Going Public

Morinvilles fight for a secular school

By Susan Stratton

The Morinville revolt began on March 1, 2010, at Donna Hunter’s kitchen table. The mother of three was looking through school registration materials for her oldest daughter, Scarlett, who would enter kindergarten that fall. As she read, the 28-year-old was struck by how religious the local public school sounded. “It was like I was signing up for a private Catholic education,” she recalls. 

Hunter, who has an education degree from the University of Alberta, started quietly asking questions around the community. Is there no secular public school in Morinville? Why not? Don’t Albertans have a fundamental right to a secular public education? 

She discovered that Morinville, a town of 8,500 roughly 35 km north of Edmonton, had a unique school system. Its four public schools—two elementary, a junior high and a high school—were run by the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division. As the only school division in town, the Catholic system was responsible for educating students of all faiths, even those with no faith. Any citizen who wanted a non-Catholic public education for their child had to bus them to another division.

Hunter had assumed there would be a non-religious public school option in Morinville for her children. When she found out otherwise, she set out to change the system. What started with quiet questions turned into a multi-year battle that put Morinville’s education situation—and Alberta’s public/Catholic separation—under scrutiny.

The anomaly of a community’s only school system being run by Catholics is rooted in 19th century history. When Alberta’s first school districts were created in 1885, the non-Aboriginal population north of Red Deer was overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. The existing schools were largely run by priests and nuns, so the first school districts were Roman Catholic too. Protestants were the minority religion at the time, and they got separate school districts if they petitioned for them. The first school district in Alberta was St. Albert Roman Catholic Public District, created in 1885. Thibault Roman Catholic Public School District, created in 1892, served the town of Morinville. 

In 1994 the Alberta government decided to create large regional school divisions by eliminating smaller school districts. Thibault and nearby Legal school districts became part of St. Albert Catholic, which was renamed Greater St. Albert Catholic. Over the next 15 years, other small Catholic districts—this time, “separate school” districts—joined Greater St. Albert Catholic.

The board doesn’t downplay its religiousness. “Catholic values permeate all school activities,” its website announces. Still, it was the only local public option in Morinville. So Donna Hunter signed her daughter up in 2010, hoping that Catholic permeation would simply amount to an expression of widely shared societal values. 

The parents were acting within their rights. But to expect the Catholic board to change was asking too much.

Within a month of starting kindergarten at Notre Dame elementary, Scarlett was coming home talking about God. Hunter remembers they were out driving and her daughter said, “Mom, God made the flowers and God made the trees and God made rainbows. Isn’t it so nice that God made flowers?” Struggling to find an appropriate response, Hunter said it was nice that the teacher believed in something. Scarlett responded, “Mommy, my teacher told me. Why don’t you believe me?”

As a school volunteer that fall, Hunter saw just how permeated the education was, with stories, songs, crafts and worksheets featuring Catholic teachings. She sat down at her computer and starting researching the history of Morinville’s Catholic public system. She also started sharing her concerns with other parents she met at the preschool her twins, Clark and Gwen, attended. 

In mid-October 2010, at an all-candidates forum for a civic election, Hunter went public. She stood up and asked: “Can my daughter get a non-religious education in Morinville?” The answer was a resounding no. As for why the town didn’t have a public “non-faith-based” school, several candidates said there was no need, that the Catholic board, aware of its unique status, strived to meet the needs of all students. 

Donna Hunter was undeterred. First she met with Notre Dame’s principal, accompanied by supporter Marjorie Kirsop. Kirsop’s son Paul had started at the school two years earlier, and her 5-year-old, Sarah, started kindergarten with Hunter’s daughter. They asked that their children receive an education free of the “permeation” of Catholicism—religious pictures on the walls, school prayers, storybooks about Jesus and so on. Kirsop remembers saying, “I’d like to see religion strictly in religious studies, which is half an hour a day. For the rest of the day there shouldn’t be religion.” The principal said he couldn’t accommodate the request. Notre Dame was, after all, a Catholic school.

The two women had studied the legal history of Alberta schools. A School Ordinance passed by the North-West Territory legislature in 1901, four years before Alberta became a province, set rules for religious instruction in schools: “No religious instruction except as hereinafter provided shall be permitted in the school of any district from the opening of such school until one-half hour previous to its closing in the afternoon, after which time any such instruction permitted or desired by the board may be given.” The one exception, the ordinance stated, was the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at the start of the school day. Any parent could exempt their child from the end-of-day religious instruction. 

In 1905 the Parliament of Canada passed the Alberta Act, creating Alberta as a province. The Act confirmed the rights of separate schools as set out in the 1901 ordinance, and also confirmed the rules “with respect to religious instruction in any public or separate school as provided for in the said ordinances.” Hunter and her supporters interpret that to mean that religious instruction in public schools, whether secular or Catholic, is permissible only at the end of the school day, not throughout the curriculum.

Frank Peters, a professor of educational policy at the University of Alberta who has studied the early history of Canadian schools, thinks the Morinville parent group read too much into the religious instruction clause. Catholicism has from the beginning permeated any Catholic-run school system, Peters says. “Let me assure you that if you had a crowd of Irish nuns running the school, you were getting religion at 10:00 and 11:00 as well as at the last half hour.”

Religious instruction isn’t usually an issue in Alberta, since most parents who’d be opposed can send their kids to a secular school. Morinville’s lack of a secular option created the problem. Indeed, Greater St. Albert Catholic has operated just as you’d expect any other Catholic division to operate. And the division’s superintendent, David Keohane, says Greater St. Albert has actually been more accommodating than typical Catholic systems, noting it has paid particular attention to what non-religious parents want. As an example, he says the high-school graduation ceremony in Morinville, where the student population contains many non-Catholics, has been an ecumenical service, while a big-city separate school would typically have a Catholic mass. 


Donna Hunter was told there was no need for a secular option—that the Catholic board could meet the needs of all students. (Leroy Schulz)

Kevin Feehan, an Edmonton lawyer who acts for Alberta Catholic schools, argues that because the district absorbed several Catholic separate school districts and was the only game in town, it was in effect a hybrid system, with the rights and privileges of both the public and the separate systems. A separate system, Feehan says, is expected to have its religious faith permeating all aspects of its schooling. That’s the whole point of being a denominational school system. 

Peters says the parent group was within its rights to ask for a non-religious education. “But to expect the Catholic system to provide it was probably asking too much,” he says. In Morinville, something had to give.

Like Hunter and Kirsop, many Morinville parents are not Catholic. In the 2001 federal census, less than half the town’s population declared themselves so. Only 30 per cent of local parents identify their kids as Catholic on school registration forms. In the last decade, Morinville has become an increasingly diverse commuter town, with young families pouring in. The average age of its citizens is just 33, says Mayor Lloyd Bertschi. 

People occasionally commented on Morinville’s unique school situation, says Bertschi, but only when Hunter and her group took up the cause did it become an issue. His three children went to Morinville schools, and he says they never found the Catholicism a problem. What matters, he says, is the first-rate quality of education. 

Nevertheless, on December 10, 2010, Hunter put her case before the Greater St. Albert Catholic board, asking for a non-religious education for her children. Her request was unanimously rejected. She and her supporters were told they could bus their children out of town, set up a separate system on their own or accept the Catholic education offered in Morinville. Other community members also suggested she start a secular separate school. But Hunter felt that Greater St. Albert, as the public board, should provide secular education. She argued that separate schools are designed for the minority faith in a community, and that in Morinville the minority is Catholic. The non-Catholic majority, in other words, should be served by the public system. 

On January 27, 2011, Hunter’s group appealed the board’s decision to Alberta’s education minister, Dave Hancock. By this time, their cause had hit the news media and was the talk of Morinville. The publicity helped in many ways. Hunter acquired new supporters, such as Gillian Schaefer Percy, another Morinville parent. People who had previously accepted the existing system started speaking up. The media coverage helped put pressure on the government to act. While Hunter’s husband preferred to stay in the background, her father, Dave Redman, became a vocal supporter of her fight. “There are many options available,” Redman told the media. “It’s not [my daughter’s] job to figure out what those options are for her child; it’s the minister’s as the employer of the schools.” 

But the newfound attention was a mixed blessing. “More and more parents were coming to us,” recalls Schaefer Percy. “Some of them were willing to be public; a lot of them were not.” Some were afraid to openly show their support, agrees Hunter. The issue created angry feelings in the community on all sides, but a lot of the negativity was directed at Hunter personally. “I never wanted to pressure anybody,” Hunter says. “I knew what the cost was to me, so how could I [pressure] anyone else?”

The parent group started strategizing. They built a website and a Facebook page. They ambushed Hancock at a public meeting, trying to pressure him to respond to their request for action. When Hancock and the Morinville school board met in his legislature office in late March 2011, Hunter and her supporters camped out in the rotunda, waiting for news. In a letter to Hunter the next day, Hancock promised that Greater St. Albert Catholic would survey Morinville parents to gauge interest in a secular education option.

By this time, the group had gathered widespread support. Dave King, executive director of the Public School Boards Association of Alberta, was one of the group’s strongest champions. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association voiced its support in the fight for non-religious public schooling. The Sheldon Chumir Foundation held a public forum in Morinville in May 2011 on the topic of public education, where Linda McKay-Panos, executive director of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, spoke. “It takes a lot of guts to do what these women have done,” she said. Six months later the centre presented Hunter and her group with its annual Civil Liberties Award.

By late spring 2011, Hunter and her family had moved to a condo in north Edmonton; she thought the fight for a secular school in Morinville might take years, and she didn’t want to wait any longer to live in a district with public secular education. Her parents, who had lived in Morinville since 1999, also moved to Edmonton, as did her married sister. The family is a close one, Hunter says, and wanted to stay together. But she didn’t give up the fight in Morinville.

In June 2011 the government proposed a solution: Sturgeon, the school division that surrounds Morinville, would offer secular school classes in town through an arrangement with Greater St. Albert Catholic. The survey promised by Hancock was also released: it showed that 272 Morinville children would go to a secular school if one existed in town. An estimated 200 of those were then attending Morinville Catholic schools, the survey found, while the rest were going to schools elsewhere. The survey found Morinville residents were deeply divided over the need for a non-faith-based school in town, with 53 per cent opposed, 38 per cent in favour and the rest uncertain. Within weeks, 136 children had been signed up for the secular program, even though many details, including the location of the program, were unknown. 

The parent group had won only a partial victory. There would be a public elementary school in Morinville starting that September, but it had no building. Alberta’s Catholic school systems have a policy that their students must not share space with public school children, so Greater St. Albert Catholic would not share one of its schools. 

Catholic-board chair Lauri-Ann Turnbull said the government promised to provide six modular classrooms for a secular school and to put them on an independent site. In late July, however, the parents and school boards learned that the modulars wouldn’t be available. Sturgeon expressed “disappointment and frustration” with the situation. “We spent the whole summer fighting for infrastructure,” Hunter says. “We were shocked that we still had any students at all by August.” But enrolment in September 2011 was 26 students from Grades 1–4, 10 kindergarten students and 47 in a preschool program. 

The school year underway, the students found themselves studying in various places around Morinville—the Community Cultural Centre for Grades 1–4, the Catholic parish hall for the preschoolers and kindergarten kids. The Grades 1–4 students were later moved into board offices of the Sturgeon School Division. In late 2011, with the non-Catholic students still in temporary quarters scattered across Morinville, five parents filed complaints with the Alberta Human Rights Commission against the Greater St. Albert Catholic board and Alberta Education. They claimed the board was discriminating against them by refusing to provide them with a non-religious education. Hunter and Kirsop appealed on the basis of a new section of the Human Rights Act, s. 11.1, which requires school boards to give parents advance notice in writing before students study material dealing explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation. The Human Rights Commission rejected their complaint, saying it could be handled under provisions of the School Act. It did accept complaints from Hunter, Carol Sparks, Rayann Maynard and Tannis Caverly under s. 4 of the Act, which says no one should, based on their religious beliefs, be denied services that are normally available to the public. The complaint has not yet been resolved. 

The Georges P. Vanier School

The Georges P. Vanier School. (Leroy Schulz)

In January 2012 several modular classrooms were installed on the grounds of Georges P. Vanier elementary school, Morinville’s other Catholic elementary—not an ideal situation for anyone. Because of the policy about Catholic students not mingling with secular children, the kids in the portables didn’t have much contact with children in the larger school. Lauri-Ann Turnbull explained that it’s simply a matter of not wanting the secular children or their parents to be upset if a Catholic teacher deals with them “in a faith-filled way.” If the government had found an independent site as it had promised, the awkward situation wouldn’t have happened, she adds. 

In March 2012 the Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association (ACSTA) opposed a clause in the proposed new Alberta Education Act that would have let the education minister require two school boards to share one building provided there was room. The clause was proposed in part to address declining enrolment in small towns, where keeping two schools open makes increasingly less economic sense. “Every aspect of Alberta’s Catholic schools is filled with the Catholic faith, from the buildings’ structure to the curriculum to the recognition of Catholic gospel values and sacramental life,” the ACSTA stated in a press release. “To maintain this uniqueness, Catholic schools must remain distinct entities.” The government dropped the proposed clause. 

Throughout early 2012, Alberta’s new education minister, Thomas Lukaszuk, was constantly asked about the Morinville situation. In late February Lukaszuk introduced a bill in the legislature to make Sturgeon the public school division in Morinville and Legal. Greater St. Albert Catholic would become a separate school division, the same as every other Catholic division in the province. As an official separate system, Greater St. Albert Catholic would have no obligation to provide non-Catholic education. “Like all compromises, each school board had to give up something,” the minister told reporters. “But it is the best solution. We are undoing decades of a system that has obviously proven itself not to be adequate.” 

Catholic-board chair Turnbull says the change to a separate system will clear up the ambiguity hanging over the district. One drawback is that non-Catholic parents with children in the system won’t be able to vote or run for the school board once the district is separate, she says. She expects parents will stick with the system nonetheless. 

Once again, however, this victory for the Morinville parent group came with caveats. For one, although the Act switching the two divisions passed the legislature, the Redford cabinet didn’t have it proclaimed before the April 23 election was called. A second problem: where would Morinville’s permanent secular public school be located? Lukaszuk didn’t resolve those issues before the election call, and that caused all sorts of new tension and frustrations for parents and both school boards. As Mayor Bertschi says, it was impossible to plan for the fall, because key decisions were not resolved. 

Finally, on June 1, the new education minister, Jeff Johnson, announced that Georges P. Vanier School would be turned over to Sturgeon as a permanent home for Morinville Public Elementary. Portable classrooms will be added to the Notre Dame school site to accommodate the Catholic students who formerly attended Vanier. “It’s relief, it’s excitement. We can’t really believe it’s finally happening,” Hunter told the media. “It’s been a long road, and now we just get to focus on the school and the kids and on being part of the community.” 

The date of the official handover was July 1. On that day, after nearly 130 years with one school system, Morinville now had two—one public, one separate. 

Mayor Bertschi worries that the bad feelings caused by the Morinville revolt could take awhile to heal. He acknowledges the parent group’s right to demand non-religious public schooling, but says the anger among those upset by the disruption to the existing school system is real and legitimate. Many children now attending Notre Dame had to change schools in order to stay in the Catholic system. There’s definitely a “you people took our school away” feeling out there, Bertschi says.

Schaefer Percy, who took on a growing role in the parent group with Hunter’s move to Edmonton, is now chair of the parent council of Morinville’s public school. She too knows the town needs time to heal: on June 2, the day after their final victory, the Morinville Public Elementary School parent group hosted a community carnival in a local park. There was face-painting, a dunk tank, balloons and other delights for all children and parents in town. The event began the process of bringing people together again. “I really think people will get past this,” Schaefer Percy says. 

The woman who started the battle for a secular school, Donna Hunter, now watches from her Edmonton home as Morinville Public Elementary School takes shape without her. She sees the government’s solution, switching the Catholic public school division to a Catholic separate division, as political sidestepping. Still, she says, it’s a resolution to a difficult, drawn-out years-long process. The fight taught her that a group of parents can challenge the status quo and hold government accountable. “Was it worth it? Absolutely,” says Hunter.

Susan Ruttan is an Edmonton-based freelance writer and a former senior writer at the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald.


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