Teachers, doctors call for ban on 'fossil fuel propaganda' in B.C. schools

A FortisBC curriculum developed for public schools has been downloaded more than 35,000 times. Opponents are now calling on the B.C. government to ban what they describe as fossil fuel company 'propaganda'

Dr. Lori Adamson, an emergency room doctor in Salmon Arm, B.C., launched a call to ban educational material from fossil fuel companies in B.C. schools after her son came home with an activity from the gas company FortisBC | Photo: Contributed by Dr. Lori Adamson

The last year has been tough for Dr. Lori Adamson. As an emergency room physician in Salmon Arm, B.C., crises have piled on top of crises — the COVID-19 pandemic, a record-breaking heat wave, brutal wildfires and then floods. 

At the height of the wildfire season, she remembers seeing stretchers lined up in the hallway at Shuswap Lake General Hospital, no beds and no nurses assigned to them. 

With so many patients facing smoke inhalation and heat illness, climate change all of a sudden felt very real. So when her seven-year-old son came home with a glossy new curriculum touting the benefits of natural gas, she lost it. 

“I was totally floored,” said Adamson. 

Only two days earlier, her medical colleagues at the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) told her about a FortisBC curriculum developed for K-12 students. 

At the time, she remembers thinking, “There's no way that this is going mainstream because the propaganda is so bold and [it's] really obvious that this is an advertising campaign meant to basically normalize and encourage fossil fuel use.”

The first assignment her son received was about solids, liquids and gases. One sorting activity uses a set of cards showing a propane barbecue, natural gas stove and fireplace, an oil drum, and a gasoline pump. Several daily objects, including milk, rain, maple syrup and an apple are also presented to students.   

“Have students give some other examples of solids, liquids or gases they would find at school or home,” directs the teacher’s lesson plan. 

What examples should teachers expect? “Water and gasoline to fuel cars and school buses” in the liquids category, and “air, natural gas to heat homes or for gas stoves” in the gases category, notes the curriculum.

Since September 2021, Adamson has worked to mobilize against the FortisBC curriculum in public schools, what she describes as “fossil fuel propaganda.”

“Seeing the extremes of climate change just compounding in a few weeks to seeing basically the promotion of fossil fuels and propaganda to my child — for me, it just was a call to action,” she said.

On Wednesday, over 90 organizations released an open letter with CAPE calling on the B.C. government to ban fossil fuel advertising in schools. More than a collection of environmental groups, the list of signatories includes the BC Teachers’ Federation and the Vancouver Island Health Authority. 

The letter directly points to FortisBC’s Energy Leaders curriculum, a piece of which came home with Adamson's son. 

A spokesperson for FortisBC said the curriculum was developed to teach the importance of conserving energy and “how our collective energy choices affect climate change.”

“We invite educators to take a firsthand look to see how the lesson plans would fit with their practice,” said FortisBC’s Nicole Brown in an email.

Brown added that Fortis worked with Kidnetic, a sustainability education company based in North Vancouver, and B.C. teachers to ensure the lesson plans were “bias-balanced, curriculum-connected and peer-reviewed by curriculum specialists and educators.”

But according to the open letter, the “curriculum is carefully constructed to promote and normalize the use of fossil fuels to children of all ages.”

No mention of negative effects of natural gas

In one Grade 12 geology lesson, students can play a game called “Natural Gas sequence cards,” where a description of hydraulic fracking fails to mention fugitive methane emissions, their negative effects on human health or the fact methane released into the atmosphere produces a greenhouse effect up to 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 20 years.

The open letter also cites a Grade 5 lesson about the rock cycle that “benignly states methane is 'pumped' out of the ground, without any mention of the highly destructive process of hydraulic fracturing.”

If tobacco companies are banned from promoting their products in schools, questions the letter, why can fossil fuel companies — “which are contributing to an existential crisis for humanity” — be allowed to promote their products? 

“This is a bias curriculum,” said Isabella Miskiewicz, a Grade 12 student at Esquimalt High School. “FortisBC has benefited out of promoting their corporation and I don't think they should be allowed to do that in schools.” 

As a student representative for her school, Miskiewicz attends monthly school board meetings to review policy changes and share the positions of her fellow students. 

Since the start of 2020, parents and teachers have downloaded more than 35,500 lessons and activities from the Energy Leaders curriculum, according to FortisBC.

But Miskiewicz didn’t hear about the FortisBC curriculum until about six weeks ago, when she caught word it was circulating in the Greater Victoria School District. 

At the last school board meeting, she stood up and told trustees that the student body doesn’t support bias education funded by fossil fuel companies.

“Obviously, I don't have control really over what education is presented to me,” she told Glacier Media. “(But) this is not an education that we want.”

A pattern of industry curricula

Teachers across the district, and indeed British Columbia, have now echoed Adamson's and Miskiewicz's concerns.

Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, along with the BC Teachers’ Federation, were among the dozens of signatories who backed the open letter to Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside. 

Tara Ehrcke, a math teacher on call in the Greater Victoria School District, said the FortisBC curriculum represents a growing trend in public schools, where some time- and resource-crunched teachers fall back on the pre-planned materials.

The curricula is usually introduced to teachers at professional development conferences, said Ehrcke. She says she has come across teaching materials from the feminine hygiene product company, Kotex, materials on financial literacy from Visa, and geology lessons from mining associations, among others.

But the entry of FortisBC’s curriculum into schools adds another dimension to corporate education, says the Victoria math teacher, who is also is one of four people on the BCTF’s Environmental Justice Action Committee.

The gas company is currently locked in what Ehrcke describes as a “public quarrel” going on with BC Hydro. 

“There's a big public discussion about the use of natural gas and B.C.’s LNG industry — whether natural gas is legitimately either a solution to the climate crisis or a stepping stone as we move away from fossil fuels,” she said. 

“So my big concern is that producing curricula from Fortis is a piece of this public relations exercise.”

Presenting a variety of viewpoints is essential for any teacher, but Ehrcke worries scientifically vetted information — such as the nearly 3,700-page U.N. climate report released this week — are being sidelined for the kind of education materials FortisBC produces. 

“They have a lot of money. They produce materials that are very complete... they'll have activities and films, and sometimes that will be a whole package,” she said. “And so it can be tempting just to use that without other materials.”

Free speech shouldn’t trump fact, says student

Now a Grade 12 student at Point Grey Secondary School in Vancouver, Katarina Krivokapic says she remembers worksheets about natural gas going back to the fifth and sixth grades. 

“Thinking back on it, it’s a little absurd this is being taught in schools,” said Krivokapic. “Most of my generation feels very strongly about climate change. It’s an imminent threat to our well-being.”

Like Miskiewicz in the province's capital, Krivokapic has raised her concerns to through the Vancouver School Board Sustainability Conference, where she sits as an executive member.

She acknowledged a provincial ban on fossil fuel company-developed curricula would have to consider free speech and how far government oversight can extend into the classroom. At the same time, she says restricting corporate influence in public schools is essential. 

“When you’re presenting fossil fuel propaganda as fact,” said Krivokapic. “...young students tend to trust their teachers. They are saying fossil fuels are good and fossil fuels belong in our society.” 

“We learn about the science. But in terms of whose responsible for (climate change) and how we can stop it, these conversations have been kind of limited.” 

Government so far silent on call for ban

At the provincial level, Adamson says she called for a meeting with the education minister before the release of the open letter. A last-minute meeting was arranged with Whiteside and Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman on Feb. 25, according to Adamson. 

While she wasn’t able to attend, Adamson said her CAPE colleagues reported the conversation was “positive.” 

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said it does not review or endorse educational resources provided by industry, and does not recommend or authorize the use of resources like FortisBC’s Energy Leaders program.

“We are reviewing this issue to ensure classrooms are free of corporate priorities, so students can continue to learn in an unbiased environment.” 

Back in Salmon Arm, things are moving faster. Adamson spoke to her son’s school about her concerns over the FortisBC curriculum and teachers there are no longer using the material. The problem, she says, is many parents might not be aware of what is being presented in their children's classrooms and tracking down the other 35,000-plus downloads across the province is next to impossible.

“The teachers are struggling and they're trying to do a great job teaching and they're having trouble finding resources that are accurate,” she said.

“That's what we're up against.”