Some teachers in Alberta are concerned about the province’s new elementary school music curriculum, which they say includes songs with racist, sexist and violent lyrics and histories.
Camrose, Alta. elementary school music teacher and PhD student Stephanie Schuurman-Olson told CTV's Your Morning that, in October, she saw a leaked draft of songs that were going to be recommended by the government for teaching to students from kindergarten to Grade 2 in fall 2021.
Schuurman-Olson says that several of the songs have racist connotations with the most recent song on the list being from 1959.
"Songs like 'Skip to my Lou', 'Oh! Susanna', 'I've Been Working on the Railroad' -- lots of songs that we all grew up with -- actually are steeped in really problematic histories, which include derogatory language towards the African American and Black communities as well as histories within blackface minstrelsy," Schuurman-Olson explained in an interview on Thursday.
In a statement to CTV's Your Morning, the Government of Alberta said in part that the "document in question was a very early draft from June" and a revised draft has "rightly removed" these songs featuring racist, sexist and violent language.
"The list of songs in the final curriculum are a resource that teachers can use, if they choose to do so. No songs will be mandatory," the statement said.
While the list of recommended songs has since been adjusted, Schuurman-Olson says many "racially problematic" ones remain including "Jingle Bells", "Go Tell Aunt Rhody", and "Do Your Ears Hang Low?"
Schuurman-Olson said that many of these tunes were "lifted straight from an American curriculum document" and show that those who make the province’s curriculum are "out of touch" with current society.
"The fact that someone who's in charge of writing curriculum would make these ill-informed decisions is not only laziness to me, but it's just being completely out of touch with practise," Schuurman-Olson said.
"The reality is that this discourse has been happening with music educators for a very long time and teachers have been erasing these songs from their own practice for years and years and years," she added.
While some lyrics are an issue, Schuurman-Olson says the bigger concern is "the history that [these songs] exist in."
"We're only just a Google away from learning what these songs actually are and what they mean," she said. "Lyrics are adjusted over time, but it doesn't take long for these original lyrics to surface when we're singing with multi-generation."
Schuurman-Olson said she and other teachers are concerned that these songs featuring racist, sexist and violent lyrics could manifest in the way that a child looks at the world.
"What does it do to a child if… they find out that the music that they were taught by a teacher who was… telling their students that this is the music worth teaching, this is the music worth knowing and this is how we're going to engage in this subject material, is actually incredibly problematic?" she asked.
Schuurman-Olson noted that this realization could be "incredibly unsettling" particularly for Black and other students of colour.
Schuurman-Olson says the list of songs only represents a "white Anglo-European or American perspective," with the list almost exclusively in English and featuring predominantly white, male artists or song subjects.
She said these songs do not represent Alberta’s classrooms, and that music pertaining to other cultures should be included in the curriculum.
"When we are only selling to our children music from this very particular lens, what does that do to the children who are outside of that and what does that tell them about their value and the music, the incredible music that exists in the world that is outside of that small scope?" she said
"It's also about what we're silencing by not including it in the list, and we're elevating a certain kind of music as more important than others."