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 think the point here is having a choice. All other communities in Canada have a choice to send their children to public or catholic school. In Morinville we do not. A few years ago Cardiff also did not have a choice, there was no catholic option available to them. They as a community changed this and now have busing available to the catholic school. I am in complete support of this, I would also like the option to put my children in a non-religios school. I want to be the one who teaches my children about religion, ALL religions not just one, so that they can make their own unbiased choices if and when they want to.

  2. First, I applaud Donna Hunter… standing up for her child’s education! Very brave… and if you think her move didn’t take courage, just read the above posts by Jeaneva, Kim, Juan, Quentin, and others.

    Ms Hunter voices her LEGITIMATE CONCERN… and people respond with “Canada is not your country to be in”, “There are far too many people moving into town and trying to change things”, and “find somewhere else to live”.

    Wow. where to begin. Leave not our teachings to the religious and the naive. Heard of Galileo Galilei? He’s the physicist and astronomer who said the earth went around the sun… not the other way around. He was then put under house arrest for the REST OF HIS LIFE by the Catholic Church… for heresy.

    After all this time, the parallels here are disturbing.

    But I digress.

    You want kids to be taught religious beliefs, then there’s this great place called “church”.

    You want kids to be taught scientific principles of math, physics, geology, astronomy… that’s school. Where there should be no room for archaic, uninformed censure. Or blatantly inaccurate teachings. Public funding should not go towards sunday school disguised as education. Period.

    Believe what you want to about the after-life, but do not force it upon your fellow citizens! That is what Ms Hunter is fighting for… the separation of Church and State.

    Sadly, history shows that religion will always oppose the progress of science, as knowledge directly opposes religious doctrine.

  3. Catholic education is what this town is founded on, in fact the whole surrounding area. We have been a Catholic community since the beginning. It was the Priests and Religious Sister’s charity and emphasis on preserving the family that shaped this town into the close nit community that we have. Our religious values and beliefs are why we have such a welcoming community. I think that the idea of having a secular school system along with the current Catholic/Public system would be a wound in the side of this great community and dis-respectful. We welcome all who want to live in Morinville and even have the only public/Catholic school system in the province available. As a whole people are attracted to our town, and want to move here to live in the security of a smaller, safer, welcoming community. What they are attracted to is the Christian values lived out by the community. These virtues of love, acceptance, and forgiveness have been perpetuated through our education system. The educating of our youth in ” scientific principles of math, physics, geology, astronomy”
    but also the teaching of our faith and its reason, which by the way are NOT mutually exclusive. A better investigation into true Catholic beliefs would render all secularists a different picture than the opinions discussed in this blog. (eg. See Pope John Paul’s encyclical on”Faith and Reason”)
    My final thought is this, I don’t think that it is a secret that Morinville is a Catholic community, our beautiful Parish is our town symbol and has been for years. Anyone could see this with one drive into town. I would never move into a small village in Thailand where the local Buddhist Temple was the town symbol and their education system taught Buddhism as the norm, and be surprised when my child came home talking about Buddha’s Four Noble Truths then try and organize a secular school in this town. This comes down to respect, we give it to all who want to join our community so please respect our town that has grown great on the foundation of Christian principles.

  4. Atheism is not what built this country. What would the mother in this story prefer, that her daughter, in kindergarten, is taught about same sex relationships?

  5. Why is a minority taking away the rights of the majority or the rights of my children?

    Whether you believe in God or not my ancestors worked hard with Father Lacombe to help open up this land in the late 1800’s. Try not to be so disrespectful to them by believing the world revolves around yourself. We are community, how does this help Morinville?

    If you are in trouble or need help believers and non believers will come to your aid in Morinville. Remeber that those principles regradless of how they got in a persons head will live with them forever.

    In the year of the Moriville 100th anniversary this is a crying shame! Happy Birthday Morinville!

  6. @ ROC

    I Sir/Madam am one of those “Non Catholic” residents of Morinville(I wouldn’t say non believer, I have my own value system) who would aid anyone in a pinch. This is how I was raised, without the benefit, as it were, of a religious doctrine.

    My stance is not anti-catholic, nor anti-religion, it is however pro-choice. My children are growing up in a world that does not match the one I grew up in, nor the one this town was founded in 100 years ago.

    I work and spend the majority of my time with Catholics, Anglicans, Bhuddists, Muslims, Sihks, Jews, Agnostics, Athiests, and just about every other denpomination/non-denomination you can think of, every one of them good people. All of them demonstrating levels of acceptance and tolerance far greater then what I see in these 26 posts, although I do not believe that these posts are a valid representation of the community as a whole.

    If “Religious” studies in education were actually the study of “Religion” as in the general aspects of each faith, comparisons, historical events either caused or heavily influenced by belief systems, and demonstrating the similarities and differences between the groups, not only would I encourage my children to attend but I’d likely sit right next to them and find it fascinating instruction.

    If Catholic studies was restricted to the “Religious Studies” program which parents have the option of opting out of, then the issue would indeed be moot. Unfortunately that is not the case.

    If one wishes to instruct a single belief system to the exclusion of all others then that is no longer education, that is indoctrination, which would be acceptable if the target audience was there through their own volition, however if there is no option available for those of different belief systems it then becomes remniscient if the religious education foisted upon the native cultures during the time period that several posters seem to keep refering to. Contrary to some opinion, this time was not a shining moment for the Catholic culture as a whole.

    I should not have to have a conversation with my son when he comes home and asks if it is ok to believe in Jesus and God, but not Mary and Joseph, because his 6 year old mind is trying to appease both his teachers, and his parents, the normal role models for all children.

    I should not hear that the reason my son prays before recess is because one of his classmates had his recess suspended for NOT praying and he is afraid of being singled out amongst his peers.

    [Paragraph omitted by to comply with our editorial policy]

    There are two Elementary schools in Morinville, the town isn’t huge, there is no acceptable reason in my mind why there is not a choice for those of us who are not Catholic to have our children educated in a manner we believe fitting without impacting the right of the Catholic population to have their children educted in a manner that they prefer.

    This indeeed fits a Majority rule / Minority rights perspective, and given the literature put forth as to the actual percentage of Catholic Students in our “Catholic Public Elementary School” is more than fair.

    For those who say “This is who we always have been, this is who we are, and this is who we always will be”, I respond that the world around you is changing as it always has and always will, accept it, accept others,and there is hope for our children to grow in a world of understanding.

    No one is asking you to sacrifice your beliefs, to the contrary I would staunchly advocate that you have the right to them and to educate your own as you believe is best. However I have similar rights and I will advocate them just as staunchly.

    One would think that a town serving a large military population would be one of the few places where that concept really would thrive.

    Thomas Kirsop
    Concerned Parent, tax payer, and member of the public.

  7. My family moved to Morinville in 2007. I was shocked to find out that there was no non-faith public school. New to the area and not knowing a lot about Morinville it honestly never occurred to me that this would be the case. When we asked our realtor about the schools she told us there were two elementary schools, a junior high and a high school all within close proximity to our new house. At the time my daughter wasn’t old enough to attend school and I never gave school a second thought until I went to enroll her years later and found out that the only option we had was a Catholic option. Yes, we should have researched it before moving here. We regret that we did not because we never would have chosen Morinville as our home. We fully support Mrs Hunter, applaud her courage and will join with her to enact change.

  8. As I continue to read these posts, my heart gets heavier and heavier. I am not Catholic, but I am Christian. I love living in Morinville. I have felt very welcomed in the 5 years our family has been living here. Today, I don’t feel very welcome. I stand behind Mrs. Hunter 100%, but I feel that I must agree with her only behind closed doors. I don’t want my neigbours to tell me to leave town (or even my country).
    This is a passionate issue. We all want what is best for our children. What religion you practise is your own business. I mean no dis-respect for the founding fathers of Morinville. But if you want it to be the same as it was 100 years ago, please build a big fence around it. Please ask local realtors to advertise this as Catholic only. And please don’t think a Catholic community is the only type that steps up to help people in need. That is a human trait.
    FYI – My children are at Notre Dame and take the religion class. I have no problem with faith being taught in school. But that is my choice. Isn’t Mrs. Hunter intitled to her’s??
    This issue wont’ be solved today. Can we not look at other communities for answers. In the 100’s of small communities across this country, this must have come up before. Instead of both sides digging in the heels, can we set an example for our children and come together for a solution??

  9. Notre Dame is a PUBLIC school.
    There is no such thing as “public catholic”.

    Why do my kids come home with notes on sexual education that suggest it is a gift from God, and that only married people have sex?

    Get real GSACRD!!!

    Way to go Donna and Thomas. It’s about time someone said something.

    I am Catholic, but I believe that in a PUBLIC school, education and religion must be separated.

  10. Dear Ms. Hunter

    I highly suggest you take care of your children and stop worrying about this. The amount of time you have spent with petitions you could have driven your children to a different school. Stop making trouble. Saint Albert, SAINT. We are a Catholic community deal with it. Christmas is from the birth of Christ. Regardless of what you believe. I strongly agree with Keohane, the Catholic school system teaches about treating people with respect. It is an important part of education. Use your spare time to spend with your children not with the school system, it works the way it is right now.
    My husband and I both went to school in St. Albert Catholic schools, we now have children and love that our children will go to the same schools where we learnt respect and love for others.
    Ms. ForCatholicSchools

  11. I find it disheartening that when people run out of logical arguments in a discussion they resort to questioning the parental competencies of others.

    I think miss Hunter is a mom fighting for her childrens rights, to me that qualifies as meeting parental obligation and should be commended.

    I also think that her competencies as a mother, regardless as to my positive opinion of them have absolutely nothing to do with the issue at hand.

    That issue is rule of law and observance of legislated human rights in a public school.


    Thomas Kirsop

  12. I give my support to Ms.Hunter whom I just watched on Alberta Primetime.
    The opportunity to choose a non-religious education for one’s child is a right, the same as the right to access to a religious education. Both forms should be offered as public education. There really is no argument here as Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the freedom of religion and conscience.

  13. Ms. Hunter you have my vote!!
    I’ve read all of these comments that have been posted & I would welcome a petition in Morinville. You have a religious town trying to force their values onto everyone who lives here. Not everyone who lives here is religious, nor should we have to be to live here. This is why I hate religion, it causes wars!!!!!!

  14. Was in Edmonton for a meeting on Wed. and picked up a copy of the newspaper.What a surprise when I saw mention of Morinville in the Globe and Mail!
    The Globe and Mail dated Wed. March 16th page A4 under the story caption Education- Catholic schools feeling strain of doctural divide.”
    This is where the article mentions in their story of a “bedroom community near Edmonton, where Catholic education is the only public option, is currently embroiled in a battle for residents’ right to a doctrine-free education.”

  15. All three of our children attended the Morinville schools and although we are not Catholic and do not attend any church, my wife and I appreciated the values based education our children received. We did not feel that religion was ‘forced down their throats’. Yes God is mentioned in the schools, but the students only received religion instrction in religion classes. In fact, we appreciated the open atmosphere at the junior and senior high schools when they would invite several ministers from other denominations to their celebrations. We appreciated the strong emphasis on social justice projects and helping others. It has given them a strong foundation in that they often think of how they can help others in difficult situations. My sisters’ children attended Edmonton Public schools and their education was in stark contrast, faith was never mentioned, there was less emphasis on social justice projects and discipline did not come from a place of forgiveness and restitution.

    I cannot imagine what will happen if there will be two school systems in Morinville. Each school will be too small to support all the option courses like Industrial Arts, Home ec, Drama, Band – all courses my kids really enjoyed – but these courses need adequate numbers to support them.. My friend lives in a small town and her kids do not get the variety of options we do here in Morinville, the school is simply too small.

    School friends will be split up, programs cut, and a school system that has managed to very satisfactorily meet the needs of the vast majority of people (I was on School Councils for many years and I was always impressed that the survey results indicated high satisfaction with the schools) will be eliminated.

    People need to think ahead to the consequences to splitting up our school population.

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