Alberta Teachers Association President Jason Schilling.
Alberta Teachers Association President Jason Schilling. Credit: David J. Climenhaga / Alberta Politics

The Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) is accusing the Kenney government of planning “a massive power grab” with Bill 15, legislation to strip the association of its power to discipline members and replace it with a politicized process run by a government-appointed commissioner.

The bill isn’t what’s best for students or education, the ATA said in a news release. “It is a vindictive attack and a sad effort to distract from the government’s infighting and the minister’s own inability to handle the education file.”

But ATA President Jason Schilling’s warnings about the flaws he sees in the Education (Reforming Teacher Profession Discipline) Amendment Act are unlikely to dissuade Premier Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party from picking a fight with the 46,000-member organization that now acts as both teachers’ professional association and their union. 

After all, picking fights and creating divisions that can be turned into electoral wedge issues has worked well for Kenney, and he’s not about to change course now when many polls suggest he’s in deep trouble with voters and his own party’s members. 

If there’s an opportunity to start a fight with the ATA and then accuse the NDP Opposition of being too close to unions, Kenney isn’t likely to listen to the ATA’s arguments about why Bill 15 is bad legislation⁠—or to realize that the UCP should be careful about what it wishes for, because it just might get it. 

Kenney is quite prepared to cast aside years of mutually beneficial co-operation with the ATA and saddle Alberta with the worst model for teacher-government labour relations in Canada⁠—already a strike-prone failure in British Columbia⁠—for transitory political gain. 

But that’s just the kind of guy Alberta’s premier is. 

Speaking at a virtual news conference, Schilling identified three fundamental flaws with the UCP legislation, which was introduced in the Legislature a week ago today by Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, who is actually a fairly minor actor in this drama as she just does what her boss tells her to do.

First, because the government will get to hire and fire its so-called commissioner, “the design of the entire new system from bottom to top is very susceptible to political influence, and the entire discipline process is at risk of being further politicized,” Schilling said. “This is nothing less than a blatant grab for power.”

“No other profession in Alberta has a commissioner to govern the profession,” Schilling added. (Other public sector unions, however, might argue that previous UCP legislation effectively strips all health care professions of self-regulation by requiring 50 per cent of their council memberships to be made up of government appointees.)

Second, Schilling continued, because Bill 15 removes the notion of self-governance for teachers, the legislation will strip teachers of their ability to regulate their own profession, “a hallmark of professionalism.”

He asked, “How can teachers trust the people who appointed Chris Champion to write curriculum?” (Champion, of course, is the right-wing historian and former Kenney aide known for attacking reconciliation with First Nations as “agitprop” and “an ongoing fad.”)

Third, Schilling argued the government plans to adopt a model used only in B.C. that is “rife with conflict.”

He also pointed to other flaws with the bill, prominently its half-baked structure that will take much longer than the eight months assigned to the task to get into place while no one knows what to do about new and continuing teacher discipline cases.

The trouble is, with the possible example of B.C.’s notoriously bad labour relations with the teaching profession, none of those points are likely to much engage the public. 

The ATA treated the reality that the Kenney government is about to create a militant teachers union cautiously, presumably for fear it would sound as if it were making threats. 

Clearly, though, the current leadership of the ATA doesn’t have much enthusiasm for that approach. But Bill 15, once passed, will likely swiftly put the ATA’s long history of “collegiality and collaboration” with successive Conservative governments behind it. 

The moderating influence of teachers in the old Progressive Conservative Party’s caucus and cabinet was part of the Tory Dynasty’s long success. But Kenney’s UCP apparently has little time for moderation or public education.

The government argues the ATA’s role as the disciplinary body for teachers is in conflict with its duties as collective bargaining agent for members⁠—a view that some unions representing public-sector professionals share.

Alberta’s nursing union split from the disciplinary college in 1977, a change that has benefitted members of the United Nurses of Alberta. 

When the government states Alberta is the only province in which teachers’ unions also act as professional regulators, it is misrepresenting the facts. Teachers’ unions with disciplinary roles are found in Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. 

In Saskatchewan and Ontario there are teacher-run disciplinary colleges in addition to separate teachers’ unions. 

Up to now, only British Columbia, with its famously bad teacher labour relations, has a government-appointed commissioner to regulate the profession. 

The militant new teachers union likely to emerge in Alberta from this situation is sure to aggressively represent it members in discipline cases, as unions are required by law in all Canadian provinces to do.

ATA Executive Secretary and Chief Executive Officer Dennis Theobald, participating in the news conference, conceded that this part of the change proposed in Bill 15 might benefit some teachers, especially those facing discipline.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...