Commentary – Why is the Alberta Catholic school system permanently under siege?

Tom Henihan

The separate Catholic School System in Alberta is always under attack: its very existence is a proverbial thorn in the side of so many individuals, especially those involved in politics or associated with the public school system.

One recent attempt to breach the parapets of the Catholic system was put forward by north Edmonton public school trustee Cheryl Johner.

Johner’s strategy is to advance the notion that all voters should have the opportunity to vote for both public and Catholic school board candidates.

“A lot of people don’t know what they don’t know. A lot of people don’t know that they’re funding Catholic school boards,” Johner said in an interview on October 17.

“I just think it’s equitable if you can vote for whoever you like, because, you’re paying for the system, why shouldn’t you have a say in the system?”

Of course, there is something disingenuous in Johner’s approach as it appears to have little to do with being equitable and more to do with loosening the autonomy of the Catholic School System.

Advocating for people to vote for something in which they play no part or have no vested interest is simply a ploy to undermine the Catholic system by disrupting it.

Besides, Johner should be reminded that there are a great many things that taxpayers fund for which they don’t get a vote, so why single out Catholic education.

It appears that Johner’s fellow trustees also felt there was something dubious about her proposed campaign to have all taxpayers vote in Alberta’s two main taxpayer funded school systems.

The trustees’ skepticism and lack of support for the proposal ultimately led Johner to withdraw her motion but I suspect it won’t be long before someone else comes forward with another volley aimed at Alberta Catholic education.

There are only three provinces that now provide a separate school system: Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

For Catholics in Alberta, the right to a separate school system is entrenched in the Canadian constitution, which guarantees the right to separate religious schools for those who already had them before the province joined confederation.

At the time, this protection appeased the two dominant religious groups: Protestants and Catholics. Other religious groups do not have this protection because they came to Alberta after the province became part of Canada so an accommodation for their faith community isn’t entrenched.

Currently, in excess of 160,000 students attend Catholic school in Alberta, that is approximately one in four students, with enrollment in Catholic schools growing 36 percent faster than in the public school system. I suspect that this increase in enrollment will also increase lobbying by those who resent or actively oppose the separate Catholic school system.

Most importantly, for Catholic parents who want to give their children a faith based education, the Catholic School System is indispensable.

For Catholic parents, a faith based education amounts to a lot more than a half hour of religion class. Catholic parents want their children educated in an environment where academic and all other school endeavours emanate first from a religious, spiritual, moral and ethical source that adheres to to the Catholic faith and is the essence of a full Catholic education.


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