced the Alberta draft social studies curriculum and asked students to conduct a gendered reading of it. While students had little to no previous knowledge of the historical conceptualization of Canada as a settler-colonial enterprise, students were immediately mesmerized by the white, European, hyper-masculine narratives engrained in the curriculum’s understanding of “Albertan” and “Canadian” history. Below are a few of our findings:
At first glance, the curriculum’s representation of Albertan history could be argued as gender inclusive by referencing predominantly European male but also female accomplishments (for example, the inclusion of women’s settler narratives in stories of homesteading and war, seen below). As much of early European colonialism and governmental involvement was led by men, the curricular narratives follow suit and ask students to memorize a plethora of facts regarding Canadian, American, and European wars, war figures, and dates of conquests by Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama. Depictions of Canadian women primarily emerged after the 1800s when a greater number of women immigrated to the region to help the colonial effort. Throughout the text, four key women are highlighted and given biographical space: Laura Secord, Joan of Arc, Madeleine de Verchères, and Susanna Moodie. Secord, Joan of Arc, and Verchères are all widely revered for their military involvement with Verchères even situated in a more contemporary context as being “used to inspire women to engage in the [First World] war effort in Canada” (Alberta Education 2021.). Diverging from these narratives of war involvement is Moodie, a pioneer who “clear[ed] a farm near Petersborough” albeit “[m]ost of the settlers were men” (ibid.). By defying feminized norms of the time due to their presence in highly masculinist spaces, students are taught to celebrate women’s performance of certain traits such as war-making and homesteading while normalizing the invisibility and silencing of female bodies who were primarily involved in home care and child-rearing (Hooper 2001). In other words, the text draws attention to white, gendered performances that conform to masculinist knowledge assumptions while subordinating those who do not perform the state’s desired norms.
Further embedded in forms of female representation are nuanced gendered oppressive practices. To illustrate, for a Grade 5 project, students are given a list of 31 male and 12 female historical figures, such as the Famous Five and American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, and encouraged to produce a short report on one of the individuals. Although the draft curriculum highlights numerous independent women in active positions of resistance instead of as passive citizens, many of these women’s significant achievements lack the context that is afforded to many of their male counterparts, who are heavily represented in the broader curricular narratives found in the “Knowledge” and ‘Understanding” sections of the curriculum. While the 31 men listed are frequently given curricular space outside of the context of the suggested assignment, the 12 women, apart from Mercy Coles, are not. In other words, students must engage with narratives of male conquest and pioneering, but interacting with female achievements is offered as a choice in which students may or may not participate. For example, as the Famous Fives’ push for suffrage was, and still is an iconic movement in Canadian history (with many Canadians glossing over McClung’s involvement in eugenics), the topic itself is not discussed until Grade 6 and is seemingly glanced over at best. To illustrate: students are asked to recognize, but not inquire into, how “[v]oting rights did not always apply equally for women, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, or for people of colour” (ibid.). In separating the topic of suffrage across two grades with no substantial discussion given in either, the draft curriculum makes it difficult for students to actively engage with the suffragette’s relationship to actual policy change. As such, it leaves unproblematic the lack of narration surrounding suffrage, demonstrating that topics that are viewed exclusively as benefitting women and minority groups are often minimized in curricular narratives and must be self-selected by students to make their way into classroom discussions.
In a more nuanced capacity, the curriculum also promotes exclusionist discourses predicated on patriarchal presuppositions of rule, a finding already heavily discussed by Lisa Bush (2021). In Grade 1, students are taught that European societies were ruled by feudalism, monarchies, and the “divine right of kings;” in Grade 2 students are to “understand the history of hereditary rulership (monarchy) and the origins of modern forms of democracy” that were composed of the Athenian Council of 500, male citizens, and “non-citizens;” in Grade 3, students must engage with terminology such as the “Magna Carta,” “parliamentary democracy,” and the “council of barons” who “represent[ed] the people” (Alberta Education 2021). Missing from these narratives of European governance structures is the notion of who had access to democratic representation. As the text uses gender-neutral terminology such as “common people” and “subjects” to construe the act of democracy as a form of equality, hidden in this designation of “subjects” is the acknowledgment that women were barred from participating in any form of democratic government and hence are not encapsulated in this purported genderless terminology. In effect, students learn to link the concept of “democracy” to elitist rule where only land-owning men had the privilege to participate in society, while those who do not conform to this identity are labeled as “non-citizens” (ibid.).
While students are introduced to European government at an early age, it is not until Grade 5 that students encounter alternative forms of governance with female representation, such as the Iroquois Confederacy’s matrilineal conception of ruling. Students are to understand how the Confederacy was a matriarchal society “unlike early European society headed by men with a patriarchal line of authority, kings, and male-dominant culture” (ibid.). The positioning of Indigenous forms of governance in Grade 5, compared to European governance structures in Grades 1 through 4, enables students to normalize Canadian, British, and French governments with a “patriarchal line of authority, kings, and male-dominant culture” and construct matriarchal forms of governance as “unlike” our Canadian form of ruling (ibid). Although the text discursively includes female forms of governance, the positionality of male governance structures much earlier in the curriculum than Indigenous forms, coupled with the direct comparison of the Iroquois Confederacy’s system being unlike “ours” in Grade 5, serves to Other female leadership and further institutionalize settler-colonial leadership styles (Poitras Pratt and Markides 2021). Although the curriculum is framed by policy makers as actively engaging in a plethora of stories that include women and communities of colour, the narratives are positioned in a way that privileges discourses of the white, male, European settler over all others.
As Poitras Pratt and Markides (2021) highlight, while women are often referenced in the curricular narratives, women of colour are either ignored or vaguely referenced (such as “Métis women”) without contextualizing their historical contributions to society. While the use of gendered language that cultivates and perpetuates traditional masculinist forms of historical truth is concerning in and of itself, the text’s silencing of women’s voices from Indigenous and minority communities harkens a return to historical narratives predicated on knowledge structures of settler-colonialism, patriarchy, and whiteness. As a result, the draft curriculummakes apparent that it is constructed for those belonging to the white, masculine Albertan “we” while excluding all involvement of those who do not conform to this historical interpretation.
Alberta Education. 2021. “2021 Draft K-6 Curriculum.” https://curriculum.learnalberta.ca/curriculum/en/c/sss1
Bush, Lisa. “A Curriculum We Cannot Teach.” 30 March, 2021. https://lisabush-writer.medium.com/a-curriculum-we-cannot-teach-40f88ab3f426
Hooper, Charlotte. 2001. Manly States. New York: Columbia University Press.
Patrick, Margie. 2021. “Religion, Social Studies, and the Draft Curriculum.” Alberta Curriculum Review, April 20 2021. https://alberta-curriculum-analysis.ca/religion-social-studies-and- the-draft-curriculum/
Poitras Pratt, Yvonne and Jennifer Markides. 2021. “Promises made, promises broken – how the draft K-6 curriculum recolonizes the Métis in Alberta.” Alberta Curriculum Analysis, April 27, 2021. https://alberta-curriculum-analysis.ca/promises-made-promises-broken-how-the-draft-k- 6-curriculum-recolonizes-the-metis-in-alberta-2/
Roach, Pamela. 2021. “The Potential Health and Social Effects of Alberta’s Draft K-6 Curriculum.” Alberta Curriculum Analysis, April 27, 2021. https://alberta-curriculum-analysis.ca/the-potential-health-and-social-effects-of-albertas-draft-k-6-curriculum/
Sarah Clifford is a MSc student at the University of Copenhagen in Political Science and has a BA(Hons) from the University of Alberta. Her research focuses on the intersections of gender theory, educational policy, and identity politics.