A Grade 4 lesson that included material critical of Alberta’s oil industry prompted a Facebook debate among parents that devolved into threats and prompted the school to call in the RCMP and cancel a holiday dance.

A teacher at Iron Ridge Intermediate Campus in Blackfalds, Alta., last week showed a classroom of Grade 4 students two videos about the oil sands – one from the Alberta government and the other from the environmental group Greenpeace, the local school district said. The students then received a written assignment that asked how Albertans should manage competing demands on the province’s land for uses such as oil development, wind and solar power, agriculture and recreation.

Jayson Lovell, superintendent of the Wolf Creek school district, said a student told his parents about the lesson, and they took to social media to complain.

Sensitivity levels are high in Alberta about the portrayal of its oil sector, which has been a target for environmental activists, and hit hard in recent years by falling oil prices. Mr. Lovell said the social media comments included the possibility of a confrontation at the dance, and that the tone of the language used in the discussion was alarming enough to summon police.

“It just exploded … to the point where it led to some communication around addressing this at the Christmas dance,” Mr. Lovell said in an interview.

He said the school alerted the RCMP, which issued a ticket to a parent under a provision of the Education Act that forbids interfering with the proceedings of a school. The offence carries a fine of up to $1,000. Police did not explain what the parent had done.

The district cancelled the dance, which was planned for last Thursday, citing safety concerns, and encouraged parents to attend a seminar on Tuesday about appropriate use of social media, which had been planned before the controversy.

Conservative politicians in Alberta and supporters of the oil industry have long complained about what they view as politics seeping into the classroom, particularly when it comes to fossil fuels and climate change.

Premier Jason Kenney has warned of attempts to “smuggle” left-wing politics into the education system. A policy resolution passed at the governing United Conservative Party’s recent annual meeting said students in public schools are being “increasingly radicalized by extremist ideologies.”

Mr. Lovell said nothing was inappropriate about the lesson or the assignment, which he said fits in with the province’s social studies curriculum. He noted the school’s principal was in the classroom at the time and had no concerns.

“The content was delivered in a way where there really was an effort to balance the information,” he said. “Ultimately, what we’re trying to do in our classrooms is provide good information in a way where students can understand all sides in a critical-thinking way, and then come to their conclusions.”

The government is reviewing the province’s curriculum.

The online dustup in Blackfalds, a community of about 9,000 people halfway between Calgary and Edmonton, is the latest example of school exercises sparking backlash.

Last month, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange posted an excerpt from an exam on Twitter that she said was from a Grade 10 class in Calgary. A multiple-choice question asked students to identify “one of the valid arguments against oil sands development.” Another presented a passage that warned oil sands development would “tear a hole in Canada’s lungs” and asked students to identify what the author likely believes.

The tweet promised to “get politics out of the classroom.”

Ms. LaGrange did not make herself available for an interview on Tuesday. Her press secretary, Colin Aitchison, said in an e-mailed statement that “politically motivated activists” are spreading misinformation about the energy sector.

“Material should be presented to encourage critical thinking and independent decision making – not tell students what to think,” the statement said, adding that the government believes most teachers understand this.

Mr. Aitchison said the ministry has not seen the full exam, which he said a parent sent to their local MLA. He declined to say whether the ministry attempted to verify which school it came from.

Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teacher’s Association, called on the government to tone down its criticism, which he said undermines teachers.

Mr. Schilling said the exam questions cited by the Education Minister appeared appropriate for a high school social studies class, in which students are encouraged to debate controversial ideas. Teachers, he said, know to approach such topics in a balanced way that presents multiple points of view.

“There seems to be this rhetoric right now that pits the oil-and-gas industry or the energy sector versus teachers,” he said. “That is something that is unfair for teachers to be caught in the middle of.”

The Globe and Mail, December 10, 2019