More Trouble in Morinville Schools

Donna Hunter is a fighter. She’s been fighting for years now to get just one secular school in Morinville, Alberta (Canada) — and she’s only one of several mothers fighting for that cause. Right now, the Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools manages all four of the schools in the area, leaving non-religious parents with no alternatives.

Chris Colbourne - St. Albert Gazette



Last I heard, there was actually going to be a secular alternative, but it doesn’t look like that’s panning out. They just got denied by — of all places — the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

The Alberta Human Rights Commission has refused to deal with two complaints filed by parents who are fighting for a non-religious schooling option in Morinville.

Donna Hunter and Marjorie Kirsop received letters from the commission Thursday telling them to take their complaints to “another forum” such as the province’s School Act.

Kirsop and Hunter filed their human-rights complaints late last year, alleging their non-Catholic children were discriminated against because they have not been allowed to opt out of religious instruction in a system where Catholic doctrine permeates the school day.

Kirsop isn’t sure how to proceed anymore since she’s just going around in circles:

“I’m extremely disappointed as my complaint to the Human Rights Commission was made after many failed attempts to obtain a genuine public education in Morinville,” she said. “After our request for a secular education was denied by our school board in mid-January of 2011, we appealed to the Minister of Education. As of today, we still have not received a response from the Minister of Education in regards to our appeal. And now, we are told by the Human Rights Commission that our complaint is best dealt with by the school board — the very school board who denied our rights in the first place. It’s ironic. It seems we are just going in circles again. Should I be making another appeal to the Minister of Education?”

It’s a little hard for me to wrap my mind around what’s happening since I haven’t followed this story too closely and I’m not very clear on Canadian laws regarding education and religion. Some of the Canadian readers out there might be able to help us understand the issues a bit more — what happened in Morinville and what courses of action are left to take?

Reader Edwin adds this bit of relevant information via email:

… there was a provincial law enacted in 1905 that guarantees the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer and only recognizes the Roman Catholic and Church of England teachings in public schools… It was a condition of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan joining Canada. It actually overrides our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (our Constitution).

On a side note, there’s a nice interview with Donna Hunter here.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Persephone

    It sounds like Canada kept the mind-boggling bureaucracy of the English.

    • Tim

      ..and the French and then added complexity all of their own to regulate the relationship between the two.

      • Anonymous

        And then put a toque, a hockey stick, and a Timbit on the whole affair.

  • Silo

    I see another pocket of Alberta is being annoying. Also, the Provincial statute that “overrides” the Charter is interesting. Canadian law follows the principle of ultra vires, so by rights a Federal law should without question take precedence over a Provincial one, no matter how well-written the Provincial statute might be. I’d like to see that statute taken to the Supreme Court of Canada and see how it survives. I’m not a legal expert, but from what I understand the statute should whither under the gaze of our chief justices.

  • Silver_fox-trot

    Hmm, well, I live on the East Coast, so I’m not to familiar with the Prairie school system. I know that Quebec (where I grew up) used to have the Catholic/Protestant school division, but before I entered third grade they changed it to a language divide (you have either an English School or a French school and they have opt-in/opt-out for either Religion or Morals (lol, I just realized how wonderfully they divided them)!

    Would be interesting to look at, though. If there are enough children for four schools, then there should be at least enough people for a secular version of school.

    Unfortunately,. Canada doesn’t have that wonderful seperation of Church and State the Americans like to pretend they don’t have.

    • BinaryStar

      “…the Americans like to pretend they don’t have.”
      Care to clarify? Our wall is being eroded daily.

      • Silver_fox-trot

        What I mean by that it the way Creationists are trying to get ‘Creation Science’ into the school curriculum. Or the way that the people in RI are treating Jessica Alquist because she reminded the school that it was illegal to have a school prayer.

        If I recall, it would have been fine if they had removed the religious language (which was all of four words), but then the local people threw up arms and shouted “I’m a Christian and I demand it stay because I’m Christian!”

        Redundancy intentional.

        Though maybe I should have said something like ‘many Americans’ or ‘the evangelical Americans’ or ‘the rabidly religious Americans’.

        • BinaryStar

          Gotcha.

  • Silo

    Oops, I also wanted to add a correction. Edwin’s e-mail isn’t quite correct. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is just that. Our Constitution is a separate document, which became our first law at Confederation in 1867, and was updated in 1982.

  • dorothy30

    i live in Manitoba, and just want to add that education in Canada falls under provincial, not federal, jurisdiction. So these types of issues vary from province to province. In Manitoba, all public schools are secular, but private schools, religious or not, are also eligible for government funding (a law we would like to see changed!). Alberta and Ontario (and possible others) have separate Catholic and Protestant school divisions as a result of agreements signed more than 100 years ago when they joined confederation. All this stuff is now contentious and people are beginning to challenge it – hence the situation in Morinville.

    • Silo

      Hi dorothy30. You’re right that education falls under Provincial jurisdiction, but only the administration of education itself does so. I think Donna Hunter’s fight has legs because she’s challenging the school board over Rights and Freedoms, which of course is Federal.

      From what little I know about this I don’t believe there’s been a lot of Canadian case law established on secularism v. religion. It could become quite the nasty little hairball because of our national commitment to multiculturalism. On the other hand, a condition of that multiculturalism is that no religious imperatives may be forced on the public, which is why businesses can open on Sundays for example.

  • Peter

    I’m a survivor of catholic school education.  In fact I give their religious studies full credit for my atheism.  Their twisted view caused me to rethink the theist approach to life.  I’m now 68 with more than 50 happy years as an atheist.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      +1

      I also attended Catholic schools for 12 years and can testify that a Catholic education is a good preparation for atheism.

      • http://www.twitter.com/a_okafor007 Anthony C. Okafor

        SAME HERE!!!

      • http://www.facebook.com/Tracy.Bradley1 Tracy Bradley

        Me too :)

  • Christine

    I find this shocking!  I live in Ontario and it has been a very long time since prayer was allowed in public schools here. When I was in elementary school they still said the Lords Prayer in the morning, but all of a sudden it disappeared. Once and a while it would sneak back in, but for the most part religion and public schools are separate. People started realizing that religion has no place in education.  We have a Catholic school board (which receives government funding as far as I know… grr) and students can choose which board they want to attend.

    I thought it would be simple to just allow this town to have one secular school. I bet, once they get one, because they will, it will fill up extremely quickly and probably have overpopulation issues. (at lease I hope :D)

  • Squibke

    The issue is that some provinces in Canada (Ontario and Alberta) have public Catholic schools. This was historically to protect the rights of French-Canadians. Students do not need to be Catholic to attend a public Catholic school (in fact, many have a large population of Sikh or Muslim kids whose parents cannot afford private school but who want their kids to have a more “moral” environment), and in Alberta, the school board cannot discriminate in its hiring the way they can in Ontario. Thus the school board here is saying, “What’s the big deal? You’re being provided with a publicly funded school that your children can attend for free without converting!”

    Which is ridiculous and, as noted above, is an issue of provincial law versus federal. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Len-Blakely/723453799 Len Blakely

      Yes, language rights have become closely linked to denominational schools. The only possible way to have my children educated in a francophone (ie French as a first language) school is to send them to a Catholic school.

  • Edwinmundt

    Thank you for the clarification Silo. 

    The Provincial government can invoke the Notwithstanding Clause to override the Charter.

    • Silo

      You’re absolutely right, Edwin. But for clarity, Provincial governments can only invoke a Notwithstanding Declaration for some of the Charter Rights, and not all of them; and the Declaration only lasts for a maximum of five years, although term renewal is permitted and there is no limit on the number of terms. One would hope that a more sane government would come along eventually and not renew the Declaration, after which the judiciary could review the law in question and strike it down.

      Also, only the Provincial government can invoke a Notwithstanding Declaration. School boards et al. don’t get that privilege, so arguably Ms. Hunter should be organizing around influencing her provincial Minister of Education.

      Again, I am not a lawyer, and I don’t even play one on TV. :-)

      • Luke Fevin

        For the record, the Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk is a Catholic, an ex-Catholic school teacher who’s daughters attend a Catholic school. He is also a member of the Knights of Columbus. Just sayin’…

  • Geocatherder

    I’m another ex-Catholic atheist who agrees that Catholic schools are a good training ground for atheism.

  • Vanessa

    It seems that the name of “Morin”ville for this town is quite fitting…

  • Seladora

    Wow. I’m kind of surprised. 
    I grew up in larger cities, 100,000 to 150,000 and now I live on the outskirts of Edmonton. I’ve only ever gone to public schools, even though there were usually an equal amount of catholic schools. 
    But four schools in a town of ~6,500, and not one of them is public?! I mean, we’re such a multicultural place you’d think they would by default! There’s so many religions in Canada. Obviously this small town isn’t too multicultural though, if it’s all catholic schooled. 

    Still, I imagine it being a hard decision to fund for a public school that only a small minority of Morinville would use, or even to convert a catholic school to a public one. 
    It’s a conundrum, all right. I’m all for a public school–but I also see the financial issues that go with it. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/jennifer.l.love1 Jennifer Love

      All four of the schools in Morinville are public schools. 100% publicly funded schools. They are not Catholic separate schools (like those that exist everywhere else in the Province). They are run by a  board that, because of a past historic majority, permeates Catholicism into the entire curriculum.  They are a public board by law, Catholic by choice.  Numbers released by the school board now show that only 30% of the student population is self identified by their parents as Catholic.  A census done over 10 years ago in Morinville showed Catholics were not the majority religion. Morinville is a booming bedroom community and has grown significantly since 2001 to a population of over 8500. 

  • Luke Fevin

    First, can I let you all know there is a Facebook group and a Twitter feed on this subject. Facebook “APUPIL” (Alberta Parents for Unbiased Public Inclusive Learning) and @APUPILgroup:disqus . Please follow us and RT, we need all the help we can get!

    We have a number of issues re religion and education in Alberta and I will do my best to highlight some;
    Firstly the Alberta Constitution from the 1980′s over-rides the federal constitution and as such school children in Alberta are not accorded the same protections under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including “Freedom of (and from) Religion”.
    The laws that govern these issues from 1902 and the 1905 NorthWest Territories Ordinance (before Alberat even existed) were rolled into the Alberta Constitution in the 80′s.
    The Morinville issue is that in a town of 8,000 all four schools are Catholic run by GSACRD (pronounced G-Sacred. Really) which is the Public School Board. They have refused to offer a secular education as their #1 mandate is to permeate Catholic religion (not educate children?). The Alberta Humans Rights Act (Bill 44) specifically states that a parent may opt their child out of topics that relate to sex or religion. As the public school board states that they fully permeate religion and have refused to allow children to opt out they are obviously breaking the AHRA. One of the problems is that the Alberta Human Rights Commission is a branch of the government (it reports to and is accountable to a government minister, to to the assembly as a whole) and this influence is likely why the complaint (a clear contravention) was refused.It is also interesting to note that the same legislation (NWT Ord 1905 Chap 29, Sect 137 & 137.2) that allows for the Lords Prayer every day in every school as an option also states that religious instruction MUST be limited to the last 30 minutes of each day. This has been openly ignored and flouted by Catholic schools.We will see the next twists in this saga over the next few days or weeks as the Education Minister has promised a ‘solution’. My guess is he will flip the Catholic Public Board into a “Separate Board” and make the secular “Protestant Board” in nearby St. Albert the Public Board (Yes, as a hold over from our archaic legislation, the Protestant Board runs secular schools) – or possibly the nearby “Sturgeon School Division” will become the public Board (They currently run the makeshift portacabin, no gym, no library etc temporary secular school). I think the minister hope that by making the Catholic School Board the “seperate” school board it will reduce public opinion over the issue without actually making much real difference on the ground.

    You may also be interested to note that in most of Alberta, the public schools are secular and the Catholic schools are ‘separate” and other religious schools are either Private or Charter. The anomoly is the Alberta Government funds Catholic students at approx 50% MORE than any other religion, therby explicitly favoring one religion over all others.It has been estimated that running this duplicate and redundant school system cost Albertan taxpayers a MINIMUM of a quarter of a billion $ a year!What is most surprising (or not) is the public apathy over both the unfairness and fiscal waste of the current status quo.Hope that helps a bit. Again, please join us on Facebook at APUPIL or on Twitter @APUPILgroup:twitter  to stay up to date and/or to help. Thanks.PS: In my school we finally got them to stop playing the Lord’s Prayer over the PA everyday (and forcing my kids to listen to it). Now they are going to segregate the kids every morning so that the Christians can pray. My kids are 6 & & and now I have to tell them that they can’t go with their friends and why? Again, it is a government endoresment of ONE religion. Oh, and ONLY Christian prayer can be said. They say they want are schools to be “tolerant of diversity, inclusive” etc. but this is what they do. The hypocrisy disgust me.

  • Anonymous

    That’s some catch.

  • Anonymous

    I went to a Catholic High School because it was the only High school in the area. I could have gone to a “public” school, but I would needed a ride every day. A couple years after, there was a public school built in the area.

    Catholic High School was the first place I ever opened a bible. I found it difficult at first, then simply unbelievable. My younger mind didn’t know what to make of the fantastic stories – did this really supposedly happen? I was unsure at the time, then later fully convinced it was mythology.

    It was never the stories that I found convincing, but that others seemed to believe in them. That is what gave some pause – like I was somehow missing something (the Emperor doesn’t seem to wearing any clothes… but then what are these other people seeing?)

    What is happening in Morinville is shame. Often the solution is to live in a big enough town / city. That’s not the case here, and I don’t see how that the Hunter’s fault. The school board and minister of Education are playing games and avoiding responsibility. No one is saying, “snap your fingers, I want this entirely fixed tomorrow,” but it would be nice how the situation will be resolved, say, a year from now.

  • Tracy Archibald

    Actually there is a public elementry school in the works: http://www.sturgeon.ab.ca/Schools/SchoolProfiles/MorinvillePublicElementarySchool/tabid/290/Default.aspx
    And a “learning center” for the older grades: http://www.sturgeon.ab.ca/SchoolProfiles/MorinvilleLearningCentre/tabid/183/Default.aspx

    In many parts of Alberta, there just isn’t enough students to support more than one school.  The school I went to was 160 kids K-12.  My grad class was 12 students.  Half of my High School courses were corrispondence because I was the only one doing them.  Like Physics, Calculus and Art.  It would have been an hour drive to a bigger high school.
    My point?  It’s easy to say “open another school” but would there be enough students to support it?  or would they want to go same school as their freinds? 

    One school in my area was shut down due to low enrollment.  The parents banded together and reopened it as a Chartered School.  This option is also available to the parents in Mornville  http://www.valhallacommunityschool.ca/Pages/ourcharter/ourcharter.html

    Now, just to be perfectly clear, I DO NOT SUPPORT funding religious education, particularily funding one religion more than others.  I DO NOT SUPPORT having no secular options.  However, if it really bothers you, you can open your own school and have it fully funded.  Why does it appear that this was this option not explored? 
     


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