Parents seeking secular education for their children

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.”

Board’s response

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.

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  1. I am a Catholic parent of a Catholic student attending a Catholic school in Morinville. For me, the schools in Morinville are not “Catholic enough” providing only a somewhat watered down version of general Christianity instead of specifically teaching the Catholic religion.

    For example, my child is in Grade 3 and like other 8 year-old Catholics; embarking upon the faith journey involved with the Catholic sacraments of First Reconciliation, First Communion and Confirmation.

    I was shocked to discover that nothing about these sacraments would be taught in school during religion class. Instead, my child has to participate in weekly evening session of religious instruction. My Catholic child attends Catholic school and yet has to access Catholic education outside school time? When I was a child, only Catholic children who did not attend Catholic school had to attend evening religion classes.
    These classes are yet another demand on the busy family schedule we all have.

    I chose to live in Morinville and I researched the school system. The fact that all schools in Morinville are Catholic was not a well-kept secret/shocking surprise. I wanted a Catholic education for my child. I am worried that my child is only hearing scraps of Catholicism in religion class amid the dominant “be nice to others in a vaguely Christian manner” type teachings that seem less designed to enlighten and more designed to avoid offending non-catholics.

    I suspect that in trying to please everyone, the school board has in fact pleased no-one.

  2. I’m not entirely sure I understand what people feel is wrong with our schools in Morinville. I am not a Catholic myself but I both went to school in Morinville and have children going to school here now. Is it simply the fact that their kids are being taught about God that upsets them so? I found my own education, and again my kids as well, to be exemplary. I’m not saying they are wrong to feel how they feel, just that I don’t get it.

  3. To Jeaneva Bodtche:
    The problem is not with the school being catholic, rather that it is a religous public school system in Morinville, and we do not have an acceptable alternative. I personally would feel the same way if the school system was Protestant, Muslim, or Buddhist. Being a (non-catholic) parent of children in this school, I’d prefer that the public school education they were receiving was non-denominational, rather than forced upon them.

    To Christian:
    As my comment above to Jeaneva, I would rather that the public school system was non-denominational, or at least had separate religion instruction that was possible to opt out of. According to the literature I have received from the school system, they teach about god during the entire curriculum (or at least touch on religion in each subject). My children can get religion instruction from my choice of sources, which would be of my choice of faith, on my terms. I dislike having a particular faith forced upon them simply because this is the only school available for my child to go to and stay in this community with the friends she has made.

    As a thought experiment, imagine if the tables were turned, and the only choice of school in your community was a Muslim Public School. How would you feel if you catholic child was forced to kneel and pray toward Mecca, simply because they were attending that school? Wouldn’t you rather that the religious teaching be separate, and the curriculum keep to the established secular standards?

  4. Ms. Hunter says it’s not about religion for her, but about secular public status. Give me a break … it’s really about transportation, plain and simple. It would seem to me that if Ms. Hunter and her group truly want a secular education for their children they should also demand that as well as disallowing prayer in schools, all public school systems cancel Christmas concerts,stop singing Silent Night, stay open for Christmas and Easter Holidays, and stop service projects that have any connection to any faith such as Sturgeon’s Camilla School food bank drive for the Morinville Knights of Columbus.

  5. Kim: There’s little doubt in my mind that when the changes being demanded are made the items you mentioned would either be included or next on the chopping block.

  6. This type of issue is exactly what is wrong with Canada nowadays and this is due to liberalization of the values and beliefs of a county that is founded upon western Christian beliefs and rights and laws.

    We have people like ms. Hunter demanding special priveledges because she is in the minority and feels that everything else has to be watered down.

    Look at history here, the area was predominatly Catholic and that is why the public system is Catholic, and the seperate school system is your non faith based secular St. Albert Protestant system.

    Furthermore if you do not like Christian or even Catholic education, then Canada is not your country to be in, maybe you need to live in an eastern based country where faith is really taken to an extreme to appreciate what you have in Canada.

    Furthermore I am not Catholic, I am not religious, but I have no issue with how our “public” system is in Morinville. I do subscribe to Christian beliefs as most of the people of the western nations do also.

    Please do not waste my tax dollars both provincially and federally over an argument like this, when the world has more pressing problems that are primarily caused by secular beliefs to deal with.

    I would like to say Merry Christmas to you, but I won’t because I do not want to offend your secular beliefs.

  7. I have been a Morinville resident my entire life. I am worried that with the growing population of our community that we are straying too far away from what made this community a great place to live. When I was growing up this community was tight-knit. My family and I never attended church yet we were NEVER made to feel less than or bad about not doing so. Our Schools are Christian and that is the way it is and has been for a long time. I went to school with many kids that had no religious affiliation or were muslim, Baha’i and Jehovah’s witnesses. The schools were ALWAYS very respectful to these students and on multiple occasions gave them oppurtunities to inform and present their beliefs to their fellow students and community in celebration settings. They were never foced to take religion class or say prayer(back when that was done). Morinville is a Christian community it was founded as such and all of the churches in our community have done great work in helping others (Christian or not). If you do not follow the Christian faith that is just fine, many of us don’t, but some of the greatest things in our community involve a little bit of religion because many families in our community have deep roots and connections with other families through the churches. This doesnt mean other families are left to the side and ment to be alienated it is just part of tradition in Morinville. There are far too many people moving into town and trying to change things that have made Morinville the community it is. Its not just churches or religion or schools, its the people and history. To wave around “civil rights” as a reason that a teacher shouldnt mention God or that Christians should go do their own thing and leave everyone else alone is a disappointing thing to see. There is always the option of sitting a child down and giving an explination that there is all kinds of religion that people believe in and some don’t. My parents thought of driving me to a public school but decided to try Morinvilles schools first and I’m glad they did. There is always the option of other schools, but It would be too bad if a student missed out on the great things Morinville Schools offer weither God is mentioned or not.

  8. Honestly, I think the point of my short little comment was missed. I totally understand what people are talking about as I am very well educated thanks to the wonderful schools I attended and my parents encouragement. Kim, Quentin and Jay have made absolutely perfect remarks that touch on what I believe. What right do people who move here, by their own choice more often than not, have to come in and try to change a great system that works? Maybe it’s not perfect, but since human beings are involved that is quite frankly impossible. Our schools, being part of a Catholic Public school system that has been established for years, give children an incredible and varied education that prepares them for the world. Again, I am NOT a Catholic, nor do I totally agree with everything they represent or believe, but I do respect their right to be here just like I do anyone else’s beliefs. Honestly, I believe more open-mindedness on the parts of many people would help to eliminate many problems. It’s time we put our foot down. No more change to satisfy those who don’t like how things are where they moved to. I’m sorry but if you don’t like where you chose to move, find somewhere else to live that you do. You will be happier and so will those who can continue to enjoy a way of life that has been established for them for generations.

  9. I am responding as a grandmother who has a grandson in Kindergarten at Notre Dame School and whose two sons went through the Morinville school system.
    This mother sounds concerned that by going to a Catholic school in Morinville her children will not be able to decide what they want to believe when they grow up. First how can a person make a sound decision without being informed about both sides. God does not force us to believe in Him. He gives us the information and we make the decision.
    I have respect for the Human Rights Act of Canada and believe in it but I am speaking from grass roots and exprience. How would a secular school solve the problem of making a choice as to whether a person should or should not believe in God. Isn’t the shoe on the other foot? Where no information is given about God to make an informed decision.

    My Grandson came home from his Kindergarten class one day and told his father what his teacher had said about a child in a wheelchair at school.He said ” Dad,my teacher said God made him special.” What a beautiful way to explain to a five year old that doesn’t understand. Not only easing the fear of seeing a child in this conditon but teaching him treatment of others and to except him as a friend. Needless to say my son was very pleased with the values that are being instilled in his son. God Bless those Kindergarden Teachers.

  10. This is exactly why we left Morinville. Our only option was to drive our child out of the division for a secular education. It was either that our have our child bombarded with the notion that some invisible fairy in the sky is calling the shots. Should that not be up to the parents to brainwash their kids with these silly little fables? Why does the school board feel the need to indoctrinate our children with these legends. Should they not be teaching our children how to think, instead of what to think?

  11. I think you are all missing the point that these schools receive public funds and therefore must be accessible to ALL in the community regardless of belief, superstition or religion. All that Mrs. Hunter is asking for is the ability for her daughter to get an education without being subjected to the supernatural beliefs of the community.

    Joyce – you question how a child can make an informed decision without being informed about both sides. It seems to be very clear that there is really only one side being presented here. Why not go one step further and give children the opportunity to make an informed decision by being informed about all sides – Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Scientology, Flying Spaghetti Monster, and so on? You are free to have your beliefs and teach them to your children. No one wants to take that away from you. However, any educational system that receives public funding should concentrate on educating children about the fundamentals needed to get through life – math, science, physics, biology, etc. Teachings about mythology should be kept to churches, Sunday Schools, private schools and the home.

  12. The Catholic public school system in Morinville IS available to all (that’s what people don’t seem to get – you don’t have to be a Catholic to attend) and it already provides an option for parents who do not want their children in religion classes. Religious education in Morinville and Legal schools is optional.

  13. Based on the content of this story, it should be safe to assume (I’m hoping) that Mrs. Hunter has not enrolled her daughter in any religion-based courses. The frightening part of this story is her daughter came home one day from kindergarten 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…”. If parents have the ability to have their kids opt-out of religious teachings then no teacher should make any mention of god a non-religious class. It isn’t exactly optional if kids are still “learning” about the supernatural when their parents have explicitly requested that they do not their kids to learn that type of nonsense.

  14. I am in support of changing the school systems in Morinville. I do not believe that I should be forced into a “PUBLIC” school that permeates all their teachings with Catholicism. I drive my child into St Albert everyday so I can avoid the teachings of Catholicism. I feel that religion should be taught in religion class and the remainder of the day should be religion free, this way you can opt out of religion as desired. I want my child to have the freedom to choose a religion or no religion when he is ready and not feel pressured by the teachings of the school. School is for education not religion!
    As for Kim’s comment about being able to :opt: out of religion, yes that is an option however in the Catholic schools it is stated that the remainder of the day is permeated with catholic theology and teachings so yes he can opt out of religion however it is still being forced on my child the remainder of the day. So no there is no option of “NO Religion” in this so called “public” education system in Morinville.

  15. I just want to say that I have recently graduated from the Morinville school system. I did have a catholic upbringing and attended church as a kid. I am not however catholic. In fact I don’t believe religion is any good except to provide a list of guidelines from with to live your life. IE. Things like: “Killing is bad”; “Treat others the way that you would like to be treated” etc. These are the same values that many children’s movies teach children.

    The fact is that people like Ms. Hunter are very common and are the reason why our “Catholic Schools” are not so catholic. Besides some decor and religion class(which you choose to take) I didn’t feel that religion was pressed upon me at all. In fact if you look at the percentages of the children that actually take a religious class in high school(the only time that they are allowed to choose themselves IE. without parental consent) very few of the students choose to do so.
    This may be because religion is considered an option and put up against all other options as a choice. If you ask me That serves as more of a discouragement to take religion. Who would pick religion over the fun options that your friends are taking. If a kid is brainwashed and wants to learn about god they would choose religion instead of drama. News Flash guys! They don’t.

    Another thing that I would like to know is what Ms. Hunter would say if little Tommy asked where grass comes from. Would you go into depth about the theory of evolution with a 5 year old? Or would you take the easy way out like the teacher did and say that God made them. I mean lets get real here. A 5 year old can’t physically make his own decisions or comprehend the theory of evolution. So what do you say?

  16. You can not have a Public School system, or any public facilty for that matter, run exclusively by religious. This nation was not founded on christian values. There’s something called Church/State separation. If you want to indoctrinate your child into a religion before they are, *gasp*, reasonable and intelligent enough to realize that god is like Santa and the Easter Bunny, well that’s your decision. But to force everyone in the area to have to as well is just unthinkable.

  17. I do not like the many comments I see that are beginning to debate teaching religious views at schools in an overall sense. I am an atheist raised in only catholic schools and although there were optional religious classes that I could opt out of, the catholic religion still permeated the school. Be it morning prayers, religious celebrations of holidays in the gymnasium or teachers representing facts as compared to their own religious views. I don’t resent this, but I wish that I had been allowed another option.

    That aside, this should not be an argument about how much religion is taught at school but just a straight forward case of creating a public school seperated from religion as our laws dictate there should be. This article should hold no religious debate. As Hunter stated, “For me, personally, this isn’t about religion – this is about what a public school is”.

    The fact that there is a lack of a non-religious school should be rectified without people accusing Hunter of being too lazy to drive her child to another town or demanding special priveleges because she is a minority.

    Also, once a school is changed to being fully public, the other could then better meet the needs of the catholic community and give a more comprehensive religious education without having to find a middle ground.

  18. To those who say our country was not founded on Christian beliefs… I really think, just maybe, you should take a good, long, hard look at our National Anthem. Read it aloud if you must to catch my point.

  19. Wow Christian, using our National Anthem as evidence for our christian roots. Very clever. How about looking at the Constitution. No where does it claim that this is a christian nation. Some references to god are made but nothing that claims the country is founded on christian values. Also, where is the national church? Give your head a good shake. This country was founded on secular beliefs that everyone has the right to practice their own religion. The government can not make a law inhibiting or promoting a religion. Period.

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