'Racist' junior high immigration assignment has advocates calling for curriculum change

·5 min read
Advocates and university professors are calling this school assignment 'dehumanizing.' (Name withheld - image credit)
Advocates and university professors are calling this school assignment 'dehumanizing.' (Name withheld - image credit)

Anti-racism advocates and a university professor are calling an assignment handed out at a junior high school in St. John's "racist" and say it could result in bullying and discrimination.

A textbook assignment that was sent to CBC News by a concerned parent asked students to write down two reasons why immigrants and refugees should be allowed into the country — and two reasons why they should not be.

The textbook provides a list of reasons why immigrants and refugees should be allowed in the country; for example, "Canada is a big country with room for many more people" and "Immigrants provide new ideas and skills."

Delores Mullings, a professor of social work at Memorial University, says she's concerned with the textbook's suggestions for opposing migration: newcomers "may take jobs away from resident Canadians," and "Some immigrants draw on social welfare programs and services," according to the textbook.

Name withheld
Name withheld

She said one of the most concerning suggestions in the textbook was one that read, "The changing ethnic makeup of the country will increase racial tensions in Canada."

"It's shocking that the school board would first still have a textbook like this. It makes me wonder who is reviewing the content that the students in the province are being exposed to," said Mullings.

"We are asking students to not only read but ingest and think about how to discriminate and stereotype against different groups of people who are coming into Canada.… It's xenophobic and it's racist."

The assignment was taken from a textbook called Canadian Identity, published in 2011 by Nelson Education for the Newfoundland and Labrador social studies curriculum.

Mullings said the assignment made her think back to how she felt as a young student in a Canadian classroom after emigrating from Jamaica in her teens.

"When I read things like that I remember feeling like I needed to crawl under my desk," she said. Mullings said such material can make for a difficult learning experience for some children.

"When certain kinds of material is introduced to the class, other students are turning around and looking at students that are perpetuated in some of these pieces of work."

Meg Roberts/CBC
Meg Roberts/CBC

Contradictory message, says prof

Mullings also said the assignment could be devastating for some parents and children who have migrated to the province, which doesn't line up with the government's own immigration initiatives.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government welcomed 1,645 immigrants from January to November of last year and 406 refugees, more than half arriving from Afghanistan. In June the provincial government announced it would spend nearly $8 million to help meet its goal of attracting 5,100 immigrants annually by 2026.

Last year's provincial budget highlighted immigration and population growth as critical to Newfoundland and Labrador's economic future with Premier Andrew Furey saying the province had a "population crisis."

"It's really important as this province continues to mount its campaign for attraction and retention of new people in the province that policies and support systems are aligned with the calling of people and the expectations that they are going to stay," said Mullings.

Education Department says 'refresh' needed

Education Minister Tom Osborne said he reviewed the assignment and textbook, and believes the social studies curriculum needs "a refresh."

"I was shocked and disappointed," he told CBC News. "We want people to feel welcome … especially students in our schools. We don't want them sitting there feeling as though they may or may not belong in the classroom."

Although the social studies curriculum was established in 2011, Osborne said department staff regularly review curricula but the first time the department heard of the assignment was through CBC's interview request.

Name withheld
Name withheld

Osborne said critical thinking is encouraged in the classroom as it's important to academic growth but the material also needs to be approached with sensitivity and respect.

He also questioned the factuality of some of the material, including the message that immigrants take resident Canadian jobs.

"We've got a number of employers here that are asking government to bring more newcomers to the province because they fill vacant positions that employers find difficult to fill."

Osborne said the department is looking at removing the textbook from the curriculum and department staff will review material to replace it.

Calls for further curriculum improvements

"It is really dehumanizing," said Maria Dussan, a member of the Anti-Racism Coalition of Newfoundland and Labrador. "As a person that has gone through the whole immigration system I had a really visceral reaction."

She said the Education Department and school district are not taking action quickly enough to remove the material, and the coalition is asking the government to use an anti-racism framework to guide all curriculum decisions.

That would include an avenue for students, their families and teaching staff to make complaints about the curriculum.

Name withheld
Name withheld

The coalition also wants the department to hire a committee of racialized consultants from multiple communities and to develop anti-racism training for teachers and people who are involved in curriculum development.

Sobia Shaikh, co-chair of the coalition, said the province's education system "fuels knowledge, the analysis, the understanding between ourselves."

"If you are producing material that is disconnecting individuals," she said, "it's robbing the province of the possibility of really coming together to deal with some everyday problems that we have here."

A representative of Nelson Education said the company worked on the textbook with the Newfoundland and Labrador government in 2011, but the publishing company said such an assignment would likely not be included in the textbook today.

"I suspect that any ministry of education that was developing a new resource may take a different approach right now and really move into thinking concepts and inquiry," said Lenore Brooks, the executive director of product solutions for the company.

Lenore said Nelson Education is working on a digital learning system for the provincial Education Department that would allow textbooks and assignments to be updated easily.

Benefits of newcomers to the province

Mullings said people should remember that essentially everyone apart from people with Indigenous ancestry immigrated to Canada, and she wants newcomers to know that they are welcome and valuable members of society.

"They are contributing to the economy, they are working, doing jobs that many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians do not want. They are going to school, volunteering," she said. "They are contributing in more ways than one. What else do you want from your citizens?"

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