Glen Argan ran second in the Catholic school board election in Ward 75. Photo courtesy of Glen Argan

Comment: Defining ‘Catholic’ is a must in elections

  • November 9, 2017
Serving on a Catholic school board was never in my plans. I was a Catholic journalist, not a school trustee. So, I never considered running for a school board until about 16 months ago. At that time, the Catholic board in Edmonton was in total disarray with a high degree of animosity among the trustees.

Coincident with that, pressure was growing to put an end to the Catholics’ “privileged position” of having publicly-funded schools.

Alberta Education Minister David Eggen appointed a consultant in the fall of 2015 to investigate the dysfunctions on the Edmonton board and report back to him. When the consultant, Donald Cummings, issued his report the following summer, he wrote that the conflicts among trustees were intractable. In fact, instead of just investigating the problems, he had spent much of his time trying to put out daily fire fights among board members.

The Catholic community had to take action. I believed some trustees who were committed to building bridges, rather than burning them, had to be elected in the October 2017 election.

My wife urged me to run as a candidate and, over the next several months, so did many others, including John Acheson, the retiring trustee in our ward. A few told me that I could win anywhere in the city because I was well known as the former editor of the now-defunct Western Catholic Reporter. I didn’t believe them.

I spent the winter hemming and hawing over my decision. I kept my ear to the ground, but heard of little interest from other potential candidates.

In April or May, I decided to run in the ward where I lived. I enlisted a team of experienced campaigners and organizers. We spent the summer laying the groundwork for a strong campaign.

Truth be told, everything in that campaign worked as planned. We recruited an ample number of volunteers and raised enough money to pay for a modest but attention-getting campaign.

On nomination day in September, I learned I would face two competitors: Alene Mutala, a retired teacher and religious education consultant, and Michael Brown. “Who is Michael Brown?” we asked. Nobody knew.

Brown, we discovered at a candidates’ forum 10 days later, is a young urban planner with a sincere faith who is preparing to enter the Church at Easter. That would make him currently a non-Catholic, at least in most people’s understanding, and non-Catholics are not eligible to sit on a Catholic board in Alberta.

But by late September, nothing could be done. The deadline for a candidate withdrawing from the election was long past. Our team just let it ride.

Meanwhile, our volunteers were working hard and having a good time, distributing brochures at churches as well as in areas where I was not well known. I was out pounding the pavement, causing increasing grief to my wonky knees.

School board elections are hard to gauge. There’s no accurate way to determine who is ahead. Yet, as election day drew near, I was confident. I received a universally positive reaction on the doorsteps as well as everywhere else I went. A Grade 7 class held a mock election for trustee and phoned to tell me I had garnered every vote.

Election night brought a surprise. I had an early lead, but Mutala soon pulled ahead and eventually won the day in a close three-way race. The surprise was not Mutala’s victory, but Brown’s strong showing.

Because Brown was an ineligible candidate, I could have challenged the election results. However, my concern was less that I had lost the election than that a non-Catholic had been allowed to run and distort the contest between two legitimate candidates. So, I will not go to court, but will ask the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association to take action to prevent non-Catholics from running in the future.

That may mean negotiating with the provincial government to determine a clearer definition of who is a Catholic, perhaps defining a Catholic as someone who is baptized and has been confirmed within the Church.

Without such a definition, Catholic school boards are vulnerable to a takeover from unfriendly forces.

My team ran a good campaign and I look back on the venture with no regrets. The members of the incoming board look as though they should be able to work in harmony. However, the Catholicity of future candidates for our school boards needs to be assured. 

(Argan is a writer in Edmonton.)

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