On Public Education in Alberta

So let’s be clear: if a provincial legislature passes a Law – until such time as it is ruled unconstitutional by the relevant Court of Law – it is the responsibility of the Crown to enforce that Law. This is a simple and important principle in our system. In a country which is ruled by Laws, Laws must be followed. It seems that the Government of Rachel Notley is failing this test.


While, Education Minister David Eggen said that he had “not ruled out defunding a Christian school board that has refused to comply with legislation on gay-straight-alliances”; (Alberta education minister could defund Baptist school board defying LGBTQ law, By Andrea Huncar, CBC.ca, Last Updated: Sep 05, 2016) by asking for an inquiry and not enforcing the Alberta School Act, Minister Eggen has not enforced a change to the law made by the Prentice Government. By not acting decisively and with some speed and alacrity, Minister Eggen has shown a lack of courage and an inability to enforce the law as it is written.


With that being said, where do we go from here? I believe that the Legislature should act. It should defund any school board that isn’t in compliance with the Alberta School Act. If the Act is a symbolic demonstration of the Province’s, any school that doesn’t abide by the Act should not receive public support. If we truly believe in the Rule of Law; this is not harsh, this is what we have to do.


Now, this doesn’t mean that religious schools could not operate outside of the provincially-controlled School Board System. My experience tells me that a number of jurisdictions have “independent schools” which are not funded from the public purse and they are allowed to give out high school diplomas. In fact, much of this knowledge comes from my personal history. I was a non-Catholic student who attended D’Arcy McGee Elementary Catholic School in Toronto. When I was in Grade 8 and looking towards going to a high school, my parents and I had a conversation about my home provinces’ funding structure because I had to make a choice: Go to a School that was funded by the York or Toronto Board of Education, by the Metropolitan Toronto Separate School Board or one that was independent.


It was then that I learned that a number of Roman Catholic Schools in Toronto were “independent”. Or put differently, to maintain their mission – as they saw it – a number of Roman Catholic Schools chose to remain private and charge a minimal tuition. Today, two of the schools which I enquired about are private: St. Michael’s College School and De La Salle.


This notion of independence is important because those schools set their own criteria for their students, while also issuing Provincially Accredited High School Education. In other words, since those schools don’t accept provincial revenue sources, they can determine their own policies.

To be clear, the Catholics are not alone. There are also a number of schools that have an “Anglican Heritage” who are also independent. They include Bishop Strachan School, St. Clement’s School, Upper Canada College (UCC), Havergal College and Branksome Hall.


Consequently, one might ask could the same thing happen in Alberta. Pastor Brian Coldwell – the President of the Independent Baptist Christian Education Society (i.e. the Christian school board who is not in compliance with the amended Alberta School Act (once known as Bill 10)) and the leader of Parents for Choice in Education – could simply try to run his school board without provincial funding. Accordingly, The School Board in question would not be “forced” to accept GSAs (Gay Straight Alliances). So why not simply decline provincial funding? Such a change would ensure that, from his point of view, that the Education Minister would no longer have “an unreasonable amount of authority” to impose GSAs on all Alberta Schools. This is the reasoning that should be forwarded to the Edmonton Catholic School Board and the Independent Baptist Christian Education Society. They have a choice, they can accept Provincial Legislation and Regulation and the money that goes along with it, or they can be independent.


Now, in my opinion, that seems like a reasonable solution. For, it allows religious schools to express their faith, as they wish. However, to do so a religious school would have to do so on their own. They would have to become a charity, corporation or non-for-profit entity and raise 100% of their funds on their own. Given that, at this point, the Independent Baptist Christian Education Society receives 70% of its funding from the Province, this change would be a hard climb.


This is why some of the “Religious Private Schools” in Ontario have had to create endowments or public trusts. Some charge hefty fees and tuitions. However, one thing is clear: while, those schools teach the provincial curriculum, they are independent in terms of policy. That means that those schools can determine which clubs can exist on their premises (including GSAs). Since 1829, this has been the working policy in Ontario. If a Board accepts public funds, it accepts the rules dictated by the Legislature. While, if a school does not accept public funds, it can be allowed to run as it wishes.


Other provinces have similar rules for educational institutions. For example, Trinity Western University in B.C has managed to operate with a code of conduct which puts their form of Christianity at the heart of their institution. Therefore, we need to have an honest conversation in Alberta.


Alberta too has its own examples. Just look at St. John Bosco Private School in Calgary. They say they offer a “Traditional Catholic Education”; and after reading their Student Handbook, I would find it difficult to believe that they would allow GSAs to be on campus. For, St. John Bosco Private School makes it clear that students will go to mass as instructed, that Parents should “support the religious and educational goals of the school” and that Parents should “attend Mass and teach the Catholic faith by word and example”. Given that Pope Francis has reiterated that a Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual same sex relationship is against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, one can see that it is possible to operate an “independent” religious school in Alberta.


In my view, schools and boards who accept Provincial Funds should also fall under provincial Jurisdiction. This rule should apply to Charter Schools, Separate and Public Schools and their Boards and my reasoning is simple: tax money should be spent on all of us regardless of sexual orientation, creed, race, ethnic orientation, national origin, disability, sex or class. If each of us are equal, then the schools that teach us should be equal as well. Those schools which receive funding should look at the betterment of society and that comes from the education of all of us.


Or put differently, we accept that our taxes go to pay police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses or other local or provincial institutions because it is better for society to have these people working for all of us. By having Public Nurses, we are able to control many communicable diseases through education, vaccinations and immunization programmes. By having, Forest Fighters and Park Wardens, we are able to live and commune with Nature. We pay taxes so that each person can play their part to ensure that our society is better than what it was.


Such Commitment comes with a Responsibility. A Responsibility to ensure that the values put forth are shared. When the Alberta Legislature creates a law, it is enshrining our values. It is putting them to paper. Consequently, it is important that the Legislature enforce those standards. If the Alberta Legislature says it is the value of public dollars to ensure that Gay Straight Alliance Clubs (GSAs) are a part of our society than that should be rules for all of us. However, it can’t just end there. The Legislature must follow those written values to the end.


With all this being said, minorities shouldn’t be railroaded. They may, and should, object in the Political Sphere. Minorities should have the availability to go to court – either using paid counsel or counsel providing pro bono representation – and have their objections noted. Should a court find that their rights have been violated – that balance was not provided – the court should indicate that. That court, Our Court, should find in favour of the minority. A Minority should be given every opportunity to try and convince the Majority of the wrongness of its ways. That is our deal that is the way a democracy works.


In this case, Pastor Brian Coldwell has not sought a legal route and has lost the political one. In his case, he does have an alternative. In a free society, where the minority cannot get traction, a minority can act freely, in concert and in a non-criminal fashion. In this case, this minority should seek an alternative service without public funds. While, the Alberta Legislature should get on with implementing the Alberta School Act and the values which a unanimous legislature sought to create.



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