By Melissa Story, July 9, 2013
Creationism in Canada’s Public Schools, Today
It becomes clear in reviewing some of Canada’s provincial and territorial curriculum guidelines that the issue of origin of life is far from settled. Perhaps, most relevant is the fact that many curriculum outcomes begin by acknowledging that students and parents may have questions or oppose the scientific theories being put forth. Some jurisdictions appear to concisely outline how these concerns should be addressed, while others leave much room for interpretation. To date, however, British Columbia is the only jurisdiction to have an explicit policy banning creationist instruction.
On the topic of evolution, change, and diversity, the New Brunswick Ministry of Education’s curriculum guide states (bolding maintained):
“By the consideration of questions generated by students and teachers and the discussion of issues raised, various learning and assessment activities will meet specific curriculum outcomes within this section. The main focus of this unit falls within the realm of scientific inquiry and observation as it transposes from a historical to modern perspective on the scientific thought and techniques related to evolution, change and diversity.” (New Brunswick Department of Education, 2008, p. 13)
While the stated focus of the curriculum suggests that only scientific theories be considered, the verbiage does not explicitly omit theories that some Christian associations have claimed as scientific, such as those coming from Intelligent Design (ID) proponents.
In Ontario, the science curriculum is quite dense in terms of policies, procedures, and components. One interesting section discusses “Antidiscrimination Education and Science.” In it, the Ministry discusses “cultural sensitivities” regarding participation in various science classroom activities:
“There may be cultural sensitivities for some students in areas such as the use of biological specimens. For example, a number of religions have prohibitions regarding pigs. Although it is impossible to anticipate every contingency, teachers should be open to adjusting their instruction, if feasible, when concerns are brought to their attention.” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2008, p. 39)
The implications of this clause appear to leave room for the possibility of creation-science instruction, or at the very least, the forgoing of evolutionary instruction due to religious beliefs. The latter is indeed the crux of many arguments for evolution education advocates who charge that Canadian students are simply not learning about evolution because teachers wish to avoid the controversy (Laidlaw, 2007).
Newfoundland and Labrador’s curriculum guideline merely provides suggestions for teachers as to how they should approach science studies (author added italics):
“Students should be aware that the topic of evolution is based on many different theories. Like all theories, there is no evidence that completely eliminates doubt. Since many of the topics relating to Earth origins, life origins, evolution, etc., may be addressed from various points of view, it is the suggested intent of this biology course to outline the topics from the scientific process approach. Teachers should be aware that many topics in biology, (and in medical research), especially evolution, may be appraised along the lines of personal value judgements, ethical assessments and religious beliefs. It should be emphasized that the purpose of learning about all views is so that the student can intellectually question each and make educated decisions about what s/he believes.” (Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Education, 2004, p. 118)
The italicized portions appear to carry the same essence as the original Origin of Life policy enacted by the Abbotsford School District. While the above stated policy certainly doesn’t advocate equal time for creationist instruction, it does appear to permit such discussion and exploration.
For the most part, Canada’s education system seems to relegate evolution to upper year elective biology courses. This means that the vast numbers of public high school students are graduating without ever learning about Darwin’s evolutionary theories. Quebec is the only province to mandate elementary school teaching of evolutionary concepts (Halfnight, 2008). Perhaps then, the critics are right. Canada appears to draw less divisive lines between creationist and evolution instruction as is the case in the United States.
It’s important to this discussion to also point out that I’ve only surveyed the Canadian public school system. There are many private schools across the country, most of them with strong religious ties and some of whom receive generous taxpayer subsidies, that are not necessarily bound by the same policies as those of the public system. Similarly, across the country there are thousands of homeschooled children who are not necessarily restricted to provincial/territorial curricula.
In 2007, a group of Quebec Mennonites moved their families to a small town in Ontario. They did so because the Quebec Ministry of Education had mandated that their small private school must adhere to the provincial curriculum, which included instruction on Darwin’s theory of evolution (Alphonso, 2007; Bergen, 2007). As one reporter covering the story pointed out, “In Ontario, private schools are essentially seen as private businesses. Schools […] don’t have to follow the provincial curriculum, and principals and teachers are not necessarily certified by the Ontario College of Teachers” (Alphonso, 2007, para. 5).
The Big Valley Creation Science Museum, which opened in Alberta in 2007, helps provide resources for homeschooled children whose parents want them to learn a Biblically-inspired account of the origin of life. In a CBC televised news report covering the opening of the museum, Mrs. G. Gee was interviewed about her interest in creation-science. Alberta’s provincial curriculum requires that evolutionary theory is taught as fact, which contravenes her family’s beliefs. As such, The Big Valley Creation Museum allows her the opportunity “to teach her children her truth” (as quoted in Dunn, 2007).
It appears then, that creation-science is afforded a platform in education systems in various jurisdictions – albeit one not overtly supported by public institutions. In particular, various government bodies seem to avoid taking a hard stance on the issue. Evidence for this claim also comes from a McGill University evolution researcher who was denied funding in 2006 to examine the occurrence of creation-science instruction in Canada’s schools (Halfnight, 2008; Laidlaw, 2007). The Social Science and Humanities Research Council, the federal body that rejected the proposal, stated that there was not “adequate justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of evolution, and not intelligent design, was correct,” (as cited in Halfnight, 2008, p. 1). Thus, creationism seems to be an issue that some government institutions would rather not bring into the public consciousness. The refusal to fund such investigations speaks volumes to this being a hot-button topic best avoided.
Given Canada’s placid nature when confronted with controversial issues, it is not surprising that creation-science has been met with apathy. Most disconcerting is that so many high school students are entering post-secondary institutions with either no knowledge or very limited knowledge of Darwin’s theory of evolution. This is particularly worrisome for those students choosing undergraduate work in biological sciences.
It is doubtful that Canada will ever reach the polemical stratosphere of this debate that is seen in the United States. While Canada and the United States do share a border, there are distinct differences that typify these two countries. Canadians do not seem particularly prone to taking a hard stance on controversial issues. Indeed, Canada seems more open to a variety of influences. This may be why the country is often lauded for its cultural mosaic. This seemingly more tolerant nature could then allow for a variety of viewpoints to be permitted in public settings, including those that may stem from religiously-motivated ones. Examining the Abbotsford School District creation-science controversy seems to support the notion that Canadians don’t rally as a united front on issues that create controversy. Rather, the tendency is for more localized protests by small grass-roots organizations. Perhaps, then, this is why the creationist controversy in British Columbia received scant nation-wide media attention.
In addition, many jurisdictions in Canada offer parents the choice to provide their children with a science education that more appropriately aligns with their religious beliefs – despite the unscientific nature of those beliefs. Private schools and homeschooling options are readily available across the nation. In these settings, education is shaped by families and private organizations that clearly have an agenda – one which is most often rooted in religious ideology. By allowing private institutions and individuals to shape education, Canada’s public institutions are still able to maintain secularity, while also affording its citizens certain rights and freedoms. This seems to be the Canadian way.
The main crux of this issue though, is one in which Canada may be poorly represented on a global stage in the future. If young Canadians are not keeping adequate pace with advancements in scientific theories that are widely accepted by the community, then they will invariably not be accepted as legitimate and relevant contributors to that community. This may mean the loss of research and other scientific pursuits that can benefit not only Canadians, but also the wider global community. Further, given the multitude of religious views in the world, it seems wise to avoid a particular theological brand of origin of life theory. This is poignantly relevant for a country, such as Canada, that prides itself on cultural diversity.
Thus, Canadians should not passively allow religious ideology to inappropriately shape institutions and realms of which religion cannot adequately resolve. Science classrooms should not be relegated to the domain of theology. By ensuring that citizens are given appropriate opportunities to study the sciences, as they are generally accepted by scientific communities around the world, Canadians will be poised to continue to make great contributions to the industry. In parallel, by also allowing citizens to continue to pursue sacred knowledge – outside the context of science classrooms – Canada will also be poised to continue as a country that values diversity and freedom of religion. Admittedly, this is a fine balancing act. Indeed, it is one that will continue to require refinement, particularly as the scientific paradigm evolves and concepts of religiosity change. Silence concerning such issues is not an option. Canadians, as a whole, need to be more actively engaged with the education of its youth and the future prospects Canada’s public school system will afford them on the global stage.
Alphonso, C. (2007, September 4). Quebec Mennonites moving to Ontario for faith-based teaching. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/quebec-mennonites-moving-to-ontario-for-faith-based-teaching/article1081765/
Bergen, R. (2007, September 1). Education laws prompt Mennonites to pack bags; Quebec residents move to Ontario so kids can be taught creationism. Times – Colonist.
Dunn, C. (2007, June 5) A Canadian home for creationism. CBC News. [Video file].
Halfnight, D. (2008, September). Where’s Darwin? The United Church Observer. Retrieved from http://www.ucobserver.org/ethics/2008/09/wheres_darwin/
Laidlaw, S. (2007, April 2). Creationism debate continues to evolve. The Toronto Star. Retrieved from http://www.thestar.com/life/2007/04/02/creationism_debate_continues_to_evolve.html
New Brunswick Department of Education. (2008). Daily Teaching Guide Biology 122/121[Curriculum Guide].
Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Education. (2004). Biology 3201 Curriculum Guide. Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov.nl.ca/edu/k12/curriculum/guides/science/bio3201/outcomes.pdf
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2008). The Ontario Curriculum Grades 11 and 12 Science.Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/secondary/2009science11_12.pdf