Agnes Leffler Perry Chaney was the eldest of 10 children. She moved to Edmonton from Illinois in 1911, arriving on Canada Day, when she was a toddler. Her family rented a three-room home at 10520–102 Street, before building their own. Then, a few years later, they moved to Junkins, about 140 kilometres west of Edmonton.
“My parents had read in the newspaper that for ten dollars you could get a hundred and sixty acres of land that raised golden grain in abundance,” she said in the book Window of Our Memories, by her sister Velma Carter.
They were among the scores of Black pioneers who came to the Prairies from the United States, where they faced discriminatory policies. These settlers established a handful of communities in Saskatchewan and Alberta, including Junkins, later called Wildwood.
Their stories and contributions have, for decades, been excluded from classrooms and textbooks. Now, the Alberta government is trying to correct that. The United Conservative Party, in its draft curriculum for elementary students, dictates that pupils will learn about Black pioneers such as Ms. Chaney.
But rather than sparking celebrations of diversity and inclusion, Ms. Chaney’s mention in the draft curriculum is fuelling further controversy and accusations of tokenism. The vast majority of school boards in Alberta have declined to pilot the draft curriculum, and critics argue that the UCP’s treatment of Ms. Chaney highlights the document’s shortcomings.
Ms. Chaney, according to her granddaughter, wasn’t a community builder. She wasn’t famous. She wasn’t a notable historical figure. She was a kind, church-going, Avon lady who spent a great deal of her adult years in the United States.
“This government doesn’t seem to want to admit any kind of fault,” said Julianne Sévère, Ms. Chaney’s only living descendant. “They are doubling down and rewriting history.”
Ms. Sévère believes that her grandmother ended up in the draft curriculum not because Ms. Chaney was important but because the document’s authors were poor researchers. Ms. Chaney recounted her childhood in Window of Our Memories, and passages from the book are online. There, and in the draft curriculum, Ms. Chaney is identified as Agnes Leffler Perry, not accounting for the fact that she married a second time and took her husband’s name.
Adriana LaGrange, Alberta’s Minister of Education, insists Ms. Sévère is wrong about her family’s past, directing her to the short book excerpt as evidence.
“Your grandmother, Ms. Leffler Perry, is not only a notable historic figure in Alberta, she is a dedicated community builder and an important pioneer in the Black community,” Ms. LaGrange said in a letter to Ms. Sévère. The politician repeated this assertion in the Legislative Assembly this week after Ms. Sévère publicly called for the government to remove Ms. Chaney from the draft curriculum.
“The decision to include her contributions in the curriculum is meant to ensure her legacy continues to shine bright for generations of Albertans to come,” Ms. LaGrange said.
The government, when asked for evidence that Ms. Chaney was notable or a community builder, pointed to the childhood memories the pioneer shared in Window of Our Memories.
While Ms. Sévère is fighting to have her family excluded from the curriculum, Indigenous leaders are frustrated with content related to First Nations, Métis and Inuit in the document. Even as Canada this week grappled with the discovery by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation of the remains of 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops, Mr. LaGrange would not commit to including lessons about those institutions at every grade level.
Melissa Purcell, executive staff officer of Indigenous education at the Alberta Teachers’ Association, noted that the draft presents Indigenous people just as part of the past, and fails to recognize their historic and contemporary contributions.
The process lacked engagement with Indigenous communities, said Ms. Purcell, a Dene from Smith’s Landing First Nation, and missed a chance to advance reconciliation. The document, for example, does not teach students about residential schools and treaties at all grade levels.
“It perpetuates systemic racism through whitewashing of the curriculum,” she said. “It needs to be stopped.”
Sarah Hoffman, the New Democratic Party’s education critic, said this week’s incident with Ms. Chaney and the UCP’s refusal to adopt the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s recommendations, or calls to action, reflect what she views as the curriculum’s fundamental flaw.
“This government feels that they know better than everybody else – and they haven’t involved experts,” she said.
Carla Peck is an expert in social-studies curriculum and education professor at the University of Alberta. The draft curriculum needs to be scrapped, she said, adding that its approach to teaching, as well as the content, are outdated.
It is not enough to add content about Black or Indigenous communities. The quality of that content, she said, matters. The draft curriculum tends to frame Black and Indigenous people as part of history without linking them to the present, she said.
“It is also really Eurocentric, white, Judeo-Christian focused, with clear attempts to try to integrate Indigenous content or content from other minoritized groups,” she said. “It is so tokenist in its attempt, it stands out like a sore thumb.”
And that’s what irks Julianne Sévère, Agnes Leffler Perry Chaney’s granddaughter. If the government reached out to experts, she argued, they could have found a plethora of Black citizens more influential than her grandmother.
“There’s so much information out there, with actual notable historic figures.”
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