WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Parents calling for secular schooling from left to right are Dale Metcalfe (behind), Marjorie Kirsop (with children Sarah and Leah), Donna Hunter (with children Gwendolyn and Clark, Rayann Menard, Jennifer Love (with Clair and holding Eric) and Carol Sparks (with Owen).
MORINVILLE - Morinville has four schools, all Catholic. But a handful of non-Catholic families want public, secular education available as an option for their children.
"The situation here is untenable where 70 per cent of the kids in our schools are not Catholic," said Donna Hunter, whose three children attend Notre Dame School, for kindergarten to Grade 5 students.
"We need someone to help us with that conversation because there should be public, non-denominational schools that I understood public schools to be."
But the superintendent of The Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional School Division, which serves Morinville, says parents in the town are overwhelmingly happy with the current system.
It would be wrong for the school division "to hand over the keys to a school that other parents are very pleased to be within for the sake of a request that, right now, impacts five students," said David Keohane.
St. Albert Catholic is the only school division serving the community of about 8,000. Morinville has two kindergarten to Grade 5 schools, a middle school and a high school. All are Catholic public schools.
Jennifer Love, another concerned parent, told the WCR that every Canadian has freedom of religion, yet Morinville schoolchildren do not have freedom from religion.
Colleen Moskalyk recently enrolled her son at a public school in nearby Namao because "there is no school for me to send him to here. I just got approved for busing, but I would prefer to send him to school where we're living. Unfortunately, they are not giving me that choice."
She estimates that busing him to school will add an extra 90 minutes to her son's school day. The difficulty of not having a secular-based education available has her family contemplating leaving the community.
Rayann Menard grew up in Morinville, graduated from high school there, loves the community and wants her children to be raised there too.
"It's frustrating that the schools won't align with my belief system, and won't give us an option," she said.
The parents have met with principals, teachers, superintendent and school division representatives to share their views. The school board decided that secular education would not be offered, a decision the parents have appealed to Education Minister Dave Hancock.
Keohane said there is no correlation between the 70 per cent of non-Catholic students and a lack of interest for the Catholic education being provided.
"The evidence is completely to the contrary. Students and parents of all faiths see that our mandate complements their value systems and this is made conclusive to us through the surveys that we initiate on an ongoing basis," he said. "Parents of all faiths believe that we serve them well."
The parent delegation defines the schools as public and, therefore, wants their children to experience a public education, free of exposure to aspects of the Catholic faith.
Keohane said providing secular education would contradict the school division's mandate, one that has been upheld by the courts. "By virtue of the legislative entitlement, this is a Catholic school system."
It cannot be expected to provide secular education any more than a francophone jurisdiction can be expected to provide education in English, he said.
The school division offered seven options, all of which Hunter called "unreasonable." One option involved the students taking a health and wellness class rather than religious studies.
"It's still a Christ-centred class. We had to accept that the purpose of a Catholic school was to permeate the doctrines, teachings and philosophy of the Church Gospel," she said.
Keohane agreed the catechesis component of the schooling would be unattractive to non-Catholic children. Religious education is different in every school, in accordance with the culture of the individual community.
"In Morinville, we strongly ramp up the social teachings of our faith that are attractive to parents from all walks of life that give more profound meaning to civic values," he said.
The emphasis is on the corporal works of mercy - "to care for the poor, and be attentive to the imprisoned," he said. Those are universal virtues.
A second option provided to Hunter was to work out a transportation agreement to send her children to a public school outside of the community. Transportation would be provided at no cost.
The school division mapped the route to a neighbouring school to be three minutes longer (17 vs. 14 minutes) than transportation to Notre Dame School.
The suggestion of setting up their own separate school board was something the parents first pursued, but the result did not satisfy their requests either.
Generations ago, families separated from the public school system to start their own faith-based school. But in Alberta, only Protestants or Roman Catholics, whichever is the minority faith population in a community, can establish a separate school district.
"Everywhere else you have a public school, and if you wish to create a faith-based school, either Catholic or Protestant, you create a separate school," said parent Carol Sparks. But the Morinville parents don't want a Protestant school either.
In 1957, St. Albert developed a separate school system. It was called St. Albert Protestant, but had no faith dimension in its programs. The "Protestant" label was in name only to maintain their constitutional right to a minority system.
Edmonton Protestant Public Schools eventually dropped the Protestant title, always operating as a non-denominational system.
Keohane suggested to the parent delegation that they could start a separate school in Morinville as an alternative.
As well, any resident in the Morinville ward is eligible to run as a school trustee, regardless of their religious affiliation. Further, all parents and community members can hold executive positions and participate on school councils.
Through their website (www.morinvilleparentdelegation.webs.com) the parents have started a petition. The petition is not a legal document, but is intended to raise awareness of their cause.
"More people in Morinville are starting to understand what we're asking for. There's always an emotional response, but all of the feedback we've been getting has been really supportive," said Hunter.