Public forum on public education provides answers

David King speaks to a packed house at the Seniors' Rendez-Vous Centre Thursday night.
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

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  1. “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.”

    This is becoming a sick joke. The GSACRD Board is one of the best, hardest-working, committed boards in the province – just ask the Minister (who, of course, will never agree publicly but knows it to be true). The GSACRD board is known provincially as an innovative, “push the envelope” board. The GSACRD Board was way ahead of the others in the area of special needs and the learning facilitator model which is now being held up by Alberta Education’s Setting the Direction. The board basically pioneered online learning in schools. It established CORE Lyncs, a model community support system in the province. It has led the way in learning technology. To think of removing this board is damaging and totally ridiculous.

    To say the board is doing nothing on this issue is just plain ignorance. They are engaging in due process to get it right for the greater good. Of course they wouldn’t want to speak at this forum, just when a critical survey is being administered. I find it in poor taste for Mr. King to move into town precisely at this time to try to influence the survey.

    People should be able to have a secular option. I don’t think anyone disagrees with that. I understand that the board is talking with Sturgeon on this. But to simply hand over Morinville to Sturgeon is also silly. How would Sturgeon offer a Catholic program to the residents who want to continue with GSACRD?

    Catholic public means just that – a Catholic system available to all, not just Catholics, unlike a Catholic separate system that takes Catholics first.

    So what if GSACRD is an anomaly in Canada. That’s what makes it special.

  2. What needs to happen is the board must step up and fix this by offering the town a secular school…fact.This should have been done ages ago and the board know it…fact.Times have changed and it is in the consitution. We are not asking that there are no catholic schools in Morinville, we are asking for a Public School.This needs to be done sooner than later for everyone’s skae. The schools we have now need to start planning for Sept as do the parents in Morinville. We will not back down from this issue, let us be a community and celebrate diversity.thank you

  3. Maybe if you were there last night you would have a better understanding of what YOU are even talking about.

  4. Very well said Kim! And yes…people should have a secular option and GSACRD agrees with that and as stated time and time again, will be available in September 2011! It’s being done! Quit the belly aching! Let the process happen!

    A packed house? It is my understanding after speaking with people who attended the Forum that there were approx. 65 people in attendance. As well, I find it interesting that only approx. 30 of those were actually Morinville residents. Regardless, I do not believe that 65 people makes a packed house in a room that holds approx. 150 people…and especially for a community of approx. 8100 people.

    It is also my understanding after speaking with people who attended the meeting that there were a number of people attending from the Edmonton Athiest Society. I find it interesting that the last two events advertised by the Parent Delegation was either attended by members of the Edmonton Athiest Society or was Hosted by them. Interesting isn’t it?

    • Ms.B.Respectful. We are talking about a photo caption here, albeit one where I could have chosen the wording better.

      Your mileage may vary on the definition of a packed house. I took a head count and got 85, which compared to other events I`ve attended in Morinville, is a packed house. Just to put matters into perspective, this publication held a public forum during the municipal election and got something like 170 out – in a population of 8,100 people. Voter turnout was greatly increased in the 2010 election, so there was no direct correlation between attendance at a forum and concern over the issue.

      I`m uncertain whether any of those who attended our all candidates forum were out of towners or atheists. We didn`t feel the need to ask their religious persuasion and presumed they were locals. had no part in organizing Thursday`s event, so I do not know if the Chumir foundation has considered a policy of barring atheists at the door of public events about religion held in a democratic society.

      As I mention in the article, much of the forum was preaching to the converted. Editorially, I`ll say that is because it is impossible to have a real and meaningful discussion when one side declined to attend. That is not a criticism of the school board or the ACTSA for not participating, just stating a fact. I can actually understand why the school board would not attend, given this issue has put them on the defensive and rising tempers in this community have overshadowed the good work they do as the signal to noise outside the community has been focused on this issue.

      That being said, I think had those in favour of Catholic education in Morinville as it stands come out and a real discussion between the two groups occurred, the Rendez-Vous Centre might have had double the amount, which would have certainly met your definition of a packed house and possibly even run the event afoul of local occupancy codes.

      Actually, that last bit is a bit of editorial sarcasm.

  5. @ Kim

    Do you have a last name? is Kim even your real name? I find it interesting that you are willing to be so vocal but are still hiding in anonymity.

    GSACRD is the public board. They no longer adequately represent the public in Morinville. They represent those that are Catholic and those that are willing to accept a Catholic education for their children. I am not one of those parents. GSACRD has no interest in providing true public education for the children of Morinville. They have an interest in retaining status quo. Period.

    One suggestion (of many possibilities) to correct this historical mistake would be to turn the system over to a true public school division. If Sturgeon was handed over the public school system or status there is a legal and relatively simple process available to Catholics to form a separate school board to allow those parents that wish a Catholic education for their children to receive one. There is no process to form a public school division for those parents wishing an inclusive non-denomonational public education. With dwindling numbers and half-empty schools I have never heard of a Catholic separate school refusing to accept a non-Catholic into one of their schools. Your fear of not having a place in a Catholic school is unfounded.

    Do you personally know the Minister of Education? you state that the Minister knows that “GSACRD is one of the best, hardest-working, committed boards in the province” but won’t state that publicly. Why quote information that can not be validated? I can make up a couple of my own statements about what I think the Minister might think or know to try to influence any argument but for now I prefer to stick to the facts. The Minister has told GSACRD that they are no different than any other public school division and as such have a responsibility to provide a secular education to its residents. They have refused to do so. Finding a “partner” and commissioning a biased and grossly misconducted survey is not sufficient. If they can not do what is required of them as our public board this must be swiftly and justly dealt with by the Minister.

    You state “To think of removing this board is damaging and totally ridiculous”. What I find damaging and totally ridiculous is that my children are forced to attend a public school which unconstitutionally forces them to declare their faith and one which supports the permeation of one religion exclusively above and beyond any other religion.

    “So what if GSACRD is an anomaly in Canada. That’s what makes it special”. That is not “special” that is what makes it outdated, discriminatory, backwards, unconstitutional and worthy of change.

    Jennifer Love

  6. Kim, and Ms. Respectful, no one has questioned the academic accomplishments of the school board.

    The options put forward by GSACRD all involve non-catholic parents putting their children in schools run by a school board from a different electoral district. This is disenfranchisement and is not acceptable. GSACRD is the public school board for Morinville, and the only school board in Morinville. As such they have the responsibility of serving ALL school-aged children in the community, and to do so while honouring their rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. If they insist on providing Catholic environment, then they must determine how to reconcile those two objectives, but their first priority must be inclusion.

    The Society of Edmonton Atheists was happy to host Donna and her delegation on Tuesday, and we are proud to support her in her cause. Our hope is that Minister Hancock will act if he feels more outside pressure and sees that the popular will exists for him to do something. I also have a personal stake in this. I am a new parent. What should I expect to find when it’s time for my daughter to go to school if this injustice is allowed to stand?

  7. @ Ms. B. Respectful

    Again another anonymous poster. Why the anonymity?

    Lets be clear. There has been some confusion in the community about what it is parents are asking for. We are not anti-Catholic or anti-religious, we are Pro-Public. We are not trying to take away the opportunity for those parents that choose a Catholic education for their children, we are only asking for the same opportunity. The opportunity to educate our children in our churches and homes in the manner in which we choose and the right to academically and socially educate our children in a non denominational environment where one religion is not given exclusivity above all others. Where children of all faiths and beliefs can grow and co-exist in an inclusive environment while fostering a community of understanding and an appreciation of diversity.

    There are parents of ALL faiths and beliefs who wish for a secular education in Morinville. I am not so sure what you find “interesting” about a group which supports public education attending a forum about public education? Please enlighten us! Trying to brand the Parent Delegation by association with one of many groups that supports our efforts is an interesting tactic to attempt to create diversionary attention from the real issues here.

  8. The Minister’s personal views of the historical quality of the GSACRD board have nothing to do with his Ministerial job of ensuring school boards are providing education to their residents according to the law. The GSACRD board IS doing something, I agree, but that something is incongruent with the Parent Delegation’s legal request and the Minister of Education’s requirements of them.

    Also, prior to a ‘critical survey’ is the perfect time for an open, public discussion involving all parties. Especially in a mediated environment to allow all parties a chance to educate the public on their stance while leaving emotional or slanderous words and opinions ( such as ‘sick joke’, ‘ignorance’, and ‘belly aching’) at the door. This public discussion would also allow for misinformation and here-say (that is becoming increasingly inaccurate) to be aired and dissolved by those in the know so that everyone can focus on the actual issue and stop being side-tracked into a religious debate which this is NOT. It is both disappointing and unfortunate that GSACRD and the ACSTA chose to miss out on the opportunity to represent themselves among other professionals in their field. This would allow those few given the privilege to fill out the survey a chance to make an informed decision.

    To clarify another point; the Edmonton Atheist Society has just recently taken notice of the Morinville educational situation as a point of interest. They are, from what limited exposure I have, seem to be a respectful group trying to learn more about this. The Parent Delegation is NOT a group of Atheists. We are a group comprising of several belief systems INCLUDING but not limited to Christianity. The ONLY link between the Edmonton Atheist Society and the Parent Delegation is a shared understanding that all citizens of Canada have a constitutional right to freedom of religion which includes freedom from religion.

  9. Ms.B.Respectful said “It is also my understanding after speaking with people who attended the meeting that there were a number of people attending from the Edmonton Athiest Society. I find it interesting that the last two events advertised by the Parent Delegation was
    either attended by members of the Edmonton Athiest Society or was Hosted by them. Interesting isn’t it?”

    What exactly are you insinuating with that statement? Why don’t you just come out and say what you think? One doesn’t have to read very deeply between the lines to figure it out, mind you, but rather than commenting on what I think you meant by it, why don’t you come back and elucidate for us?
    I also find it interesting that your alias is B.Respectful but your comments have been anything but.

  10. I would have to agree with Paul…. B.Respectful should try to have some respect for others Religious beliefs whether they are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or Atheist.EVERYONE has different beliefs that is what makes us all unique. Both my husband and myself have different christian backgrounds and we do not want our children in your Catholic schools. So do not judge us,instead you should embrace our differences with open arms.Respect our rights and our children’s rights to freedom of religion. Who cares how many people exactly showed up for the forum last night…i know i did.That does not change the fact that 76% of Morinville’s residents are NOT of Catholic faith.Instead of trying to belittle us(people you dont know and have no idea what religion we are)why dont you join us in the fight for OUR rights in OUR community. WE are not going anywhere!!!!

  11. Ex-minister David King must have had the audience wincing – how embarrassing to confront the limitations of the education system in Morinville. How diconcerting to realise that the kids are not being educated in a way that would enhance our diverse communities and our democracy.

    If the people here can’t see the problem now, they deserve what they get.

  12. Why be anonymous? We live in a small town with a long memory. Those who know me also know wo made the comments, which is all that matters.

    I would have attended the forum had all the players been there. As they weren’t, it seemed pointless. If the people who affect change are not there, what is the point?

    A friend of mine said that you can’t expect a Catholic Board to setup a non-Catholic education system. She is right. This should be taken out of the GSACRD’s hands and given to a truly public board. You can’t expect them to tear themselves apart.

    As far as creating a school, I have suggested earlier that one of the schools should be turned over to the public board. The same friend I referred to above thought that idea was horrendous given what she called “sweat equity,” as in time and effort put in to making the schools what they are. However, I argue that there is no such thing when dealing with what are public assets. As I commented earlier, if the GSACRD is truly “public” then another public school coming in to a GSACRD school is really a change than a hostile takeover.

    If the “impartial and significant” survey comes back with anything other than “the status quo is fine” then I will be surprised, no, very surprised. Just over 25% of my 2011 tax bill is for schools, but I have no say. That is wrong.

    The Minister needs to take action now.

  13. Received my survey in the mail today (was wondering when it was going to show up). I completed it online….here’s 1 vote for a non-faith based school in Morinville 🙂

  14. To invite the athesist society of edmonton to this discussion was a wrong move. Whether you want to admit it or not, they are a religious group by pure definition by discussing or teaching what they believe. Counter intuitive to say the least. This will only split this stressed out community even further. Shame.

  15. if this is such a hot topic, why did only 30 morinville residents attend? more people show up for bingo night!

  16. Athiests are members of the public as much as any other. They have as much interest in public education systems as anyone else. They were welcomed as you would have been should you have chosen to attend.

    Thats the point of a public discussion.

    I don’t remember signing any attendance forms stating town of residence when I walked in and I just re-read the article to see if Morinville News reported a tally of who was from where. Where did you get the number 30 for residents of Morinville in attendance?

    Carry on as you see fit Sir.


    Thomas Kirsop

    • The 30 number came from Ms B Respectful, who received the number from someone who attended the Morinville event.

      Our rough head count was 85. The St. Albert Gazette called it at 100. Of that number, I counted six atheists, five representatives from another school division, several members of the parent delegation, three French birds and a…

  17. To invite a group of people from another city that has no personal interest in the education of my children, other then to remove God from any public system, is wrong. Did any of the athesist members have children in either of the schools in Morinville? I doubt it. So with that in mind, what was their agenda? It’s a perfect example of a miniority group trying to change the system of things to suit what they believe. What’s next? Removing “God keep our land glorious and free” from our national anthem?

    Even if The Gazette was right, and everyone there was from Morinville, 100 people from a town of 8100 is pathetic. That’s 0.012 percent of the town. It sure would be interesting to see how many would show up in support to keep things the way they are. Or maybe people just don’t care.

    By the way Thomas, I was there.


    • I sense a double standard in the calculation of success ratios here.

      Let’s use the same yard stick, shall we.

      If 100 out of 8,000 is pathetic for the Chumir foundation forum, what then of the 100 who came to GSACRD’s stakeholder meeting Wednesday night. The overall population base of interested parties would comprise Morinville, Legal and a considerable parts of St. Albert’s population, certainly far greater than the 8,000 used as a base for success in the Morinville event.

      One hundred showed up and that included a large number of teachers, board members, some students and council members.

      Fairly important opportunity for parents to shape special and alternative programing, decisions that will affect education and tax dollars being spent.
      GSACRD holds these events once or twice per year.

      Should we say that was a monumental failure when only 100 came out out of a three-community combined population.

      Certainly not.

      David Keohane remarked on how great a turnout there was and he was right. Because true success is not measured based on percentage of population. it is based on the engagement of those seeking change, whether that is cutting edge programming or being able to have a program, a class or a school for those who do not wish a Catholic education.

      100 people out of possibly 39,000 came to the GSACRD event. It was an incredibly productive evening wherein those who chose to come out got an opportunity to hear other thoughts on programing and to see a pretty interesting process for determining how everyone felt about alternative programing options.

      The Chumir event was successful because those concerned about the issue got to hear the opinion of some experts in law and education, and they had an opportunity to talk to one another.

      The simple fact of the matter is there are many variables that will determine turnout to events. The largest turnout at events is usually when something is in danger of being taken away. Banning reptiles comes to mind from recent history.

      If the consensus is the parent delegation and their “godless heathen atheist friends” are planning to take Catholic education away from Morinville, and support for the Catholic public system is so overwhelming one could say the Chumir event should have been overflowing with pitchfork carrying residents.

      It wasn’t. It takes the banning of reptiles of the opening of liquor stores next to Christian Schools to draw that level of crowd.

      65, 85, 100. The only number that matters are the numbers being presently collected because it is those numbers and only those numbers that will determine the desire for an education free from religion in this town.

  18. Dear admin (author),

    Please don’t reference “the twelve days of Christmas”, it has a Christian origin… we don’t want to offend anyone.

  19. If the meeting for GSACRD’s stakeholders was about getting rid of Catholicism in the schools there would have been different numbers. Commpare apples to apples. A discussion on how to improve education through technology and inovation, in a school that leads the rest, is not comparable to a discussion of getting rid of religion in the schools. You don’t measure a grain of sand the same way you measure a mountain. So no, not the same yard stick at all.

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