In an Alberta town, parents fight for a secular education
by KATE HAMMER
It wasn’t until her seven-year-old son asked her if he’d burn in hell that Marjorie Kirsop became concerned.
A Catholic education is the only local option for the Kirsop family and everyone else in Morinville, Alta., a community of 8,100 northwest of Edmonton. It’s a unique situation, rooted in the town’s origins as an outpost of French-Canadian Catholicism in the late 1800s. But this fall, when five-year-old Sarah Kirsop declared she had converted to Catholicism, her mother joined a group of local families who are challenging the status quo.
Their campaign for religion-free public education has met resistance from the local public school board – the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division – and drawn little more than a polite hearing from local politicians and Alberta’s Ministry of Education.
The dissident families, who number between five and 15 depending on who is counting, say they want what other Canadians have: freedom of religion, or, in this case, freedom from religion.
The Alberta School Act allows children to be excused from religious or patriotic exercises or instruction. “But in a Catholic school, the entire curriculum is permeated with the Catholic theology, hence the problem,” said Frank Peters, an expert in school governance and a professor of education at the University of Alberta.
The parents see their predicament more personally.
“When every other public school division, not just in Alberta, in the country is non-denominational, how can our public school division tell all of our children, ‘It’s Catholic education, you’re the problem and you should leave?’” said Donna Hunter, a Morinville mother and member of the group.
The school district says it has tried to accommodate the Morinville parents, even offering to pay to have their children bused to another district. District superintendent David Keohane said that the students’ commute wouldn’t be much longer than it already is, less than 20 minutes.
The parents filed an appeal with Alberta Education in January and are waiting to hear back. But Mr. Keohane has come to believe the Morinville parents will settle for nothing less than a secular school in their town, and his district isn’t willing to hand one over one of the four schools that it administers in Morinville.
“Handing over the keys to a building … we don’t see that as being either within our mandate, within the scope of the legislation or fiscally prudent,” he said.
Sharing space with other districts is a testy subject in provinces like Alberta, where public and Catholic school boards are often one and the same.
The town takes its name from Jean-Baptiste Morin, who drew French-speaking settlers to Alberta from Quebec in the late 19th century. The discovery of coal deposits in the area fuelled its growth in the early 20th century, and more recently it has emerged as a less expensive housing alternative within a short drive of Edmonton.
Morinville’s unique situation, in which the only public school board is a religious one, came about through the collision of that history with a redrawing of the district maps 16 years ago.
Only Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta still have patchworks of public and separate, protestant and Catholic school divisions. Over the years, protestant divisions have become secular and many have amalgamated with like-minded neighbours. Mass amalgamations in 1995 in Alberta left Morinville being serviced by a single public Catholic board, while the region’s secular board, the Sturgeon School Division, was confined to areas around Morinville.
Even today, Sturgeon's head offices are in an old school building in the heart of Morinville, but the district's boundaries trace a doughnut around the town.
“It's a pretty unusual set-up,” said Michele Vick, Sturgeon's superintendent.
Her district is amenable to making arrangements for busing Morinville children to a non-denominational Sturgeon school. This is one of the options put forward by the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division that Ms. Hunter's parent coalition finds unacceptable.
“It means longer bus rides and it cuts us out of their education,” said Ms. Hunter. “As non-residents of the school district, we wouldn’t be able to vote for our trustee, or run for trustee.”
Another option put forward by the Catholic board is for parents to take their children out of religion classes. Twenty per cent of elementary students and 70 per cent of high school students in the district already do this, attending health classes instead.
“The idea of excluding the children from religious instruction is ridiculous because the system itself advertises that the whole curriculum in their schools is permeated with the teachings of the Catholic church,” said Mr. Peters, the governance expert.
The district is clear that religion in its schools isn’t isolated to one class a day. Students pray before lunch and snacks, sing songs about Jesus and move through classrooms adorned with doves, crosses and other religious symbols.
In a letter posted on its website board officials write: “Through faith-based encounters with learning, our students come to understand a journey of life which extends from knowing the Christ within, to acting as Christ for others.”
Mr. Keohane said he believes that this religious component is a reason his students perform above average on province-wide tests and diploma exams.
In January, when the board’s trustees voted unanimously not to provide Morinville parents with a secular education, a heated debate erupted in the comments section of MorinvilleNews.com.
“Way to go to the GSACRD School Board! Not wavering in the face of 7 parents’ concern over a little prayer and the intent of teaching Christian values,” one wrote.
“Why should our kids have to drive by four public school [sic] in their own neighbourhood to get the same secular education that every other Albertan enjoys and is entitled to....” wrote another.
Ms. Hunter says the coalition includes about 15 families, and a large number of quiet supporters and demographic trends are likely to mean their ranks will grow.
Morinville isn’t as devout as it once was – only 30 per cent of the children attending the Catholic school are Catholic. Like the Kirsops and the Hunters, the town’s working-class families are generally recent arrivals who came in search of affordable housing. The transformation is starkly defined in the 2006 census, which shows that this former bastion of French-speaking Catholicism had only 140 people using French most often in the home out of a population of 6,685.
The timing of the Morinville uprising couldn’t be more uncomfortable for Alberta’s Minister of Education, Dave Hancock. Whatever decision he makes on the Morinville parents’ appeal is sure to offend voters of one stripe or another.
When pressed by another member in the legislature, Mr. Hancock acknowledged that the lack of a secular option in Morinville was unacceptable, but deferred to the Catholic school board on how the situation should be remedied.
A spokesman for Mr. Hancock, Eoin Kenny, said that the school district has satisfied its obligations under the province’s School Act, which is currently undergoing an overhaul.
“At this point, the minister has chosen not to intervene and is allowing locally elected school boards the autonomy to deal with their own local issues,” Mr. Kenny wrote in an e-mail.
MLA Ken Kowalski has offered to meet with the families, but did not answer a request for comment. Morinville’s mayor told a local newspaper that there is nothing the town council can do because schooling is outside its jurisdiction.
Ms. Hunter is looking for a lawyer in case Mr. Hancock’s ministry denies her appeal.
“If the provincial government won’t step in, then I’ll have to go to the courts,” she said. “I can’t believe I have to file a court case to get a public education. I feel torn; it would be easier to just move.”
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No secular schools in Morinville, Alberta? There'll be hell to pay!
BY DAVID J. CLIMENHAGA
Nothing terrifies a Canadian provincial politician more than a fight over Roman Catholic education, and with good reason. It's a political time bomb with a sizzling fuse. It's an issue on which it is simply impossible to reach a compromise that will make all voters happy, and one that is sure to enrage large groups of electors.
Supporters of publicly financed Catholic education are well organized and determined to defend their rights, which have roots deep in Canada's constitutional history. Supporters of secular public education can be aggressive too, although they're usually happy enough if there are adequately funded schools for their children as well.
Suddenly, thanks in no small part to an excellent report in the Globe and Mail, [see above] long-simmering anger over the ridiculous way the Alberta government provides public education in the Edmonton bedroom suburb of Morinville has boiled over the sides of the pot.
From the perspective of the Conservative government of Premier Ed Stelmach, this couldn't happen at a worse moment -- just as the party is trying to reinvent itself by choosing a new leader, fend off a significant challenge by the far-right Wildrose Alliance Party, which has its own "market-based solutions" for education, and prepare for a looming provincial general election.
The situation in a nutshell is this: Morinville, which was once a village of a few hundred almost exclusively French-speaking and Roman Catholic farmers, has grown into a thriving Edmonton bedroom community of about 7,000 people, predominantly English speaking and as diverse most other Canadian communities.
Many of these new residents have young families owing to the lower cost of housing in the town. For the same reason, the place is likely to continue to grow, so more families with children, significant numbers of them not Catholic, will be moving in soon.
There are four "public" schools in Morinville -- all parochial Catholic schools. The "public" school board -- for so it is legally designated -- is the Catholic school board. The separate school board … well, despite the fact that well over half the families with kids registered in Morinville schools are now not Catholic, there are no secular schools in Morinville, separate or otherwise. None!
So if you live in Morinville and you want to educate your children where you live, they're going to a Catholic School, where, as Catholic educators boast, Catholicity infuses the curriculum. Indeed, as the superintendent of schools recently wrote, "through faith-based encounters with learning, our students come to understand a journey of life which extends from knowing the Christ within, to acting as Christ for others…."
Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and others in Morinville, not to mention the non-religious, may not appreciate their children being proselytized with this particular brand of Christianity at school. But there you have it -- that's just the way it is today in Morinville.
Morinville's schools come under the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division, based in the city of St. Albert, population 60,000, 16 kilometres south on Edmonton's northern boundary.
The situation is symbolically as bad, although practically somewhat better, in St. Albert, which also used to be a predominantly Catholic farming village but many years ago became for all intents and purposes part of metropolitan Edmonton.
There, the real public school board is legally the separate school board and it's called the Protestant School Board. Its mandate is to provide secular education, no matter what the signs on the schools say. Indeed, it's legally a parochial board because that's the only way in Alberta to get public funding for a separate school board.
The separate school board, of course, is legally the public school board, and its mandate is to provide parochial Catholic education -- in Morinville as well as St. Albert. (Full disclosure: Your blogger lives in St. Albert and his children are graduates of the excellent program at Bellerose Composite High School, run by the thoroughly secular Protestant School Board.)
Notwithstanding all this back-story, the fight in Morinville is really pretty simple. When a few non-Catholic families started to campaign for a secular public school for their children in Morinville, their school board told them get lost. Earlier this year, the board voted unanimously that there would be no secular education offered in Morinville.
The debate soon grew heated in the pages of the community press, with supporters of the school board's position claiming only a dozen or so families are really involved in the campaign for secular education. Other non-Catholic families soon emerged with claims of how their kids had been ostracized and bullied in the region's Catholic schools for opting out of parochial classes. Others told of how their elementary school kids had come home and announced they were now Catholics.
Morinville Town Council, not surprisingly, ducked the issue and ran for the bushes.
Most provincial politicians would love to do the same. Indeed, Alberta Education Minister Dave Hancock tried to do so by telling the Edmonton Journal, in the words of the paper's reporter, that "a solution that satisfies those seeking secular schooling in Morinville may ultimately have to be settled in the courts." Unfortunately, the Journal seems not to have followed up on the minister’s brainstorm.
There can be little doubt former Deputy Premier and Conservative leadership candidate Doug Horner is thanking God that Morinville is not part of his adjacent riding. That doesn't reduce the problem for the provincial government as a whole, however, or for Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock MLA Ken Kowalski, the Speaker of the Alberta Legislature.
And it doesn't help that the provincial government -- pressed hard by the fiscally hawkish Wildrose Alliance Party -- is crying poverty and making vows of fiscal prudence. After all, Morinville isn't really big enough to support two public school boards.
Alas, no amount of bobbing and weaving by provincial representatives is going to work. The number of non-Catholic Morinville families demanding true public education for their children in their own community is only going to grow and keep on growing.
Indeed, the situation is helping to fuel an inconvenient campaign by former Conservative education minister Dave King, a relic of the era of premier Peter Lougheed, to dis-establish all Protestant and Catholic separate schools in Alberta.
Cost or no cost, the Alberta Government is going to have find both a way and the money to build secular public schools in Morinville or there will be, to borrow a page from Christian theology, hell to pay!
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.
David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work as Communications Director of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which with more than 73,000 members is Alberta’s largest union and Canada’s 10th largest. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.
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