By Stephen Dafoe
Editor’s note: We will be including video footage of the three main speakers from Thursday night’s forum so those interested in the debate who did not attend can see and hear what transpired. scroll to the bottom for video content.
Morinville – On the day Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division released their survey to gauge interest in non-faith-based education in Morinville, parents, residents and several people from outside the community filed into the Morinville Seniors’ Rendez-Vous Centre to hear a number of speakers talk about public education, what it is and how it can be achieved.
The two hour presentation was put on Thursday night by the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, a Calgary-based organization who were invited to put the public forum on in Morinville by those who have been seeking a public non-faith based education for their children.
Chumir Foundation President Janet Keeping said although the group has no particular stake in the issue, they nonetheless lament the absence of secular education in Morinville as does the Minister of Education Dave Hancock.
Keeping said the organization invited Minister Hancock, the Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association, GSACRD Chair Lauri-Ann Turnbull and board member Dave Caron, all of whom declined the invitation to speak Thursday night.
Speakers who did accept an invitation were former PC MLA and Minister of Education David King, Professor Frank Peters a specialist in education policy with the University of Alberta’s faculty of Education and Linda McKay-Panos, a lawyer specializing in civil liberties and human rights. Additionally, a representative from the Public School Boards Association of Alberta and a representative from the parents delegation spoke.
Each speaker was given approximately ten minutes to deliver their perspective on public schools, the education they provide and the issue currently confronting Morinville.
The difference between separate and public education
David King, who has called for the disestablish of separate school boards, a point the Chumir Foundation did not shy away from making clear, said it is important to have a common understanding of what a public school system is in comparison to separate schools.
The former minister of education said school systems are not public because they are mandated by the school act because private and charter schools are mandated by the school act. Neither are they public schools because they are publicly funded as private schools, charter schools and home schooling are all publicly funded. For King, the true meaning of public school requires a deeper look.
“Public education exists to create and sustain a community,” King said, adding it is also the purpose of separate and charter schools, as well as some private schools. “What distinguishes public schools on this matter of creating and sustaining a community is that a public school education exists to create and sustain a peculiar kind of community – a civil democratic community.”
King said a public school education is the means by which people understand who they are as citizens of their communities, their province and their country.
“That’s not the mandate of any other system,” he said. “Separate schools, for example, don’t exist to create and sustain a civil democratic community. They exist to create and sustain a faith community.”
For King the two systems have a very different mandate with respect to how those communities operate.
“A truly public school system exists to nurture the understanding that we live and will live together, regardless of differences of race, religion or economic circumstances, intellect or whatever, ” he said. “A separate school system exists to nurture kids in the understanding that they will live together as Catholics, somewhat apart from the rest of the world because their common faith is the essential bond of their primary community, which is their faith community.”
King said these differences show up in some practical ways, public schools accepting children without any preconditions, separate schools with very clear preconditions.
“You must be a member of the minority faith or, alternately, you must sign a form that says you accept the context of the minority faith,” King said, adding the differences often show up in the classroom. “In a public school anything can be discussed. In a separate school that is not the case. In a public school, as in a democracy, dissenting views and expressions are allowed and they are challenged. In a separate school there are clear limits to dissenting views, and those are the limits of the church, not of a democratic community. ”
King explained public schools are completely inclusive as a matter of conviction and as a matter of right. They are also neutral about the variety of institutional expressions of faith, not favouring one over another. Because it does not promote any one faith, King said public schools also do not diminish or disparage any other faith.
“This neutrality about religion is not a lack of respect for faith or disinterest in faith,” King said. “It is based on the conviction that faith is personal to each and every one of us, and it would be wrong for the institutions of the state to bring their weight to bear in promoting one faith rather than another.”
King said it is his belief that education is not only for the child but for the community as a whole, and that it serves three purposes: creating a civil democratic community, accepting children without preconditions of any kind, and it must be neutral about the variety of institutional expressions of faith.
“It draws its moral authority from the common work of all the great values, great religions and great cultures, and it draws its moral authority from this community of which we are all a part,” he said. “Consequently it has great moral authority and does not need to rely on an institutional connection with one denomination or another for that moral authority.”
Morinville situation historical anomaly
While King spoke to the differences between separate and public school systems, Morinville’s four schools are public schools, providing a fully-permeated Catholic education. As such they are referred to as Catholic public schools in the media and by GSACRD itself.
Frank Peters’ time was largely devoted to an historical retrospective of how separate and public schools evolved in Canada, Alberta and the region. The UofA professor said the educational system in Canada is a manufactured system that has developed over time.
The professor said an education act developed in 1841 contained a dissentient clause that allowed those unhappy with the religious orientation of those who established the school in any given area to establish their own schools. Eventually the provisions allowed residents to have their taxes support only the schools of their choice. The clause changed and morphed through the 1840s to 1860s, but was retained in the British North America Act of 1867. Peters said the constitution provided that the provinces would have exclusive right in relation to education, except to take away the right the religious minority has in any school district.
“The piece that says you cannot take away any rights that are enshrined in law only applied in Ontario and Quebec,” Peters said. “There was nothing in law in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick at the time.”
Peters explained after the North West Territories were established, an education ordinance was put in place in 1884. It allowed for the creation of separate school districts.
“It says the religious minority, either Catholic or Protestant, can establish a separate school district, and the name will be Catholic public district or Protestant public district,” Peters explained, adding the condition stayed in place for two years. “Among the districts established in the North West Territories at that time was St. Albert, Bellrose and Cunnigham. Subsequently after the ordinance changed, other Catholic public districts were established.”
Peters said the situation is not in any way commonplace.
“It is not just unique in Alberta; it is unique in the country, and it’s an issue that needs to be addressed,” Peters said.
Towards a solution
Much of Thursday night’s forum was a matter of preaching to the converted – the speakers in favour of secular education in Morinville and the listeners in support of the same. However, the opinions and views of the speakers and the opportunity to ask questions of experts served to provide the parent delegation with some added ammo in their ongoing battle for a non-faith-based education in Morinville, a matter that the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division has now put to the public through a survey of parents of children in Morinville’s four schools as well as a random sampling of some 400 Morinville residents. That survey was the result of a meeting between GSACRD and the Minister of Education, Dave Hancock.
Both Peters and King said Thursday night the Minister has the power to fix what they both see as a situation that needs fixing in Morinville.
King said Hancock could and should use the bully pulpit of his office to put pressure on the local school board. Among his options would be the removal of GSACRD’s board of trustees or removing Morinville from GSACRD’s jurisdiction and giving it over to another division like Sturgeon.
“It isn’t correct at all to say the minister’s hands are tied,” King said. “The minister in my view should be participating in this issue much more than he is.”
King said an investigator could be brought in to have a closed door meeting to talk to the board like a “Dutch uncle”. By that King meant he felt it was time for some no-punches-pulled discussions.
It is an opinion shared by Peters.
“The minister has to get moving on this,” Peters said. I’m not in favour of another investigation. Somebody’s got to talk tough to them [the school board]. Playing nicely, they’re not doing a blessed thing.”
GSACRD is presently speaking to potential education partners who would provide the secular education some families are looking for. Just how many families will be determined by the survey being sent to GSACRD student families.
David king speaks on differences between public and separate education