Ninety-nine per cent of the delegates to the Alberta Teachers Association’s (ATA) virtual annual representative assembly voted Sunday to affirm a motion of non-confidence in Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.
There’s no question that as education minister LaGrange has possessed a sort of reverse Midas touch — virtually every policy the former Catholic school trustee from Red Deer has come near has turned to something that’s definitely not gold.
But it’s worth keeping in mind with Alberta education policy — as well as other policy areas that have become highly controversial since the election of the United Conservative Party in 2019 — that it’s Premier Jason Kenney who is driving the school bus.
LaGrange started her part of the UCP’s policy rampage by forcing public school boards to remove the word public from their names. The message was pretty clear. She moved on to pandering to private schools while the government introduced a budget that amounted to a significant defunding of public education.
When the pandemic started, LaGrange was the public face of the largest single-day mass layoff in Canadian history, 26,000 education workers. For months throughout the pandemic, the government denied the danger of COVID-19 in schools and resisted prioritizing teachers for vaccinations.
Just to make sure teachers got the message about what this government thinks of them, the finance department hijacked their pensions for Kenney’s Alberta-pension vanity project, which the premier brought back from the crypt where premier Ralph Klein had tossed Stephen Harper’s quasi-separatist Firewall Manifesto in 2001.
Most recently there has been that ideologically motivated, incompetently written, plagiarism-riddled primary school curriculum that is turning the province’s once internationally respected education system into a global laughingstock.
Even so, the 98 per cent vote of non-confidence Health Minister Tyler Shandro received in July 2020 from the members of the Alberta Medical Association, which bargains collectively for Alberta’s physicians, was a pretty tall order to surpass.
But surpass it the teachers did!
Given the size of the ATA, which acts as both the union and regulatory college for more than 40,000 public and Catholic schoolteachers, and the insults heaped on its membership by the government over the past two years, it seems likely the 99 per cent non-confidence vote pretty accurately reflects the attitude of most Alberta teachers at this point.
It’s worth remembering that the ATA, while not supportive of every Conservative policy over the years, has had many links to past Conservative governments — enough to tempt some more traditional trade unionists to quip that ATA stood for “Alberta Tory Association.” The late Halvar Jonson served as ATA president and later as education minister.
But those days are gone. With his hostility to unions, enthusiasm for private religious education, and cranky, apparently self-taught views on school curriculum, Kenney has pretty well alienated every teacher in the province.
Since LaGrange, like Shandro, seems mainly to channel Kenney’s views, that hostility is rubbing off on her as well.
“Together we will persist,” ATA President Jason Schilling said in his remarks to the assembly on Saturday. “We will persist in our condemnation of a flawed curriculum. We will persist in our challenge to AIMCo’s right to manage our pension. We will be relentless in our advocacy for our students and for public education.
“We will come out of this — we will not be broken,” he vowed. “We need to reach way down into our last reserve of energy to make it to the end of this year. We will work together to reimagine a better future, for our association, for our kids and for ourselves.”
A normal government in normal times would be deeply concerned by the degree of dissatisfaction with the minister among the province’s teachers. LaGrange would likely have been shuffled somewhere she could do less harm by now.
But for Kenney and the UCP, it appears, such disapproval is a badge of honour, and a vote expressing teachers’ lack of confidence in her efforts seems bound to encourage more offensive policies unless the ATA knuckles under. This is unlikely under the ATA’s current leadership.
It remains to be seen if some other UCP minister can surpass LaGrange and Shandro and receive a 100 per cent vote of non-confidence from a core impacted group. Environment Minister Jason Nixon might be a candidate for such treatment, or perhaps Advanced Education Minister Nicolaides. The challenge is out there.
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 at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.
Credit where credit is due, several of the links in this post come from a tweet thread by former NDP finance minister Joe Ceci. It’s worth reading.