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Alberta's education minister clashes with school trustee over climate strike

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Edmonton public school Trustee Michael Janz. Image: David J. Climenhaga

The students are revolting -- and as far as Alberta's education minister is concerned, at least one of the school trustees is too.

This Friday, students from all over the Edmonton area will abandon their classes to participate in the global strike for climate action.

Alberta's United Conservative Party government, which grudgingly admits the climate may be changing but seems to think we Albertans and our fossil fuel industry have nothing to do with it, does not approve. But what else is new?

Well, there's this: at tonight's meeting of the board of trustees of the Edmonton School Division (that is to say, the now-renamed Edmonton public school board), Trustee Michael Janz will put forward a motion asking his fellow trustees to support "academic amnesty for students participating in Global Climate Strike demonstrations."

You can almost hear the heads exploding over at the office of Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.

"To ensure students receive no academic penalty for taking part in the rally, we would ask our schools to avoid scheduling tests or other assessments on that day," Janz's motion says. "Furthermore, we would provide additional curriculum resources from the City of Edmonton for schools who could not attend to support our teachers as they provide learning opportunities for students about our climate emergency."

"Public education is the cornerstone of our democratic system and exists to create an engaged and educated electorate," Janz added in a social media note accompanying the text of his motion. "Now, in the midst of our federal election, our young people are trying to urge us into action on a life-or-death issue deciding our future. As adults, we need to make sure we get out of the way, and not get in the way of their engagement in real life education."

"It would be hypocritical of us," he added, "to ask students to put their short-term academics ahead of the long-term survival of our species."

Needless to say, LaGrange was not amused. She was also, if I may be so bold, somewhat hindered by an apparent lack of a sense of irony.

"Our government expects education professionals to encourage students to engage meaningfully in their academics, rather than encourage them to skip tests or assignments," she sniffed in a statement distributed to media by a spokesperson.

"As a trustee, Michael Janz should understand that K-12 academics are not 'short-term,' as he claims, but instead they are a foundation for our students' futures," she continued. "Ultimately, parents and guardians -- not an activist school trustee -- can determine whether they want their children to miss class."

LaGrange, or at least whoever drafted that statement for her, is spinning things just a little. It's clear from Janz's statement that he is not encouraging students to skip tests or assignments. He is urging schools not to schedule tests or assessments on the same day as the protest, and the board to declare there should be no penalties for non-attendance on the day of the demonstration.

If LaGrange got anything right in her statement, it is that Janz is an activist. There are not very many people, in fact, who do activism better than Janz does. He is an energetic and articulate advocate for public education, and in possession of an unerring instinct for what makes journalists pay attention.

Moreover, if the minister forgot something important, it was that she herself based her pre-ministerial career on school board activism, although her causes are not exactly the same as Janz's. Naturally, her pious pontification provoked a harsh reaction from folks who have been paying attention to what she has done and said herself.

"This from a Minister of Education who, when she was a Red Deer Catholic School Trustee, bused students using district $$$ from Red Deer to Edmonton to attend anti-contraception and anti-choice protests," Janz responded immediately upon seeing LaGrange had blundered right into the trap he had set. Many other tweeters echoed these sentiments.

Since she has become education minister, as has been reported in this space, LaGrange seems to have had no problem with Janz's idea education exists to create an engaged and educated electorate -- as long as students are engaged with causes she approves of.

On May 9 this year, 1,000 or so Roman Catholic school students were bused to the Alberta capitol to march through the streets of the city for the March for Life, an annual anti-abortion protest. A letter to parents of students at St. Joseph's High School in Red Deer -- LaGrange's old stomping grounds when she was an activist school trustee in that central Alberta city -- noted that there would be no cost to participants. The tax-supported school board picked up the tab for the buses.

And the government of Premier Jason Kenney certainly no problem with the idea. Indeed, elected Conservative politicians were observed mingling with protesters in front of the legislature building.

Before her election as chair of the Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division, LaGrange was president of Red Deer Pro Life, an anti-abortion-rights group -- which, in one way at least, like the climate protesters, has the future of the unborn in mind.

Well, in fairness to the minister, Catholic schools did ask parents for their permission to send their children to the march. It was, indeed, an official school outing.

Making planetary survival a priority, though, is apparently an entirely different matter for LaGrange and the government of Premier Kenney that she serves, not at all appropriate for a public protest by students, let alone their teachers!

At this point, it doesn't really matter what Edmonton's school trustees do tonight. Janz has already made his point about LaGrange. Or, rather, he has allowed LaGrange to make it herself.

As for the students, they understand that a strike isn't really a strike if you haven't been ordered not to strike. So a majority of them, presumably, are therefore unlikely to be at school Friday, come what may.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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