Oil industry is influencing what children are taught in school, says new report

Climate and energy issues dominated the federal election and continue to be the focus of political debate across the country.

But how are these issues being taught in Saskatchewan schools, and what role is the oil and gas industry playing in the discussions and programs?  

Simon Enoch and Emily Eaton decided to look into the issue and wrote a report called Crude Lessons: Fossil Fuel Industry Influence on Environmental Education in Saskatchewan.

"We just saw a lot of commentary by conservative politicians or conservative pundits stating that our schools are kind of hotbeds of radical environmentalism," said Enoch, the Director of the Saskatchewan Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. "That you know the school curriculum is biased against oil and gas and we thought well let's check into this and see if any of these claims are true."

What they found is the exact opposite, Enoch said.

The pair spent more than a year interviewing teachers, administrators and representatives from third party educational organizations sponsored by oil industry

Enoch said they found the oil industry influences Saskatchewan schools in two ways.

Bridget Yard/CBC

One is directly through sponsorships where third party education organizations deliver materials, programming and professional development programming to schools.

And indirectly where some teachers felt reluctant to raise environmental issues because of family or community ties to oil industry

"We found that [influence] particularly acute in oil producing regions in Saskatchewan where teachers when they spoke to us sort of said they felt quite reticent about even raising environmental issues," he said. 

"They knew that the majority of their students might have ties to the oil industry and they really feared sort of community and parental backlash if they were perceived as being too pro-environment."

He said teachers walk a tightrope in trying to be balanced.

"But you know sometimes the science is overwhelming, certainly in regards to climate change, and I don't know if it really does the students a service to sort of soft pedal some of those (ideas)."

Enoch said teachers are under pressure in terms of their limited time and resources, so when industry sponsored organizations come in with well-prepared educational packets it can be very alluring to teachers. 

CBC News

He also said the oil industry has been trying to implement environmental education since the 1970s. 

"That was surprising that it's been such a long, sustained effort to try and influence environmental education in our schools."

Enoch doesn't think the curriculum is giving students the full picture when it comes to climate change.

"We don't think they're getting the urgency and the scope of what's required to actually address this [issue]," he said. "And ultimately that will be a disservice to them because they'll find that the individual actions that these materials put forward as sufficient to combat climate change certainly are not."

The report makes a number or recommendations including teaching about industry perspectives in social sciences where those interests and motivations can be critically assessed by students. 

"I think one of the most important ones is that there's more sufficient monitoring of what kind of third party materials come into our public schools and that teachers are aware of what are the interests behind these these third party materials," Enoch said. "And not just the oil industry but any sort of third party material."