By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – Roughly 800 parents, students and members of the community filled the Morinville Community High School gymnasium Thursday night to hear Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk speak on the Morinville school issue and to give him their thoughts on the same.
Lukaszuk said he expects to make a decision on just where Morinville’s secular students will attend school this fall within a matter of days. “I don’t like to sit on decisions,” Lukaszuk said. “I find that if I wait longer I don’t wind up making decisions that are any better. I just wind up frustrating Albertans. I like to make quick decisions but well thought out based on fact.” Lukaszuk said he believed he now had all the facts he needed after Thursday night’s meeting with those who will be most impacted by the decision, and that he’d asked to meet with the school boards to discuss things further Thursday night.
In his comments at the beginning of the three-hour meeting, Lukaszuk said he had not yet made a decision on infrastructure for Morinville secular students, a position he was challenged on by several speakers during the question period portion of the evening. Applause from the audience seemed to indicate many in attendance were in agreement a decision had been made. The education minister said whatever the infrastructure choice was it must meet several criteria: it had to be available for September 2012; it must have facilities for a library and gymnasium; it must be able to accommodate at least kindergarten to Grade 6; it must have capacity for growth, and it must minimize the disruption to the student population of Morinville.
Lukaszuk said five options were before them for the secular public school -one of Morinville’s four existing schools or the Sturgeon School Division offices in Morinville, the latter of which got a large round of applause from the majority of attendees. The minister went on to say it was determined the most likely candidates were Notre Dame, G. P. Vanier or the division office. The two existing elementary schools met four of the criteria but would cause student disruption. The minister explained the division office would not be convertible by the fall, would not accommodate kindergarten to Grade 6, does not allow for growth, but did present limited disruption to student population.
Variety of thoughts
The predominantly pro-Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division school supporters expressed a variety of concerns with the proposed Bill 4, a piece of legislature now given second reading and which seeks to switch GSACRD’s designation from public to separate. The majority of the evening was given over to questions and comments from parents, students and others on the matter. Many MCHS students spoke of their support for their school and concerns about changes to the system.
Although the issue of faith based vs. non-faith-based schooling dominated the questions and comments, parental and stakeholder concerns ranged from the disruption and availability of schooling for special needs children, the availability of French Immersion programing, the ramifications of Bill 4 decisions in Legal, and even calls for the minister to reconsider Bill 4 and keep GSACRD the public school board. The latter suggestion, put forward by Morinville resident Michael Cust, received applause from a large majority of the audience, particularly after Cust compared a small group of people moving to Morinville and seeking secular education with people moving to Quebec and then complaining everything was written in French.
Although questions and comments varied, many parents expressed their concerns about the potential loss of an existing and familiar school and the potential loss of teacher’s jobs. A few parents expressed the opinion the secular students should be bussed outside the community, at least until a school could be built in Morinville to house them.
One parent, Alanna Dalton, was particularly passionate in her questions and comments. Dalton said most parents were fine with the fact there would be a Catholic system and a public system, but drew the line at giving up a school. “We’re fine with that, but what we’re not fine with is our kids being booted out for a select few,” Dalton said, adding her concerns of a connection between non-faith-based education and atheism. “Atheism is a recognized religion in Canada. How are you going to guarantee to me that if my children go in a separate system that’s not going to be pressed upon them? “ Dalton called for the attendees to signify if they agreed with what she was saying, and a large percentage of the audience showed their support. Dalton went on to say she was not Catholic but felt parents who choose to send their children to a Catholic school post Bill 4 flip would lose their voting rights. “You’re taking away our voice, and you’re claiming you are doing it for human rights. Really all you are doing is changing who you are discriminating against,” Dalton said.
Gillian Schaefer Percy, one of the original parents who fought for a public education in Morinville, took issue with the connecting of secular education and atheism. “I’d like to make some clarification on what secular education is because it seems to have become synonymous with atheism in this town,” she said. “Our school is not comprised of 100 per cent atheists. They’re comprised of 100 per cent of people who recognize that they want their children taught without one religious focus.” Percy went on to say Morinville Public Elementary School is comprised of Christians, including Protestants and Catholics, many of whom have simply taken the stance they prefer to teach their faith at home or in their respective churches.
One man very familiar with church is Morinville Christian Fellowship Pastor Greg Fraser who spoke as a parent to the high quality of education GSACRD schools offered his daughter. Pastor Fraser also spoke to the greater need for the community to come together on the issue. “As the pastor of a church of about 300 people in this community, I’m very concerned that we’re losing sight of the bigger picture,” he said. “And the bigger picture is what makes this an incredible community. The bigger picture is tolerance. The bigger picture is love. The bigger picture is kindness. I’m concerned as a pastor, and I have been praying for this event because I’m seeing a polarization happening in our community that greatly concerns me. My prayer for all of us is whether you are Catholic, whether you are Protestant or whether you hold to no faith-based values whatsoever, surely we can agree on love. We can agree on tolerance. We can agree on kindness.”
Pastor Fraser’s comments, which received considerable applause from all corners of the room, were a uniting voice of reason in an evening that although never overtly disrespectful was nonetheless emotionally charged.
Lukaszuk said he had a difficult decision to make, one he doesn’t have to make. “I can let it slide,” he said. “Courts will make that decision for you. So we have an opportunity right now in this community. We have an opportunity right now as a community to make a decision for ourselves that will impact us least. We can make that decision where we can accommodate our neighbours. Those are not those people; those are your neighbours. Those are people whose kids are playing together on the same baseball [team]. ”
Although many comments were made to the minister Thursday night about what should be done, one from a Sturgeon County resident with children at Vanier particularly struck the minister as worthy of consideration. Under the suggestion, secular students would be bussed to Sturgeon School Division (SSD) schools outside Morinville, but SSD would be the resident division for those families, allowing Morinville secular parents to vote for SSD trustees. While the minister said it was worth looking at, he reiterated throughout the evening no decision had yet been made.
Lukaszuk said he wanted to hear from Catholic school parents before making that final decision because they were the most affected in the matter. He reiterated his belief that a local solution was the best solution and said he wanted to make that decision with the community; otherwise the decision would be made for the community without having input into the outcome. “This matter will be decided in the courts and you won’t have a judge coming before you in a town hall meeting like this,” Lukaszuk said, noting it could take up to three years to plan and build a new school. “In the meantime that decision will be made for us, and I don’t want that to happen to you.”