By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – The Catholic public school debate came before Morinville Town Council again Tuesday night, this time in the form of a motion from Councillor Lisa Holmes. Although a topic of discussion in the streets of Morinville for several months, the matter first came before council two weeks ago when Donna Hunter, spokesperson for the group of local parents seeking a secular education for their children in Morinville’s public schools, made her case to council. Council’s reaction at that time was one of silence. Neither comment nor question was made to the delegation.
But recent headlines outside of Morinville, including an article in last Saturday’s Globe and Mail, prompted Holmes to speak up where none on council had before. Holmes motion, delivered at the end of Tuesday night’s meeting, called on council to send an invitation to Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock MLA Ken Kowalski, Alberta’s Minister of Education Dave Hancock and the trustees of the Greater St. Albert Catholic School Board. That invitation would request the parties to attend a stakeholder meeting in Morinville within the next 30 days to discuss the future of Morinville’s education system.
Holmes’ motion was defeated by a 4-3 vote, Councillors Holmes, Boutestein and Van De Walle being the only supporters of the idea.
Speaking against the motion, Councillor Gordon Boddez said the school issue is not a municipal matter. “We are a creature of the provincial government,” Boddez said. “We are created by provincial government. School boards in this province are creatures of provincial and federal governments.”
The veteran councillor went on to compare the idea of mediating in the dispute to an independent committee stepping in to resolve Morinville’s long-standing feuds with Sturgeon County.
Boddez was not the only veteran councillor to oppose Holmes’ motion. Deputy Mayor Paul Krauskopf also made his objections known. “It’s too broad of an event,” Krauskopf said of the proposal, adding he would not object to the mayor making a call or speaking to some people on the matter, but that it was out of place for all of council to be addressing the issue. “This is a provincial matter, not a town matter.”
It was a sentiment Councillor David Pattison agreed with although he – like Holmes – is troubled by the recent regional and national attention the issue has attracted.
“Personally, this is an issue that I have seen since I moved here, but I’ve always seen it as a provincial matter,” the councillor said. “I just do not see what we as a town could do to mediate to bring parties together to resolve an issue. I hate the headlines, but with respect to Councillor Holmes, I do not see it as an appropriate role of the town to be on the mediation side.”
But Mayor Bertschi is not as troubled by the headlines as some on council, nor is he as concerned with the negative image those headlines may send Morinville’s way. “It is purely and simply an issue between the province and the schools,” the mayor said. “It’s going to continue to be an issue as long as we continue to keep growing. The divide’s going to get wider.”
The mayor said ultimately it will be the minister of education and the province that will have to make the decision. “We’re an anomaly in this province,” Bertschi said of Morinville’s unique Catholic public school system. “We’re the only one like this. In fact, I think we’re the only one like this in the country. It just needs to be dealt with at that level. That’s who needs to deal with it.”
The mayor said he could not envision a point where the issue would become a municipal issue. “The sky is not falling,” Bertschi said. “Does it need to be addressed? It would be nice if the minister would address it, but if they choose not to. I read an article in one of the dailies in the city that this will have to go to the courts. Well, how does it get to court? Does this group have to sue the province? Do they have to sue the school board?”
Bertschi said he felt for the Morinville parents and their plight, but maintained it was a matter between the province and the school board. “We’ve got enough issues at the municipal level without taking on fights that aren’t ours.”
But Councillor Holmes feels the schools issue is one council should be willing to have a dialogue on, although she agrees with others on council that it is not council’s fight.
“This is not a municipal issue, but as a resident of Morinville I’ve always believed that we have to do what’s in the best interest of the town,” she said. “When the town is the one out there in articles, then we have to be involved. It starts to impact on economic development. We have plans we want to make on attracting residents and new businesses to our community.”
Holmes said she felt the roundtable discussion she proposed in her motion would have given Morinville an opportunity to move the issue forward in discussions on a topic she hears about frequently as a parent of children in Morinville schools.
“I hear this issue every day,” Holmes said. “I live this issue every day.”
Although raised in a Catholic family, Holmes said she is not a practicing Catholic. Like other Morinville parents she has encountered religion coming home with her child.
“My seven-year-old son came home from Grade 1 and told me he is giving up chocolate for Lent,” Holmes said. “How did he know that? How did he learn that? He’s not in religious studies. He’s in the options course. But he had pancakes for breakfast and learned about Lent.”
Holmes said she was not bothered by her son’s Lenten sacrifice of chocolate and feels her child is getting an excellent education in his Morinville school; however, she understands how other parents might see things differently.
“If I was Muslim; if I was Jehovah’s Witness, it would bother me,” she said. “This is a public school. I do feel that there is a huge issue here for young families in our community, and that they have elected me as a mother of a young family to be their voice. Today I hope I gave them that.”
Donna Hunter, a regular attendee at Town Council meetings, said she was blindsided by Holmes’ motion Tuesday night. “That was phenomenal that she would even make a motion like that,” Hunter said after Tuesday night’s meeting. “That took a lot of guts, and she’s right. It’s like the elephant in the room that everybody is ignoring. It’s got national exposure. How can they still say this is not a town issue? Everybody is talking about Morinville.”
Although disappointed the motion did not pass, Hunter said she was pleased it was made and felt it would have been a good step towards opening discussions. “Any time people are given a place to feel safe and to have an open conversation, that’s a positive thing,” she said.
Hunter said she received an e-mail from Minister Hancock’s executive assistant Tuesday indicating the minister would be meeting directly with GSACRD, something she and her group had been awaiting word on for some time. “I think the media attention is having an effect on this issue,” Hunter said, adding she has seen a disconnect between what the minister is saying in the legislature and what his spokespeople are saying to the media.