Pat Lemire, right, of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish speaks with Paul Corrigan, assistant superintendent of Elk Island Catholic Schools, at the Nov. 5 education panel discussion. Photo by Thandiwe Konguavi

Apathy threatens publicly-funded Catholic education in Alberta, panel says

By  Thandiwe Konguavi, Canadian Catholic News
  • November 14, 2018

EDMONTON – Alberta’s Catholic school system is under attack, and apathy could lead to its downfall.

That was the blunt warning issued during a panel discussion on “Catholic Education: Why Should I Care?” hosted by Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Sherwood Park on Nov. 5.

“We must care about our Catholic schools — all Catholics need to, not just the hierarchy of the Church,” said Archbishop Richard Smith, one of the panellists.

Catholic education is facing threats on multiple fronts, said panellist Dean Sarnecki, executive director of the Alberta Catholic Schools Trustees Association (ACSTA): threats to freedom of religion, anti-Catholic activism, lobbying on funding issues, attacks on Catholic teachings on sexuality and the apathy of Catholics themselves.

The Public School Board Association of Alberta launched its Together For Students campaign Oct. 25 to advocate for a single education system, arguing it would lead to cost savings, more resources in the classroom and greater choice. However, it would also mean the dissolution of the Catholic school system.

Panelists warned that Catholics can’t rely on constitutional protection for Catholic schools or on public schools serving the best interests of Catholic children.

While Catholic rights to publicly funded denominational education are entrenched in the Constitution, right now there are real threats to those rights, said Anna Loparco, partner with Dentons Canada LLP and legal counsel to ACSTA. 

“Constitutional rights, although they are entrenched and are very important and difficult to remove, doesn’t mean that they can’t be removed, and that was done in Newfoundland and Quebec,” she said.

Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan are the only provinces with publicly-funded Catholic schools. 

The Theodore case, in which the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench ruled that non-Catholic students could not be funded to attend Catholic schools in the province, also represents a threat to Catholic education in Alberta, said Loparco. 

That decision, which is now under appeal, would “decimate Catholic education in Saskatchewan,” she said, because some 40 per cent of attendees are not Catholic. If parents had to pay privately to fund their children’s education, Loparco estimates it would cost about $12,000 per child, per year. 

The panelists called for Catholics to move from apathy to engagement. “We as a community must be strong in what we do and how we defend our rights to Catholic education by doing the best we can in defending it to everyone we meet,” Sarnecki said. 

To that end, an alliance of educators and stakeholders with representatives of all 16 school districts that offer Catholic education in Alberta was formed in October. Grateful Advocates for Catholic Education (GrACE) was established to advocate vocally and publicly for publicly funded Catholic education, which currently serves an estimated 170,000 students in the province.

The Catholic education system affords the Church the opportunity to give children the hope “that comes uniquely from friendship with Jesus Christ,” said the archbishop, who recorded a video message in support of GrACE. 

“Why would we ever risk losing this?” 

Catholics should be pointed in questioning political candidates on where they stand on the issue of publicly-funded Catholic education, he said.

Parent Bill Girard, whose three children attended Catholic schools, said he was happy with the attendance of close to 200 people at the event. 

“I enjoyed seeing the awareness of the problems that the Catholic education system is facing,” said Girard. “Though they’re not new, I think they’re more dangerous right now because of the internal apathy of Catholics themselves, not seeing this incredible precious gem of Catholic education can be lost in the secular school system.”

Paul Corrigan, assistant superintendent of Elk Island Catholic Schools, complimented public schools but agreed that parents should have the choice of Catholic education. 

The Catholic faith offers “the highest possible view of the human person to each student,” said Corrigan. “We are all God’s masterpiece. Each and every one of us are made in the image and likeness of God. We are infinitely valued, infinitely loved, by the creator of the universe. 

“When young people walk away with that message, that is something that the schools across the street — as good as they are, filled with caring, dedicated educators — simply aren’t able to say.”

(Grandin Media)

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