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Elections BC denies its new media and disinformation literacy guide for future voters in grades 9 to 12 violates the office’s nonpartisan mandate. 

The provincial election office recently published a 51-page lesson plan authored by MediaSmarts, a non-profit charity that has received a significant amount of funding from the federal Liberals. 

“Media Literacy for the 2024 Provincial General Election in British Columbia” has six different modules that touch on a variety of media literacy areas. Among them are identifying sources of information, election disinformation, digital political advertising and polarizing content. 

Of concern was the guide’s reference to polarizing issues such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s use of the Emergencies Act to clamp down on Freedom Convoy protesters in Feb. 2022. 

In the “Methods of Polarization” module, students are asked to analyze the Politico headline “Canada invokes unprecedented emergency measures – and triggers a political firestorm” for polarization. 

The Elections BC lesson plan instructs educators to explain to students “that it offends the value of freedom by describing the emergency measures as ‘unprecedented’” and to label the term as an example of hyperbole or extreme exaggeration.

Trudeau was the first prime minister to invoke the Emergencies Act since it was passed in 1988 to replace the War Measures Act, making its use literally unprecedented.

Support for the use of the Emergencies Act was contentious and often delineated along political lines. Provincially, Conservative Party of British Columbia leader John Rustad was the only MLA in the B.C. legislature to vote against condemning the Freedom Convoy, which was the target of the emergency powers. In Ottawa, the federal Conservatives also voted against the act’s invocation.

In response to an inquiry from True North, an Elections BC spokesperson said the guide doesn’t violate the agency’s obligation to remain non-partisan on political matters. 

“As a non-partisan office of the legislature, we do not take a position on political issues like whether or not it was unprecedented to invoke the Emergencies Act,” Elections BC senior director of communications Andrew Watson told True North. “We do believe that voters and future voters should have resources to help them navigate their information environment during elections so that they can think critically and make informed choices for themselves.”

MediaSmarts’ director of communications, Tricia Grant, also stood by the lesson plan and its characterization of the Emergencies Act as not undermining “the non-partisan nature of the educational material.” 

The lesson plan also goes on to make certain value judgements about specific media outlets, specifically targeting the Toronto Sun as polarizing.

In a module titled “Your Information Ecosystem” the BC Elections guide asserts that “professional news” like “CBC or Global News” works to “make sure that what they publish is accurate before they publish it.” The guide does not elaborate that both media outlets often spread disinformation or fabricate the truth.

In keeping with the Emergencies Act, CBC anchor Nil Köksal suggested on air without any evidence that the Freedom Convoy could have been funded by Russia, a speculative question the CBC’s ombudsman later said shouldn’t have been asked.

Similarly, former Global News reporter Rachel Gilmore also spread the false story that protesters attempted to burn down a building with people inside. This was later debunked by the Ottawa Police Service. 

Despite these and other examples, the guide singles out conservative-leaning outlets like the Toronto Sun, which it accuses of polarization. However, according to Watson, the intent was not to imply certain news sources were trustworthy while others were not. 

“The lesson plan does not take a position on political issues or imply that only mainstream media sources are trustworthy. It does use examples from media articles to illustrate concepts, such as hyperbole, that help students think critically about the media they consume,” said Watson. 

MediaSmarts told True North that it did not call Toronto Sun as a whole unreliable, instead claiming a specific front page caricaturing Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow as the devil turning Toronto into “hell” was polarizing. 

“At MediaSmarts we teach news literacy as part of our programming, and we explain how to assess whether a news outlet is reputable and trustworthy based on the following: whether they have a commitment to accurate reporting, a documented track record of accuracy, and a process for publicly correcting mistakes, criteria that are met by both CBC and Global News,” said Grant. 

According to federal charity data, MediaSmarts has relied on a significant amount of federal funding. In 2022, 39% of the organization’s revenue came from the government, in 2021 the government supplied 70% of MediaSmarts’ revenue and in 2020 the share was 72%. 

According to Elections BC, the lesson plan cost $14,500 to develop.