Thursday, September 27, 2012

Congratulations, Alberta teachers! You've won an all-expenses-paid trip to...Fort McMurray!

During the recent Québec election, sovereigntist Amir Khadir was asked what his party offered to federalist voters. He replied, "For Anglophones we will offer them a choice. They can either go to Fort McMurray or to Guantanamo, with a lovely view of the beach!"

As it turns out, as long as you don't have to stay at the prison, Cuba's Guantanamo province is definitely the better choice (great beaches and music). Fort McMurray, on the other hand, is a tough industrial city in Northern Alberta. And "Fort Mac," as they call it out Alberta way, is where all of the Tar Sands oil extraction activity is happening.

Now, unless you have been living under a rock, you will probably have heard something about the environmentally destructive aspects of the Tar Sands (or, as the oil companies prefer, the "Oil Sands") project. Not only does it produce five times the greenhouse gases per barrel of conventional oil, it also requires ripping up the land. The photo that you see below is the outcome of tar sands mining activity.

As one might expect, the fact that Fort McMurray has now replaced Sudbury as Canada's man-made moonscape capital has not exactly made it a top tourist destination. But there is one demographic that can't wait to sign up for trips out to Fort Mac: Alberta teachers. That's because Inside Education, an oil-company sponsored educational outfit, has been offering them all-expenses-paid "professional development" Tar Sands tours.

Let's let the cheerful lady from Shaw TV Edmonton tell you all about the WONDERFUL TOUR that a bunch of Alberta teachers recently went on...

Notably, nowhere in this report does one see any indication that Inside Education is a group that appears to be sponsored almost entirely by resource extraction companies of one kind or another. Let us take a look at a screenshot of Inside Education's "sustaining partners" for an illustration of this point:
Recognize any of those logos? I think you do!

Nevertheless, Steve MacIsaac, the Executive Director of Inside Education, is keen to deny that these corporations have any influence whatsoever on the organization's educational programming. Responding to a critique of the Tar Sands tours by Andrew Hodgkins, a graduate student at the University of Alberta, MacIsaac offered the following comment:
At no time do our partners have 'veto' power over what topics and issues we address. They've never asked for it in 27 years, nor do they want it -- no matter who the partner. Our industry partners are further aware that during our teacher professional development programs we will be inviting in members of the environmental community who will likely have some uncomplimentary things to say about their business. review...not only do our industry/government/not-for-profit supporters NOT have program veto power, their support enables informed debate about the work that they do.

The last point is really the most important point to me. And it's here that as an educator I profoundly disagree with Mr. Hodgkins and those saying industry has the most to gain from programs like our summer Canadian Oil Sands Education Program. In fact, society has the most to gain from a citizenry of informed and critical thinkers
Thus, for Mr. MacIsaac, the oil companies are simply sponsoring these trips out of the goodness of their corporate hearts. They just want people to get the facts and to be good critical citizens! And Inside Education's tours, despite being funded mostly by oil companies, are totally unbiased.

Naturally, this is not the case. As we like to say back in rural Nova Scotia, "You've got to dance with the ones that brung ya,"  and in a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives paper, "Petrol's Paid Pipers," Andrew Hodgkins has documented serious difficulties with Inside Education's lessons at some length. Yet the fact remains that one does not have to look especially hard to uncover problematic material. Let's take the following extract from a "Stewardship Kit" that is meant to be suitable for Alberta junior high school classes. The following extract is from the teacher's guide for a lesson entitled "Does it Matter if the Climate Changes?" The teacher is meant to lead this discussion for the students after they have completed an activity on climate change:
• Did everyone come to the same conclusions?
• Did group members agree on whether the
effects were negative or positive? Why or why not?
• Did any impacts have both potentially positive
and negative effects?
• Did any impacts have only positive or negative
effects? Why?

By the end of the activity, students should understand that when considering issues related to a changing climate there are no absolute answers. Climate change is a complex problem. After completing this activity, students should also recognize that people will have differing perceptions on how climate change will affect them, Canada, and Earth.
The desired outcome here is clearly to give the students a "balanced impression" of climate change. Yes, some damage may happen as a result of climate change, but there will be some positive outcomes as well! At the end of the day, climate change is kind of a mixed bag!

I would argue that this seemingly "balanced" message may be the most dangerous propaganda of all. It's difficult for students to recognize it as propaganda, since it makes a show of examining both sides of the issue. As a student, one comes away with the impression that the "mixed bag" conclusion is the only fair one.

Evidently, Inside Education uses the same technique on its oil sands junkets. They duly bring in a couple of environmental experts to speak to the teachers, which helps create the impression that their only agenda is to inform. Some teachers, apparently, are convinced by this. In a video that you can view in its entirety here, teacher Karen Knull talks about what she learned on her all-expenses-paid tour:
We got to hear from the Mayor of Fort Mac...We got to hear from oil and gas industry people. We got to tour the mines and actually see the impact of truck and shovel operations. Then, we also got to hear from government and policy and from an environmental group who would tell us about how they feel about all the issues going on. We got to see a reclaimed bit of land. Really, we heard a completely balanced perspective...I was able to take back to my communities an accurate picture of what is going on. I can't thank Inside Education enough. I've been on several programs, and every single time I've connected with people who are genuinely interested in helping me find resources for my students.
Clearly, Inside Education's message is finding some takers.

As an environmentally concerned Alberta teacher, the best thing that you can do to fight this propaganda may be to actually go on one of Inside Education's many available junkets and attempt to subvert it. For more information on the program, read the FAQ here--there will be plenty of "chances to sit back and relax with fellow teachers," and they'll even pay the district to hire you a substitute! And if you are an education student, there's a special free PD opportunity for you as well! Just be sure to pretend that you are really naive in your application for the program, and you'll be sure to get in.

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