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Nation building and public education in the crossfire : an examination of the Abbotsford School Board’s 1981 - 1995 origin of life policy Chahal, Satnam Singh

Abstract

How do Canadian education policy makers adjudicate between the competing claims of their multiple constituencies? In the absence of legislative guidelines, it is hoped—from a social justice perspective—that policy makers will advocate a nondiscriminatory 'cultural literacy' (see Pinar, 1993) that facilitates equitable educational outcomes for all students. Unfortunately, education policies are sometimes developed in ways that violate such democratic principles. In order to understand what factors can contribute to the development and maintenance of such problematic policies, I examine the experiences of a semi-rural public school board—the Abbotsford School Board—with creationism instruction between 1981 and 1995. The Board's Origin of Life policy required teachers to supplement instruction in evolutionary theory by instructing students in literalist Christian understandings of the origin of life. This policy is anomalous insofar as British Columbia's public schools steadily moved away from conflating Christianity and education throughout this period. This study seeks to determine what factors allowed and or prompted the Board to take this contrary stance and seek to actively privilege Christian beliefs. After situating the Board's policy within larger discourses concerning religion and public education, I engage in archival analyses of a series of publicly available documents from this period. These documents include: official accounts of the policy found in Board and Ministry of Education notes and correspondence; and, non-official perspectives and contextual information found in articles from the provincial and local print media. My findings suggest that the Abbotsford School Board's 1981-1995 Origin of Life policy is best understood as one part of the Board's larger commitment towards promoting Christian hegemony in its schools. Additionally, this study shows how the Board's policy disposition alone does not adequately explain how it was able to implement and maintain this policy. Sentiment among the local and provincial electorate as well as the policy dispositions of the Ministry of Education are identified as key factors that mediated the Board's engagement with its policy. The implications of these findings as well as areas for future research are then discussed.

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