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, 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.
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