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 concluded.

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.

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This report is part of the Corporate Mapping Project, which is jointly led by the University of Victoria, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (BC & Saskatchewan offices) and the Parkland Institute. This research was supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Author: Simon Enoch and Emily Eaton

Simon Enoch is Director of the Saskatchewan Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He holds a PhD in Communication & Culture from Ryerson University with a research interest in corporate social responsibility and political ecology.

Emily Eaton is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Regina and a co-investigator with the Corporate Mapping Project. She is the author of two books, Fault Lines: Life and Landscape in Saskatchewan’s Oil Economy (with photographer Valerie Zink) and Growing Resistance: Canadian Farmers and the Politics of Genetically Modified Wheat. Her work concerns environmental, social, and economic aspects of resource development and resource-based communities.