Alberta’s Catholic school system is under attack, and apathy could lead to its downfall..
That was the blunt warning issued during a panel discussion on ‘Catholic Education: Why Should I Care?’ hosted by Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Sherwood Park on Nov. 5.
“We must care about our Catholic schools — all Catholics need to, not just the hierarchy of the Church,” said Archbishop Richard Smith, one of the panelists.
Catholic education is facing threats on multiple fronts, said panelist Dean Sarnecki, executive director of the Alberta Catholic Schools Trustees Association (ACSTA): The threat against freedom of religion and anti-Catholicism; lobbying on the issues of finances; attacks on Catholic teachings on sexuality; and the apathy of Catholics to do anything about it.
The Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta launched its Together For Students campaign on Oct. 25 to advocate for a single education system, arguing it would lead to cost savings, more resources in the classroom and greater choice. However, it would also mean the dissolution of the Catholic school system.
Panellists warned that Catholics can’t rely on constitutional protection for Catholic schools or on public schools serving the best interests of Catholic children.
While Catholic rights to publicly funded denominational education are entrenched in the Constitution, right now there are real threats to those rights, said Anna Loparco, partner with Dentons Canada LLP and legal counsel to ACSTA.
“Constitutional rights, although they are entrenched and are very important and difficult to remove, doesn’t mean that they can’t be removed, and that was done in Newfoundland and Quebec,” she said.
Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan are currently the only provinces with publicly funded Catholic schools.
The Theodore case, in which the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench ruled that non-Catholic students could not be funded to attend Catholic schools in the province, is also a threat to Catholic education in Alberta, said Loparco.
That decision, which is now under appeal, would “decimate Catholic education in Saskatchewan,” she said, because some 40 per cent of attendees are not Catholic. If they had to pay privately to fund their children’s education, Loparco estimates it would cost about $12,000 per child, per year.
The panelists called for Catholics to move from apathy to engagement. “We as a community must be strong in what we do and how we defend our rights to Catholic education by doing the best we can in defending it to everyone we meet,” Sarnecki said.
Looking for every opportunity to speak to the beauty of Catholic education is the proper way to address Catholic apathy, said Smith.
To that end, an alliance of educators and stakeholders with representatives of all 16 school districts that offer Catholic education in Alberta was formed in October. Grateful Advocates for Catholic Education (GrACE) was established to advocate vocally and publicly for publicly funded Catholic education, which currently serves an estimated 170,000 students in the province.
The Catholic education system affords the Church the opportunity to give children the hope “that comes uniquely from friendship with Jesus Christ,” said the Archbishop, who recorded a video message in support of GrACE.
“Why would we ever risk losing this?”
Catholics should be pointed in questioning political candidates on where they stand on the issue of publicly funded Catholic education, he said: “What will you commit to in terms of the preservation or growth of Catholic education?”
Parent Bill Girard, whose three children attended Catholic schools in rural Strathcona County and Archbishop Jordan high school in Sherwood Park, said he was happy with the attendance of close to 200 people at the event.
“I enjoyed seeing the awareness of the problems that the Catholic education system is facing,” said Girard. “Though they’re not new, I think they’re more dangerous right now because of the internal apathy of Catholics themselves, not seeing this incredible precious gem of Catholic education can be lost in the secular school system.”
Girard was disappointed, however, by the low number of young parents at the event.
“That’s the apathy we speak of,” he said. “Well attended, but we have room to grow even within ourselves to bring it forward to make the younger parents, the ‘busy’ parents — because we’re all busy — more aware of what’s at stake.”
Edmonton Catholic school board trustee Lisa Turchansky, whose children are in Grade 8 and Grade 5, was also “surprised at the demographics.” She acknowledged that evening events are very hard for parents to attend due to sports and other activities. But she called on all parents, grandparents and guardians, and retired and current school staff to get engaged – quickly.
“Our kids are currently involved in publicly funded Catholic education and it is under attack right now,” said Turchansky.
“There’s a targeted campaign out there trying to take that away from our children. Everybody needs to get engaged quickly and let our government know that choice in education is critical for our families.”
Paul Corrigan, assistant superintendent of Elk Island Catholic Schools, which includes 18 schools in the communities of Sherwood Park, Fort Saskatchewan, Vegreville and Camrose, complimented public schools but agreed that parents should have the choice of Catholic education.
The Catholic faith offers “the highest possible view of the human person to each student,” said Corrigan.
“We are all God’s masterpiece. Each and every one of us are made in the image and likeness of God. We are infinitely valued, infinitely loved, by the creator of the universe.
“When young people walk away with that message, that is something that the schools across the street — as good as they are, filled with caring, dedicated educators — simply aren’t able to say.”
Panellists with dissenting views on Catholic education were purposely not included in the event, said Pat Lemire, a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help’s Growing in Faith Together (GIFT) committee which facilitated the panel discussion.
“These are experts from Catholic education, so hearing from them what needs to be done to protect our Catholic education is what we wanted, as opposed to the opposing side arguing back and forth,” said Lemire.
The parish is looking into offering similar events in the future, at times that will fit more parents’ schedules, said Lemire, possibly with childcare.
Raylene Yuzyk, whose four children all attended Catholic schools, was galvanized by the event.
“I think we have to be vigilant and I want this system to be here for my grandkids,” she said.