Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 6, 2000
Parents key to Catholic Schools
Community support key if Catholic schools hope to maintain recent gains
By LELLA BLUMER
Special to the WCR
As more than 125,000 students across Alberta join their families and parishes for Catholic Education Sunday on Nov. 5, they will have much to celebrate. Increased funding, continued academic excellence, and a steady rise in enrolment are signs the Catholic school system is alive and well.
The picture wasn't quite so rosy eight years ago, when the bishops of Alberta first set aside a special day each year to celebrate the gift of Catholic education in Alberta.
It was a declaration of faith, at a time when school boards faced major reductions, financial restructuring and consolidation. Across Canada, the move to secularize public education was gaining strength, and eventually both Newfoundland and Quebec would lose their publicly-funded Catholic education systems. There were fears the same thing could happen here.
Things have changed. As recently as Oct. 6, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the right of Alberta's Catholics to operate their own schools.
But this is no time for the Catholic community to become complacent, according to the head of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees' Association.
"It's one thing to have a right," says Lois Burke-Gaffney. But the existence of Catholic education "has to depend on something more than a legislative clause. We have to have the conviction of parents."
ACSTA legal counsel, Kevin Feehan, agrees Catholics can't bank on the recent Supreme Court decision, however favourable it is.
"New challenges arise almost on a daily basis, and it's important that Catholic education not get tired - that it rises up to meet each new challenge."
In fact, the right of Catholics to collect taxes in support of their own school system will once again come before the Supreme Court in early November - this time with Catholic teachers in Ontario facing off against the government of that province, which took away that right last year.
Another challenge, unique to Alberta, is the question of how Catholic boards can expand their boundaries in order to include all Catholics in the province. The ACSTA has been struggling to find an alternative to the restrictive "4x4" method which has been in place for more than 100 years.
One key challenge Burke-Gaffney sees for Catholic education is to improve communication with parents. "We need to build a sense of community, and particularly a closer liaison between the parish and the school.
"There isn't the sense of connectedness there was in the past," Burke-Gaffney says, particularly in large urban areas where the boundaries of one parish can take in a number of different schools.
"We need to build and forge links that allow parents to feel part of both communities."
Burke-Gaffney and Feehan agree the support of the Catholic community is essential to the continued existence of a strong, publicly-funded Catholic school system in Alberta. For one thing, it would not be politically expedient for the government to ignore the rights of such a large minority.
But make no mistake, Feehan says. The reason we have Catholic schools in this province is because of provisions made in the Alberta Act of 1905.
"A number of provinces do not have constitutional rights because at the time of Confederation everyone just shrugged and said the way it is now is the way it will always be," says Feehan.
But in 1905, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier and Minister of Justice Charles Fitzpatrick, who had weathered the Manitoba school crisis a few years earlier, where the provincial government eliminated Catholic schools, were determined to ensure that scenario would not be repeated.
Without those rights, Alberta could well have suffered the same fate as Manitoba, or more recently, Newfoundland and Quebec. In fact, Alberta remains one of only three provinces with a fully-funded Catholic education system.
There are signs of hope, however. In Newfoundland, at least one private Catholic school is operating, run by a committee of community members and taught by the Jesuits.
In New Brunswick, which did away with school boards altogether a few years ago, groups of parents are pushing the government to reinstate the democratic process of electing school officials.
And in Quebec, pockets of resistance remain to the government's move to completely secularize schools and remove any remaining designations of "Catholic."
In each case, it is the will of the community that is driving the change.
That's why it's important, Burke-Gaffney says, "to educate our stakeholders to the importance of their own declaration of support.
"Quite clearly, parents are the lifeblood of Catholic education, because it is they who reinforce, every time they register their children in Catholic schools, the benefit of Catholic education."