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That secular school for Morinville? It's still not a done deal!

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Alberta Education Minister David Hancock

Remember the deal struck back in June that was supposed to make the roiling issue of the complete lack of secular public education in the Edmonton-area town of Morinville go away this September, or at least simmer down until the provincial Conservatives could get another successful election out of the way?

Well, since then the deal has fallen apart.

And since then it's apparently been cobbled back together again -- sort of.

Whether or not there will actually be a secular public elementary school for the non-Catholic residents of the otherwise typically Canadian town of 8,000 about 25 kilometres north of Edmonton is supposed to be settled today. Officials of the town, the area's so-called public school board and the public school board from a neighbouring county will all get together and see if they can hammer out a lease for the local community centre.

If they manage to succeed -- and you can bet there's some pretty severe pressure from the province's Conservative government on them to do so -- there will be a place for secular students in Grades 1 to 4 to study until a collection of industrial trailers can be bolted together, likely in January 2012.

As for the rest of the town's non-Catholic students -- those would be the ones in Grades 5 to 12 -- well, if they want to study in a secular public school, their choices are still only to attend a private school or take a bus to another community.

This ridiculous and possibly illegal situation is caused because the "public school board" that runs all four schools in this rapidly growing community offers only parochial Roman Catholic education.

When parents complained about the lack of secular education in their community earlier this year, the "public" Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division, based 16 kilometres down the main commuter road to Edmonton, basically told them to drop dead.

Instead of doing that, however, they continued to press their increasingly nervous local Conservative politicians to do something about this outrageous situation, in which citizens in a multicultural Canadian community are forced to send their kids to religious schools run by a church that was once dominant in the region, but is no more. Judging from the coverage in the letters columns of the community press, it would be fair to say the Catholic/public board views proselytizing students as part of its mission.

The politicians -- and in particular Alberta's remarkably pusillanimous education minister, David Hancock -- bobbed, weaved, shilly-shallied, ducked for cover and tried hard not to fork over any cash to pay for a public secular education program in Morinville. You see, what with a deficit budget and all, it turns out we citizens of the Richest Place on Earth just can't afford real public education in one town!

Conservative politicians were motivated by fear of what their further-right political challengers might say if they actually spent the money to run two parallel public school systems in the same town. And they were very frightened of what Catholic voters might do if the province did anything to upset the educational apple-cart bequeathed to this traditionally French Canadian corner of Alberta by our country's constitutional history.

The Catholic board, pretty obviously, never really had much interest in solving the problem and couldn't care less how upset non-Catholic parents were. Others who ought to have stepped in -- municipal politicians and the teachers' union (which also represents Catholic teachers) -- ducked and covered for similar reasons.

Provincial politicians were obviously worried enough to come up with the original rather goofy compromise deal under which the "public" school board could go on providing only Catholic education and another public school board from a neighbouring county would run a secular school. The administrative, financial and philosophical arrangements didn't really make sense, but they were good enough to get everyone settled down for the time being and allow all parties to claim victory.

But then the whole deal threatened to come apart, apparently because the trailers couldn't be assembled in time -- although there were also dark rumours the St. Albert "public" board was using the situation to hit up the province for additional funding.

This caused real concern among the parents who had pushed for a secular option in Morinville. "People have heckled us in public and made us feel unwelcome in our own community," wrote one parent in a letter to the editor of the Edmonton Journal when it was revealed the deal was crumbling. "Now I must put my children back into the Catholic school where they may be harassed, embarrassed and bullied."

Add to this bizarre mix the intervention of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. That group may or may not have had anything to do with the latest deal, but the CCLA was one of the few institutions that stepped up to the plate to do what parents should have been able to expect from their politicians, teachers and teachers' union -- that is, to fight for the right of Canadian children to be educated in secular public schools.

The CCLA recently wrote the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division, asking them to justify the way religion permeates the curriculum under Alberta's current laws.

But, really, the government of Alberta shouldn't have to be instructed by the civil liberties association that Canadians have right to a true public education in their own communities. The province -- and particularly Hancock -- should demonstrate a little intestinal fortitude and step in to fix this problem in an appropriate time frame.

Unfortunately for Hancock, that would mean more than just finding a couple of rooms for 30 or so elementary students in Morinville. It's probably too much to hope the government could do something in a timely fashion about Alberta's anachronistic legislation that allows religious school boards -- no matter what religion they happen to be -- to masquerade as public boards.

But it could come up with the money to build real public schools in Morinville.

Chances of any of this happening? Pretty darn small under the present circumstances. After all, it would require our Conservative politicians to make a stand based on principle and Canadian values, and to spend money that we obviously have.

But if you think this is a puzzle that can never be undone, just for a moment imagine what would happen if families in a typical Canadian bedroom suburb were told their that if they wanted to attend the public school in their own community, it would have to be one run by one of the other two Abrahamic religions!

The right-wing blogosphere and the mainstream media would go crazy, the phone lines into the premier's office would melt and, after the whole country had scraped itself off the ceiling, the problem would be solved and a new school would be under construction faster than you could say "Origin of the Species." Would anyone worry about the cost? Not a chance!

So how is the situation in Morinville any different?

Let's get on with it, Mr. Hancock.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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