By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – When Donna Hunter’s five-year-old daughter came home from her first day of kindergarten at Notre Dame Elementary School this fall, the mother of three was a little surprised to discover what her child had been taught that day.“My daughter came home the very first day from school and said, ‘Mom, God made the sky and God made the grass and God made the flowers – isn’t it nice that God made the flowers,’” Mrs. Hunter recalled of that first experience with Morinville schools. “I said, ‘Well, it’s very nice that your teacher believes in something and when you grow up, you can decide what you want to believe in.’ She said, ‘No, mommy. My teacher told me so. Why don’t you believe me?’
It was that interaction with her child that led Hunter to begin researching Morinville’s schools, the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division (GSACRD) which operates the schools, and what she believes is her and her children’s right to a secular education free of religious instruction in a public school system.
Although GSACRD operates with a Catholic mandate they are the public school system in Morinville, operating two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school in the community.
But for Hunter and the delegation of parents and grandparents she brought before a GSACRD board meeting Monday evening, the current state in Morinville’s schools is an unacceptable one. The group is seeking a fully secular and non faith-based education for their children in the schools the children attend.
“I would be satisfied if I had a school in town that was secular, that you walked in and it wasn’t Catholic,” Hunter said after her presentation to the board Monday night. “I want immediately one of the two elementary schools to be not Catholic, to be just a public school. And if parents choose to opt in to a fully permeated Catholic program, like a Christian LOGOS program, then they should be able to opt into it. I shouldn’t have to opt out of it in a public school. I want my kids to go to their public school. I don’t want to bus them and drive them to Namao.”
For Hunter and her group the request is not an unreasonable one as the parents feel they are guaranteed a secular public education under section 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees Canadians the right of “freedom of conscience and religion,” and under section 4 of the Human Rights Act.
Dave Redman, who formed part of Hunter’s delegation and who has five grandchildren attending schools in Morinville, agrees with the group’s position.
“They are breaking the rights of the children under the Human Rights Act of Canada, and they are breaking the rights of the children under the Alberta School Act, where they have the right to a secular education from their public school system, Redman said. “This is a public school system. If they wish to be a separate school system, that’s wonderful. I’m happy if they wish to teach Catholicism every day and in every way to the children that attend the school as a separate school.”
Redman said he believed sooner or later someone has to take responsibility for the fact that GSACRD schools in Morinville are public schools, something he believes comes with certain responsibilities, whether or not the school division chooses to recognize or ignore those responsibilities.
Redman, Hunter and the delegation are not satisfied with a response they received from Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock MLA Ken Kowalski that indicated GSACRD’s status within Morinville was an Albertan anomaly and that Education Minister Dave Hancock is working on a new School Act.
Proposed updates to the School Act would grant the Minister of Education the powers to change the designation of a school division from public to separate and from separate to public. A letter to Minister Hancock remained unanswered after 30 days, prompting Hunter to write directly to Premier Stelmach seeking a solution on behalf of her group.
“There is a short-term solution,” Redman said. “Yes, it’s complicated. It’s complicated because nobody wants to act. It’s very simple. You tell the school board, as their employer, under the law, to deliver what they are obligated to deliver under the law.”
Redman said other options include turning to the Sturgeon School Division to run a public school out of one of Morinville’s existing schools.
“There are many options available,” Redman said. It’s not her [Hunter’s] job to figure out what those options are for her child; it’s the minister’s as the employer of the schools.”
GSACRD Superintendent of Schools David Keohane said the board will now assess the information presented in Hunter’s presentation and are committed to respond to the group’s concerns within a month.
“Even in the face of this presentation, choice does remain an important principal on how our education system is built,” Keohane said Monday evening. “When it comes to selecting a school, parents and students have a wide range of options. They can select from public schools, separate schools, Francophone schools. In this whole conversation there’s the opportunity for private schools and charter schools is a very important consideration, too.”
Keohane said he was not prepared to talk specifically about the options available to parents because the board needs to deliberate on those options, but intimated that when the response is given there could be as many as seven options that could be presented through the existing legal framework that GRACRD operates within.
“It’ll be up to the board to examine the myriad of those choices, the range of them, and provide some advice,” Keohane said.
The superintendent of schools said Monday night’s delegation was the first of its kind for the division. “We don’t have any reason to believe that other community members are like minded at this time. Our satisfaction surveys right across the board in the community of Morinville would indicate we provide an outstanding educational programming for students, and our existing mandate can make that meaningful, and actually has a strong correlation to what those learning outcomes are all about.”
Defence of Catholic education
Superintendent Keohane said he believes Morinville students and parents find value in the education and religious studies being offered in Morinville schools.
Citing Statistics Canada’s 2001 census (the most recent census that tracks religion) Keohane said Morinville’s Catholic population is recorded as 46 per cent, significantly higher than the provincial average of 26 per cent. The superintendent said lower percentages of identified Catholics exist in Morinville schools, largely because 30 per cent of people do not have children attending school.
“That’s an interesting number because it enables us to see the key link to the historic reality of the community of Morinville – that it established 148 years ago a public Catholic system,” Keohane said. “The demographic shows that there’s no surprise for the continued support, based on that demographic.”
The GSACRD superintendent said on average 30 per cent of Morinville students identify themselves as Catholic on registration forms, a number higher than provincial averages. On average, religious study enrolment is higher than the Catholic student population.
Morinville GSACRD students are given the option of taking religious studies or a health and wellness program available to students who wish to opt out of religious studies.
“Right across the board, except at MCHS, we see an addition of 20 to 30 per cent of a non-Catholic population participating in religious studies as well,” Keohane said. “So it brings us into about overall the 60 to 70 per cent range of students who are taking religious studies.”
GSACRD numbers show the two strongest examples are Notre Dame Elementary School and École Georges P. Vanier School. Notre Dame has an identified Catholic student population of 28 per cent with 48 per cent of students enrolled in religious studies. Those numbers are higher at École Georges P. Vanier School, where 30 per cent of students are identified as Catholic and 60 per cent of the students are taking religious studies.
The numbers drop in Morinville’s middle and high school. Georges H. Primeau School has a 31 per cent Catholic student population with 47 per cent taking religious studies. Morinville Community High School’s recorded Catholic student population is 29 per cent with 13 per cent opting to take the religion program.
Keohane said the overall numbers indicate the value of the division’s religious studies program.
“To us that gives a message that for non-Catholics there’s something about our religious studies programming that is attractive to parents, even when they’re given choice,” Keohane said. “It’s attractive to more than just Catholic parents, and we believe it’s the values and social teachings of our faith in terms of how we treat others from the perspective of justice and charity and compassion that makes those programs attractive to kids.”
Parents prepared to carry the argument further
Hunter said her group’s argument is not about theology but about the definition of a public school.
“For me, personally, this isn’t about religion – this is about what a public school is,” she said. “That’s my issue. That’s what I wrote to the minister [of education]. That’s what I wrote to [MLA] Ken Kowalski.”
She said she will await the board’s response but is prepared to take the matter further if she and her group do not receive satisfaction in their request for secular education in Morinville’s public school system.