Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 5, 2005
Catholics gained school rights
By JULIETTE CHAMPAGNE
Special to the WCR
The separate school system in Alberta evolved from the systems of Upper and Lower Canada, where early in the 19th century, the presence of minority and majority groups (French-Catholic and English-Protestant, and vice versa) forced compromises from all parties so as to establish schools which offered religious education.
This was the opposite of the way public schools systems were evolving in countries of the Western world, where religious teaching communities were being ousted from the private school systems which were being replaced by public ones.
Religious schools were the first to be established in the Northwest Territories, and according section 93 to the British North America Act, existing school systems had to be allowed to continue when former colonies joined the Canadian confederation. Although the Northwest Territories were not a colony, and different school systems were adopted in the provinces which were created from them, in Alberta, the dual system became the norm.
Under territorial gov't
During the territorial government period, the first separate school district in present-day Alberta was established in Calgary in 1885, and was known as the Lacombe Roman Catholic School District No. 1. The name was changed to the Calgary Separate School District in 1911 to avoid confusion with the town of the same name. Seven other Catholic districts were formed in the Edmonton area in 1885 and, in 1888, a separate school district was established in Edmonton.
It may have been a combination of lobbying on the part of religious leaders such as Bishop A.-A. Taché, Bishop Vital Grandin, Fathers Albert Lacombe and Hippolyte Leduc, and perhaps Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier's attempt to make up for the school fiascos in Manitoba and Ontario (which had caused much strife between religious groups there), which led to the establishment of a dual school system in Alberta.
When the province was created, the system of separate and public schools was enshrined in the Constitution. So unexpected was this turn of affairs, that the federal minister of the interior, Sir Clifford Sifton, resigned in protest.
Language rights maintained
Even if the religious leaders in Western Canada were French-speaking, the school rights they obtained were religious and not linguistic. However, in Alberta, some of the language rights were maintained and even expanded to include other ethnic groups, permitting children to begin classes in their native language and be gradually allowed to learn English.
The first Catholic school in present-day Alberta is often said to have been established by the Grey Nuns at Lac Ste. Anne upon their arrival there in 1859, but in fact, a school was established at Lac la Biche in 1857 by the Oblate missionaries. When the Grey Nuns arrived there in 1862, they took it over.
As for Lac Ste. Anne, when St. Albert was chosen as the central mission in the vicariate in 1861, the sisters moved as well and re-established their school there. Lacombe started another school at Fort Edmonton in 1862 with Oblate Brother Constantine Scollen as its teacher. It existed until 1868. In all of these schools, schooling was very basic and attendance sporadic. Religious instruction was an important part of the curriculum.
After the creation of the province, the dual system used the same curriculum and textbooks, as approved by the Department of Education, but separate schools were allowed to add half an hour each day for religious instruction. Teachers had to be suitably qualified.
In regions where the Catholic group was the first to organize a school board, this school became a Catholic public school, such as at St. Albert or St. Paul.
The first Catholic schools were mostly staffed by members of religious communities, although there were a few exceptions. The Grey Nuns were the first to arrive, and they concentrated their efforts on Indian residential schools.
The Faithful Companions of Jesus, arrived in Calgary in 1885 where they established a school; the order came to Edmonton in 1888, opening St. Joachim's School District No. 7. They began with 23 students and had 35 by Christmas. In 1895, they opened another school in Strathcona at St. Anthony's Parish.
A profusion of religious communities came to Alberta to teach school, a vocation they were completely devoted to, working for next to nothing and providing an essential service in the hinterland, rural areas and the cities. The Grey Nuns and the Sisters of Providence taught mostly in residential schools on reserves.
The Daughters of Jesus and the Sisters of the Assumption taught in a few residential schools, as did the Sisters of the Holy Cross and the Daughters of Wisdom, but they were also active in many small rural communities, as were the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Sisters of Service, the Sisters of St. Louis, and many others.
There were also a few male teaching orders, such as the Holy Cross, Jesuits, Salesians, Redemptorists and Franciscans.
In Edmonton alone 32 different religious communities have taught school. In 1954, although there was still a need for more Catholic schools, there was said to be, including residential schools, at least 67 in the province. There were probably at least a dozen more, as this source notes a few high schools in Edmonton and Calgary, but does not name the other Catholic schools in those cities.
Decline in vocations
There were always some Catholic lay teachers, but most of the schools were directed by religious orders. Many other career options become available following the Second World War, and there was a sharp decline in religious vocations; religious teaching communities turned over the schools they had run to the laity.
In the wake of the Great Depression, important reforms to the educational system took place under the Social Credit government. Changes to the curriculum were imposed and teacher status was regulated. But the greatest impact on separate schools was the amalgamation of hundreds of small school districts into larger administrative units or divisions.
In urban areas, this was not a problem, but in the rural areas, separate school districts could not expand their boundaries as could the public schools. Many small Catholic schools were regrouped with public schools where the students no longer received a religious education.
Faced with this loss of rights, in 1947, the province-wide Alberta Catholic Education Association was organized to muster forces to protect them, but had few financial resources. The Alberta School Trustees Association had been meeting sporadically since 1907, and individuals supporting the Catholic education cause continued to call for action, notably the "Ginger Group," mostly graduates of St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon.
Family, school, parish
Finally in 1958, the Catholic School Trustees of Alberta was established, receiving financial support from all of Alberta's Catholic school boards. The organization continues its work to this day.
From the onset, the establishment of Catholic schools brought much needed support to a very young education system. With time, an element of competition between the two systems provided a stimulus which would have been absent in a single system and which keeps the bar high and provides educational choice.
As well, the Catholic schools have striven to remain true to their mandate of providing a religious education.
With the demise of the religious communities, the "trinity" of family, school and parish has become all the more important. Many schools contribute a great deal to the life of the parish, providing students with opportunities which would be unavailable to them in the public system. The bishops of Alberta and the ACSTA continue to work together to keep intact the legacy the Catholic school system has provided to the province.
Today, there are 23 Catholic anglophone and francophone school boards in Alberta, with more than 111,000 students in 309 schools.