By Melissa Story, July 8, 2013
Creationism in Canada’s Public Schools, 1990s
In 1992, letters were circulated to Canadian school boards from Creation Science Association of Canada (CSAC) director, Robert Grieve, requesting that presentations be allowed in classrooms from creation science associations. It was brought to the attention of the media that CSAC had been making routine presentations in Abbotsford schools for a number of years (Barker, 2004). Several British Columbia news outlets published editorials, letters, and stories regarding the now hot topic of Abbotsford’s Origin of Life policy. Most of these pieces were resoundingly negative. Members of the public also began weighing in on the issue by addressing it with government officials. The 1992 provincial Minister of Education, Anita Hagen, addressed some of these concerns with passive interest by suggesting that the policy be reviewed. Interestingly, the Minister never formally addressed the Abbotsford School Board regarding the policy (Chahal, 2002). Since no formal intervention was being carried out, a group of teachers and parents aided by a science teacher from outside the district, Scott Goodman began to covertly investigate the policy. This examination led the Abbotsford Teachers’ Association to issue a request to the board to review and rescind the policy. This request was ignored (Barker, 2004).
The Abbotsford creationism case reached its zenith in 1995. It began in March when the local Teachers’ Association and the Organization of Advocates in Support of Integrity in Science Education (OASIS) represented by Scott Goodman, filed an appeal with then Education Minister, Art Charbonneau (Barker, 2004; British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, 1995). In an interview with the press, Goodman argued that the appeal was not only about Christian fundamentalist attacks on science, but also concerning religious freedom and the government maintaining its secularity (Wood, 1995). The Minister agreed with Goodman and the Teachers’ Association and sent a letter requesting assurances from the board that they were adhering to the provincial curriculum. At the time of this request, the Abbotsford School Board was chaired by Trinity Western University professor, John Sutherland. The Minister’s requests were not directly acknowledged, but Sutherland was vocal about the issue in local media outlets. He accused the Minister of religious prejudice by attempting to remove creationism from the district (Chahal, 2002).
The board failed to respond appropriately to the Minister. Charbonneau sent a second letter. This time the letter set out distinct actions for the board to take and recommendations put forth by the Minister. The board was directed to amend its Origin of Life Policy by June 16th, 1995 and cease creation-science instruction in science classes (Barker, 2004; Chahal, 2002; Todd, 1995; Wood, 1995). In an interview, Charbonneau suggested that the Board was, “trying to force teachers to put a religious theory on the same level as evolution in a science class,” (as cited in Wood, 2003, p. 14).
Sutherland rigorously defended the autonomy of the board and its position by making several statements in the local media. His sentiments were, by and large, shared with many members of the board and community who felt that scientific dogmatism was hijacking the curriculum (Byfield & Byfield, 1995; Chahal, 2002). Sutherland countered accusations that the board was attempting to bring theology into science classrooms by suggesting that learning different theories allowed students to hone critical thinking skills (Barker, 2004), and that only alternative ‘scientific’ theories were presented to students (Todd, 1995). Sutherland also pointed out that the community supported creation-science instruction (Barker, 2004; Sweet, 1997; Todd, 1995; Wood, 1995). In an interview following the controversy, Sutherland mused that:
[He] “would have been happy if students would simply have taken a look in biology class at the scientific data and the underlying hypotheses, including alternative schemes, and how different groups interpret the scientific data. Nobody disputes the scientific data. It’s the hypothesis that you use to explain the data that is under dispute, and the random, purposeless, evolutionary hypotheses are as untestable and as philosophical as any other. They’re a belief system. So where else but in science class could you look at scientific belief systems?” (as cited in Sweet, 1997, p. 210)
Despite objections to the Minister’s request, the Abbotsford School Board moved forward and drafted a new policy. The draft of the new Origin of Life policy diverted from some of the propositions that Charbonneau had offered in his second letter to the board. While it removed any reference to Divine creation, it appeared to leave a loop hole by allowing the teaching of alternative theories, without reference to what those theories were. The revised policy read in part:
“Teachers may find that the evolutionary perspective of modern biology conflicts with the personal beliefs of some students; therefore, when teaching this topic in the classroom, teachers should explain to students that science is only one way of learning about life, and that other explanations have been put forth besides that of biological science. […] In order to promote critical thinking skills, students shall be encouraged to discuss the scientific pros and cons of the alternative theories without being criticized for their opinions. Where other viewpoints are presented or discussed, teachers are encouraged to be aware of and to respect the personal beliefs of their students without promoting, through instruction, any one belief system. This discussion would include the evidence/information both for and against the theories of the origins of our universe and life on our planet.” (as cited in Chahal, 2002, p. 138)
Despite the board’s attempts to satisfy the Minister’s request, the draft of the new policy was met with criticism. Representatives from the BCCLA lobbied the board to disband the policy entirely, while Minister Charbonneau indicated that the policy required further clarification. There appeared to be some concerns that the revised policy still made it possible for creation-science instruction to occur. This seems to part of the motive for revisions to the policy. The board had to comply with the Minister’s requests, but also wanted to satisfy the wishes of its constituency.
As the board moved forward with final revisions to the new Origin of Life policy, members of the public, from within and outside the community, began to mobilize their support of the board’s revisions. Many of the arguments centered on their religious beliefs and feelings of Christianity being marginalized (Chahal, 2002). Other supporters claimed that the media was polarizing and sensationalizing a non-issue. Even some students in the district suggested that the issue was being blown out of proportion. Yet, others who were firmly on the side of the Ministry suggested that fundamentalist Christian groups active in the region were attempting to impose their own brand of morality on others and that these tactics were not isolated to science classrooms (Wood, 1995).
With the final version of the new Origin of Life policy in place, the board forwarded it to Charbonneau and also obtained legal counsel to ensure the policy adhered to the School Act. In July of 1995, Minister Charbonneau formally rejected the new policy stating that it was, “vague and open to various meanings,” (as cited in Chahal, 2002, p. 149). He further indicated that he would be forwarding specific guidelines to address the issue with all school boards in the province. In his view, “[t]he science classroom is not a place to provide instruction or require discussion of religious dogma,” (as cited in Byfield & Byfield, 1995, p. 36). Shortly after Charbonneau rejected the policy, the board’s legal counsel weighed in. The Origin of Life policy contravened the School Act (Chahal, 2002).
Just in time for the start of another school year, Charbonneau informed the board of changes to the Biology 11/12 curriculum. These changes were made to update the curriculum with respect to the School Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The updated curriculum specifically addressed creation-science theories. A portion of the updated 2006 curriculum guideline maintains such a clause:
“Reconciling scientific discoveries (for example, in genetic engineering) and religious faith poses a particular challenge for some students. While respecting the personal beliefs of students, teachers should be careful to distinguish between knowledge based on the application of scientific methods, and religious teachings and associated beliefs such as creationism, theory of divine creation, or intelligent design theory.” (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2006, p. 10)
In addition to the aforementioned revisions, the new guidelines also made it a requirement for all curriculum components to be taught in grade 11 and 12 in order for a student to qualify for graduation (Chahal, 2002). The board was ordered by the Minister to swiftly revise its policy in accordance with the updated curriculum or face penalty of dismissal and replacement by Ministry-appointed representatives (Sweet, 1997).
On September 14, 1995, the Abbotsford School Board drafted a new Origin of Life policy (author added italics):
“Teachers may find that the evolutionary perspectives of modern biology conflict with the personal beliefs of some of their students; therefore, when teaching this topic in the classroom, teachers should explain to students who have misgivings, that science is only one of the ways of learning about life. Other explanations have been put forth besides those of biological science. However, other viewpoints which are not derived from biological science are not part of the Biology 11/12 curriculum. Biology teachers will instruct only in the Ministry of Education curriculum. In the interest of critical thinking, however, it is vital that the teacher assure all students that they are entitled to have their views respected. Respect is best shown by allowing for an expression of those views, provided that any discussion or research is consistent with the content and objectives of the Biology 11/12 curriculum—that is, that they deal only with scientific evidence.” (School District No. 34, 1996, para. 2-3)
This policy, which was formally approved in early 1996, is still incorporated into the curriculum guide today. It, and the aforementioned curriculum guide, are perhaps one of the most concrete and direct guides concerning science curricula and creation-science theories in the Canadian public education system. It appears then, that the mid-1990s saw the end of discussion surrounding creationism in Canada’s public schools.
In the concluding post, I’ll explore Creationism in Canada’s public schools today by exploring some provincial education curriculum guidelines.
Barker, J. (2004). Creationism in Canada. In S. Coleman & L. Carlin (Eds.), The cultures of creationism (pp. 85-108). Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company.
British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (1995). Comments on the “creation science” movement in British Columbia. Retrieved from http://bccla.org/our_work/comments-on-the-creation-science-movement-in-british-columbia/
British Columbia Ministry of Education (2006). Biology 11 and 12 Integrated Resource Package 2006. [Program of Studies]. Retrieved from http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/irp/pdfs/sciences/2006biology1112.pdf
Byfield, T., & Byfield, V. (1995, November 20). Religious dogma is banned in B.C. science classes to make way for irreligious dogma. Alberta Report/Newsmagazine, 36.
Chahal, S. S. (2002). Nation building and public education in the crossfire: An examination of the Abbotsford School Board’s 1981-1995 Origin of Life policy (Master’s Thesis). Retrieved from https://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/16315
School District No. 34 – Abbotsford. (1996). Origin of Life. [Curriculum Guide].
Sweet, L. (1997). God in the classroom: The controversial issue of religion in Canada’s schools.Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart Inc.
Todd, D. (1995). Abbotsford teachers want Genesis out of Biology 11 class: Creationism stays, school chair insists. The Vancouver Sun.
Wood, C. (1995). Big bang versus a big being. Maclean’s, 108(24), 14.
Here's a portion of Scott Goodman's comment on the original blog. His full comment on the blog includes his letter to then Minister of Education Peter Fassbender with his concerns about the Ministry's policy as it stood in 2013.
This series is timely. As it happens, I am the same Scott Goodman referred to in your materials. It was at the request of citizens in Abbotsford in 1995, forwarded to me from the National Center for Science Education in the US, that I undertook to act as their advocate in removing the offending policy in Abbotsford.
There is a critical piece of missing information in your write-up. The 2006 Curriculum Guide from which you quote is not the version that appeared immediately after the Abbotsford controversy. In fact, it is quite watered down from that version. The original version put in place by the Ministry of Education under Charbonneau stated that, creationism, creation science and Intelligent Design, not being part of science, cannot be taught in BC science classes. In a memorandum from that time to all school boards in BC, Charbonneau went further, stating that not only could these subjects not be taught in science classes but also that the units on evolution MUST be taught. The latest version, presumably put in place under the BC Liberal regime, merely requires that teachers “distinguish” between what is science and what is not. It does not prohibit them from teaching things that are not science. This is not a subtle difference, it is a license to abuse the clear meaning and intent of BC’s School Act.