By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – Displeased with what they see as buck passing from the provincial government, three Morinville and two former Morinville residents have filed complaints against Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division No. 29 (GSACRD) with the Alberta Human Rights Commission, a quasi-judicial body that hears complaints of discrimination.
Morinville resident Marjorie Kirsop and former Morinville resident Donna Hunter filed separate complaints in November under section 11.1 of the Alberta Human Rights Act, and Hunter filed a separate Section 4 complaint in December. Three other parents also filed Section 4 complaints with the Alberta Human Rights Commission in November and December.
Under the Alberta Human Rights Act, Section 4 deals with discrimination with respect to goods, services, facilities or accommodations, while Section 11.1 deals specifically with notice to parents regarding religious instruction in schools and the removal of students from religious instruction upon parental request.
The parents who filed complaints against the school board also identified the Ministry of Education in their complaint as well as Notre Dame Elementary School and Ecole Georges P. Vanier School in the various complaints. They say they are frustrated with the province’s lack of any real action in addressing the issue of schooling for their children.
“I feel that we are just going around in circles,” Kirsop said. “I just felt the government hasn’t really dealt with the issue. He [the Minister of Education] expects the school boards to find a local solution and now we’re in the same spot. The three school boards are meeting to find a local solution, which I just don’t think can arise. It has to be dealt with by the government. They are the only ones with the authority to fix this.”
GSACRD, together with Sturgeon School Division, GSACRD’s chosen education partner providing non-faith-based schooling in Morinville, and St. Albert Protestant met with Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk in late November. The Minister of Education asked the three boards to find a local solution and gave the boards until mid-January to develop one.
Kirsop said she did not think it was fair to drag St. Albert Protestant, a separate school division, into the Morinville matter. “The only reason they are dragged into it is GSACRD is the public school board in St. Albert,” she said, adding it is her belief the Minister of Education would like to flip the two boards. The Morinville mother said Lukaszuk does have the authority to hand over jurisdiction of Morinville’s schools or a portion thereof to a different school division. “He does have the authority to hand over Morinville to say Sturgeon School Division, and then establish a separate school. “Is he going to do that? I don’t know.”
Seeking equal treatment
The Morinville parent said she had some specific goals in filing the human rights complaint. “What I’d like to see is for the government to finally acknowledge that they are the ones responsible, that ultimately they are the ones that are responsible for providing the public education,” Kirsop said. “It’s up to them whether we have a separate school board in Morinville or the public school board is a public school board.”
Kirsop said she finds the situation frustrating, particularly since she feels her children are being discriminated against. “My kids are in the public school now, and yet they are treated like second-class [citizens] by GSACRD because they are the ones ultimately responsible for infrastructure,” she said, adding she feels the matter of facilities has nothing to do with Sturgeon School Division because they are only responsible for providing the educational programing on behalf of GSACRD. “They have no say in where our kids will be housed.”
Presently Morinville Public School students are taking their studies in facilities at the Morinville RC Parish Hall and the Sturgeon School Division offices in town; however, two modular units have been moved onto the École Georges P. Vanier School grounds and are set to be occupied by the end of January. The move to Vanier was designed to provide a campus-like atmosphere between the preschool students currently housed at the Parish Hall and the Grade 1 to 4 students to be housed in the modulars. The infrastructure investment was part of a short term solution to provide facilities for the 83 students registered with the public school at the end of September, 2011. Another 74 Morinville students are taking their studies outside Morinville at other Sturgeon School Division Schools. There are approximately 1,700 students in Morinville, the bulk of whom take their studies at one of the four GSACRD schools in town.
Although the students occupying Morinville Public School options in town represent approximately five per cent of the total student population in the community, Kirsop and the other parents who have filed human rights complaints say they feel short changed on their children’s education and the amenities available to them. “They have no access to the library. They have no access to the computer labs. They have access to the gym that they can use once a week for half an hour that they must share between the Grades 1 [to] 4,” Kirsop said. “That to me is unacceptable. This isn’t the solution at all.”
But just what the right solution would be is something Kirsop is less clear on. She said she would like to see her kids in an actual school, but in doing so she does not desire taking over one of the existing schools or even building a new one, at least not yet. “I think if we had a proper school, then I think we would have larger enrolment numbers, and perhaps one day we could have an entire school,” she said, adding the Vanier site does not allow space for expansion of modular units as Morinville Public School grows in enrolment. “I would say we should be in one of the existing schools until the numbers warrant that we have our own school. We would have half a school and they would have half a school and we could coexist in a school.”
Whatever the solution, Kirsop said her frustration at this point is more with the province than the school board her children still fall under. “It’s extremely frustrating because the government isn’t willing to do anything – they’re putting the responsibility back on the school board,” she said. “I don’t blame GSACRD because they’re firm. They’ve made it clear. They are a Catholic school board and they must follow the Catholic mandate. So then ultimately it’s up to the government, and they’re just washing their hands of it.”
Another Morinville mother whose frustration with the school situation for her children prompted her to file an official complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission is Rayann Menard. “It got to a point where the progress was so slow it seemed like the powers that be weren’t going to go to the heart of the issue,” Menard said, adding she felt a lot of patchwork has been done by the province with really only a band aid solution being achieved rather than a clear and concise solution. “It seemed like the only option available to us.”
Menard’s complaint against GSACRD is that her family was and is being discriminated against. “Originally when we were in the Catholic or public schools here in town we were being discriminated against because we were not given an option,” she said. “We’re not Catholic and we had no other choice but to accept Catholicism as the one and only religion, and accept that my children would be indoctrinated.”
Menard claims now that her children are students at Morinville Public School the discrimination continues because of what she sees as a two-tier system. “We’ve got a two-tier system where the families that choose the Catholic-Public system get the gold standard,” she said. “They get the infrastructure. They get the libraries and gyms and computer rooms, and all of the amenities that come with a public school, whereas we don’t have that. Our children are in makeshift schools.”
The Morinville mother said she is not ungrateful to Sturgeon School Division for what they have done but the reality of the situation is the children of Morinville Public School are not getting the same amenities that are afforded to the other schools in town.
In launching the human rights complaint, Menard said she would like to have GSACRD provide a truly public school system. “What I would like is for there to be proper public education in Morinville by any means necessary,” she said, adding she understands GSACRD is not going to simply stop offering Catholic education. “Realistically, that’s not going to happen. GSACRD is not going to get rid of their Catholic mandate. What I would like is to have, preferably, Sturgeon School Division running the public school system in town and for Greater St. Albert to be operating a separate school system in the community. I wouldn’t want to take someone else’s rights away from them. I know there are a lot of families in town that prefer a Catholic education and want that for their children.”
Menard said she would like for there to be a choice between catholic and public education with a real brick and mortar option for all concerned. “I toggle back and forth between what I want and what’s realistic,” she said, adding the form public and Catholic education takes in Morinville is reversed to the way it is elsewhere in the country.
Whether or not the parents receive the satisfaction they are seeking through the Alberta Human Rights Commission or not remains to be seen. The tribunal process traditionally takes many months, if not years, and it is not as yet known if the complaints have been formally accepted by the commission. As of Jan. 3, Marjorie Kirsop said she has not heard anything on her complaint; however, according to the documents filed with the Alberta Human Rights Commission it takes 21 days for the respondent to reply once the complaint had been received by the commission. Meanwhile, Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk is anticipating hearing from the three school boards as to their local solution by mid-January, and Morinville Public School students are set to occupy the two modular units at Vanier Jan. 23.