Where it's God's way or the highway

In Morinville, Alta., Catholicism is part of the public school system

The town of Morinville, Alta., population 6,775, cannot offer Donna Hunter’s children the secular, non-denominational education most Canadian parents expect as a matter of course. She is leaving for nearby north Edmonton and taking her three young children. And her sister. And her sister’s two kids. And her retired parents. Mrs. Hunter led the family’s march to Morinville in 1999; not yet a mother, she didn’t realize that all of the town’s public schools are, because of an anomaly in Alberta’s constitutional development, formally Catholic. The school board’s stated mission: “ensuring that Catholic values permeate all school activities.”

Morinville belongs to the Greater St. Albert “Catholic Public” school district—a historically French-Canadian area that declared itself Catholic for education purposes under territorial law in 1884. For generations, non-Catholic parents accepted the status quo, but Morinville schools have grown more strident about their identity even as the town becomes more diverse. Hunter leads a group of Morinville parents demanding a non-religious option, but the Catholic board will not provide one, and apparently can’t be forced to despite its officially public status. The province’s education minister acknowledges the problem but, say critics, has been slow to address it.

As Hunter leaves Morinville, her group is enjoying some progress. The Catholic board is surveying town residents to test the appetite for secular education, perhaps provided within Morinville under the auspices of a neighbouring district. “But the survey won’t count people who already left because of the Catholic monopoly, or those who never move here,” notes Hunter. “Every year that passes while we await a solution, more Morinville parents will face my choice. Stay? Leave? Wait? How long?”

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