Oil & Class

Interview by Patrick Brooks, photos courtesy of Inside Education

With more than 57,000 followers on Facebook, our Oil Respect advocacy campaign reaches a broad base of oil and gas supporters from across Canada. Recently, one of our Ontario followers sent us a portion of an elementary school play called Colours of our Planet Earth which involved her daughter’s class. For good reason, the last line of dialogue caught her attention:

Kids dressed in green: Our colour is green. We are the forests, the grass, the plants that feed us. If you help us survive we can bring health and hope to this world. Destroy us and we cannot promise you a future.

Kids dressed in blue: Our colour is blue. We are the waters on our planet — the rivers, the lakes, the streams, the oceans. We cannot be replenished. What is will be. Pollute us and we can no longer provide clean water, animal habitats, and so on.

Kids dressed in yellow: Our colour is yellow. Sunlight, flowers, animals hiding in the tall grasses. Heat, warmth, beauty and sustainability. We worry that our planet is heating up too quickly. Fossil fuels are our enemies.

In his book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, author Alex Epstein argues that educational institutions traditionally demonize the petroleum industry while conveniently ignoring the obvious benefits gleaned from fossil fuel technology, particularly its role in First World countries.

This child’s elementary school play seems to support Epstein’s theory, but is the “greening” that underscores this play a systemic bias within Ontario’s school systems, or is it an exploitation of a captive audience by one teacher and his or her view on the environment?

Around the time we received a copy of the school play, Dr. David Suzuki was brought in as the keynote speaker for the 2018 Annual Conference for the Alberta Teachers’ Association. For 45 minutes, Suzuki lectured Alberta educators about the evils of the oil sands; that we need to “keep it in the ground” in order to meet Canada’s climate change obligations and, based on his rhetoric, solve the global GHG emissions ‘crisis’ by simply shutting off the taps to Canadian oil and gas.

While some in attendance applauded his message, many others were offended at the hypocrisy of it all given that he owns a handful of houses and jet-sets around the world racking up a substantial carbon footprint, all while charging a top-tier speaking fee to tell others to make do with less.

A third primary school event presented itself shortly after Suzuki’s appearance at the teachers’ convention—my 10-year-old had homework from Ms. Kennedy’s† class one night which was a series of questions on Alberta’s oil sands. After scouring his assignment for evidence of anti-oil propaganda, I was cautiously optimistic when I couldn’t find a negative spin to it.

Perhaps Ms. Kennedy is a lone voice in a crowd of educators; is she willing to give a balanced portrayal of oil and gas in the classroom? I decided to pursue a story about her rogue teaching philosophy.

A quick email to her outlining my intent with the magazine story was met with enthusiasm, so I cobbled together a series of questions for her that I felt would provide clarification on her personal views, what the school board’s position on the material presumably was, and if there were any rules of classroom engagement that she was expected to follow when covering this subject on behalf of the Alberta curriculum. In the spirit of transparency, she admitted she needed approval of my questions by her superiors and that of the school board’s administration before she’d be able to provide answers. Fair enough, I thought. The fact that she’s openly covering the material in a favourable way in class suggested to me that she’s probably pre-approved to discuss it openly in a magazine article. But I was wrong. She was informed by administration that the scope of my questions went beyond what they were comfortable having her answer, so she was unable to participate.

Something didn’t seem right. Why did my son’s homework materials have the CAPP logo on it? And Suncor’s? If the school board had an issue with one of their own providing commentary on the oil sands, who at the school board had authorized CAPP and other industry players to become sponsors of the teaching materials? I couldn’t get anywhere within the school system, so I decided to investigate Inside Education, the organization whose brand is front and centre on the oil sands poster (see pages 16–17).

To my surprise, all of the oil sands materials and supplemental teaching aids available to educators in the school system were on the Inside Education website. Within the hour, I was corresponding with their Executive Director, Steve McIsaac, who was gracious enough to answer most of the questions that were intended for Ms. Kennedy but still had relevance because of Inside Education’s role in what had turned into a detective story.

PB: Steve, I was hoping you could briefly walk me through Inside Education’s history and its teaching philosophy.

SM: Inside Education (IE) has been around since 1985. We started out as a volunteer organization comprised of a group of people that were concerned about some of the same challenges you’ve just outlined with Ms. Kennedy’s situation. Basically they said, “How do we get balanced, real-world learning and information resources into the hands of teachers (and thereby students), particularly if the volunteers’ logos are attached to the work? Some people are going to think, by virtue of a particular logo, it’s going to be perceived as its interests being aligned one way or the other. So these early volunteers determined that they’d need an organization that was arm’s length from industry, government, and other key players who may have some influence over the resources. They felt it needed to be both engaging to everyone and also somewhat removed from everyone. They needed to bring in experts in education and industry so the full spectrum of viewpoints could be represented when it comes to environmental and energy-related issues. They would synthesize these various perspectives and make them available in a way that’s usable for the teachers, understandable for the students, curriculum-connected, and balanced. And that’s what all of our programs—now 30 years later—are still trying to achieve. We’re a not-for-profit charitable organization…that means we search out the funding sources from the private sector, from the public sector, from foundations, and banks, and these sorts of things to do our work and, based on the makeup of our board, by the environmental community as well as industry and government. We continue to do the work we were founded upon which is to provide a fair and balanced look at environmental and related energy issues.

Above: teachers get field trips of their own so they can learn about the energy communities and operations firsthand, which they can then take back and share with their students.  

PB: Does the material need to be vetted by anyone, knowing that there may be dissenting voices within political leadership?

SM: No. They’re not vetted in the first place, other than for curriculum relevance, so no matter who’s sitting under the golden dome, so to speak, the programs are ours and we developed them with the advice and insight from all sorts of people from all walks of life. The resources that we produce are ours, so neither industry nor government, nor environmental groups get—nor have they asked for—veto power or editorial control. We’ve actually found that no matter who’s in charge, it’s an understanding that as soon as there’s a perception of bias or that suddenly Inside Education is bought and paid for by somebody, then our value goes away.

PB: What do you say to people who see the marquee logos on your website and accuse you of being biased nonetheless?

SM: What I sometimes say to that is if that were true, that we were bought and paid for, well then as soon as our value goes away as an entity that is balanced, then we’re no good to anybody so it’s in nobody’s best interests for us to sell ourselves to anybody, so we try and provide a positive service to all sides. We’ve started to find solutions-focused and future-focused topics like energy development whether it’s oil sands or in your field, (conventional O&G). So rather than getting up on a soap box and blaming one side or the other or arguing about this or that, it’s basically talking about what are the innovations, what are the good news stories, what are the solutions that we’re continuing to work toward for environmental reasons, for sustainability reasons, for economic reasons…what are the good news things that are happening in Alberta? That’s what we know young people want to hear. They don’t want to be hearing about debates about things they’re really not particularly interested in. They want to know what’s being done and how they can be engaged? So we feature best teaching practices, best learning practices, and explore ways that young people can be involved.

PB: So if Ms. Kennedy got her hands on your materials for use in her class, how do you think she did that? Do you think it was given to her by her immediate department or would she have gone onto your website and pulled it down like anybody else?

SM: It could have been a couple of ways, really. We go to just about every teacher’s convention in Alberta, of which there are 11, and we distribute our resources and give workshops. We have an extensive series of professional development programs for teachers and it could very well have been that she discovered our materials when she was still doing her Bachelor of Education degree as a result of one of our university programs within the province. Because we provide learning opportunities and experiences for teachers, we’re easy to find. So, in fact in July we’re going to be loading about 30 up in a bus and travelling from YEG to Fort McMurray and talking about energy and water. It’s going to be a learning experience for teachers, and we do these sorts of things regularly so it could be there or there’s all kinds of different venues or events or she may accessed us from our website, for sure. There’re lots of different ways she could have come about it.

PB: What’s your take on Suzuki being the keynote speaker at the ATA’s recent Teachers’ Convention? They paid thousands and thousands of dollars to promote an anti-oil message, didn’t they?

SM: I was a little surprised by it, honestly. Not only because Dr. Suzuki is a very expensive keynote speaker, but also that he was a keynote speaker at the convention not too long ago—I wondered why again? What our experience has shown us is that teachers—and granted there are outliers in every walk of life—for the most part want to do the right thing. They want to communicate the right information, they want to be fair. As individuals, they have personal bias just like all of us do. But they want to be able to provide a balanced approach to their classes, to their students. Some organizations and individuals are more high-profile, like a Suzuki for instance, so if you’re looking for information on that topic that’s maybe closer at hand, his message is there. What we’re not trying to do is be combative, we’re trying to augment and be a more go-to organization in providing a balanced approach and we really do believe that teachers want to communicate the right thing to their students. It’s a question of providing the right information at the right time in the right way that can be consumable by their students.

PB: What’s your response to oil proponents who may assume that some teachers exploit their position of authority…having a captive audience with impressionable minds might be really tempting for those who want to abuse that power.

SM: Yeah, I would say for the most part, teachers are responsible…again, outliers in all walks of life…and the ones that we connect with are the ones that have thought things through. We’ve actually had teachers come on our special development programs that involved tours of the oil sands or tours of conventional or tours of hydro dams…and at the end of the program, they’ve said to me: “You know, I’m still not, as a person, I’m still not down with this…for this reason or that reason.” And again, as an individual you’re entitled to that. What they said, though, which I really appreciate was “now I know how to present all perspectives to my students.” So at the end of the day, they’re not just going to think like me because I’m the person standing in front of the classroom. Now I know where to get the broader information and I want them to figure out where they fit on the spectrum of ideas. They encourage students to go out, find out, and figure it out for themselves. And I think what’s what the majority of teachers want to do. I think the energy sector in Alberta in the past has actually admitted out loud that they need to do a better job of communicating their good news stories. While that’s not our job at Inside Education to do that on their behalf, it’s important to share the good news stories that do emerge from that industry. So that’s what we’ve decided to seek out…to talk about leading practices, talk about things that are being done differently from in the past…and talk about why they were done differently in the past; we used to do things this way, we found out it wasn’t the best idea in the world, so now we’re doing something different and better. And those are the stories the students love. It shows we’re learning and growing. The big thing for young people is they’re told “you’re the future, you’re going to be the next leaders” and mostly they’re like “Okay, that’s great, but what are you guys doing?” So don’t just wait for us, we want to know there are things that are being done differently and they’re being done better. And that’s what Inside Education is trying to focus on: solutions, not problems.

PB: What about pipeline education programs?

SM: From the pipeline perspective, we’ve actually had some discussions with the pipeline companies and, unfortunately, we haven’t had a lot of interest although there has been some bite into our learning resources. A key thing we’ve uncovered by talking to teachers about the pipeline debate is that with the rank and file person who thinks that whether it was Northern Gateway, Keystone, Trans Mountain, or Energy East…they view these projects as the first pipelines we’ve ever built. That it’s this grand experiment where we don’t know what’s going to happen. The reality is, if you’re living in an urban area, you’ve got pipes running under your feet all the time…they’re just carrying different stuff. And these pipelines have been in existence for years and years across North America. So this is not new and that’s really the eye-opening thing…people don’t understand the depth and breadth of a pipeline network and what goes into it. Then if something goes sideways, which is never a good thing, it gets all sorts of bad press. And that’s where we leave it, which is unfortunate.

The Stories of Inside Education by Karen Knull

“I’ve gone on several professional development opportunities with Inside Education and I can’t speak highly enough about it. One of the first ones I went on was to Fort Mac, and being in career development I hear a lot about going to the patch and going to Fort Mac and seeing the rigs and what the conditions are like up there and the horrible things they’re doing to the earth; and then there are other people who say ‘No, it’s great money for our province…’

“You know, I went up there with a lot of different ideas running through my head but mostly I wanted to go there and get some information and take it back and let students know what they were really going to be in for if they went to Fort Mac. When we got there the program was so full and robust, we actually heard from the mayor of Fort Mac to hear about the actual lifestyle and how it’s been affected by people who move up there. We got to hear from oil and gas industry people, who are there to make a business out of it. We got to tour the mines and see the impact of truck and shovel operations, and go and see an in situ SAGD development. And we also got to hear from government, policy, and an environmental group who would tell us how they feel about what’s going on. We got to see a reclaimed bit of land.

“Really, we got to see a completely balanced perspective. We were able to take away all of those different things we were hearing and sift through them and make an informed decision on things. I was able to take back to my community an accurate picture of what’s actually going on and what opportunities are there in all sorts of different areas.”

At the time of this interview, Karen Knull was a Career Development Facilitator with three First Nations schools in the Rocky Mountain House area.