Posted on February 20, 2009

Minister Says Race-Based School Project Unacceptable

Josh Wingrove, Globe and Mail (Toronto), February 18, 2009

Three weeks ago, 10-year-old Feven Lomax came home after school and sat down, like any other day, to finish her homework with her grandmother, Laura Maillet.

But that day, one social studies assignment in particular was tripping up young Feven, a Grade 4 student at École Mont-Carmel in the village of Sainte-Marie-de-Kent, N.B.

In the French-language exercise, Feven–who was born in Ethiopia before being adopted and brought to Canada in 2007–was to imagine she was a francophone Acadian on a strange planet that was about to blow up.

In the scenario, she was joined by a “Chinese person, a black African person, an English person, and an Amerindian,” recounts Ms. Maillet, 44, reading from the worn piece of paper.

In this scenario, Feven had control of a spaceship that could hold just three people. Escape was hers. All she had to do was decide which three people (she could include herself, the hypothetical Acadian) could board the spaceship to safety, and which two she’d leave behind.

The assignment–which the provincial Minister of Education later deemed “unacceptable”–also included questions such as “Was this a difficult decision?” and “How do the people left behind feel?” her grandmother recalls.

“I read through the exercise, and just flipped,” Ms. Maillet said. “It’s just jaw-dropping. There’s just too many offensive things to begin.”

Ms. Maillet called her daughter Jessie Lomax and son-in-law Daniel Robichaud, Feven’s parents. She showed them the assignment, which also featured caricature-like drawings of each of the five subjects.

“[Mr. Robichaud] pulled it out and started reading it, and you know, just a complete loss for words. He was offended, was upset, was angry,” Ms. Lomax, 26, said Wednesday.

The family met with the school, which they say stood by the assignment.

“The response was that no, it’s a good exercise, it promoted discussion,” Ms. Maillet told The Globe and Mail.

“A fight in a schoolroom promotes discussion. It doesn’t mean it’s a positive experience,” she said. “There is no conceivable context that [the assignment] could have been approached under.”

Undeterred, the family took its fight on the road, enrolling the help of professors at nearby universities and fellow parents in a quest that met fruition Wednesday, when New Brunswick Education Minister Kelly Lamrock asked that the assignment be pulled from the classroom.

“I’m quite appalled at it. It’s obviously unacceptable,” Mr. Lamrock said. “It’s one thing to examine attitudes for stereotypical thinking. It’s another to require students to think in stereotypes and this crosses the line.”

School principal Bernice Ryan told the CBC the exercise was effective, saying some of the students chose to sacrifice themselves while others refused to board the spaceship.

Gérald Richard, director of the local District 11 school board, said he disagreed with the assignment, but that it was nevertheless meant “to tell the children what the word prejudice means, and to become more tolerant and open.”

Mr. Richard said it was developed by the school, while Ms. Ryan, the principal, said the province developed it. Mr. Lamrock said it wasn’t a part of any provincial curriculum.

This is the second time this month Mr. Lamrock has intervened at the school level. Three weeks ago, he ordered Belleisle Elementary School to reinstate the daily singing of the national anthem, after it was moved to monthly assemblies.

The province called Ms. Maillet and Ms. Lomax to apologize for the assignment. Although their families are diverse–both women are anglophones who married francophones, and the families together have adopted three young girls from Ethiopia in the past two years–Ms. Maillet said the assignment is inappropriate for any child.

“Regardless of what child I had in that classroom, I don’t want that exercise being taught,” she said. “It’s an exciting world. There are amazing ways to teach children about other cultures, and that is not the way to do it.”