Responding to Bishop Henry

As someone who has wrestled with the implications of separate school education for more than 35 years, I am very interested to read the recent Pastoral Letters from the Roman Catholic Bishop of Calgary (read them, here).

Bishop Henry is obviously emotionally invested in his perspective, and this must be acknowledged.

Beyond that, however, the Bishop raises some important issues that Albertans do need to address.

First, the Bishop seems to be making a claim that separate schools are an instrument of the Roman Catholic Church. In other jurisdiction the Roman Catholic Church owns and operates schools, called parochial schools.

In Alberta, Roman Catholic separate schools are not parochial schools (in spite of the name).  They do not belong to the Roman Catholic Church. Separate schools are a civil institution. Separate school trustees are elected by a civil electorate, the common characteristic of which is that they are all Roman Catholics.  But, that common characteristic does not mean the schools are, in any sense, owned by, or accountable to, Bishop Henry or his colleagues. After the election, separate school trustees are accountable to their electorate and the Minister of Education (and, behind the Minister, all Albertans). Separate schools are governed by the same legislation as public school jurisdictions, and they are funded entirely from the public purse.

Second, Bishop Henry proposes that separate schools should operate in ways that are fundamentally at odds with basic tenets of civil democratic society.

  1. The mere existence of Roman Catholic separate school education represents the formal linking of one denomination to the apparatus of the State.  Joining Church and State in this way means that favouritism for one denomination is also a bias against all other denominations and faiths.
  2. I have no doubt that Bishop Henry is a strong believer in inclusion and speaks truth when he claims that separate schools are inclusive. However, it appears to me the Bishop means something very different in his understanding of inclusion than many of us do. It appears Bishop Henry means that an exclusive group (in this case, the Roman Catholic supporters of separate schools) should exercise the charity of being inclusive, with the expectation that those who are included will conform, or at least present themselves, in alignment with the welcoming group. Separate school education exercises a preference for exclusivity, is inclusive as a matter of charity, and expects homogeneity in the outcome. For someone who believes in civil democratic society, this is problematic. Within the framework of democracy, inclusion is a responsibility as much as a right, and it is a celebration of diversity, with the expectation that both the ‘includers’ and the ‘included’ will be more or less changed (even transformed) in the resulting relationship.  Clearly, Bishop Henry is unhappy with the prospect that those within separate schools might be changed as a result of relating to ‘others’.
  3. Similarly, both Bishop Henry and I can say we believe fervently that “decisions should be made as close as possible to those who will immediately live with the consequences”. Many people might say that this statement is the essence of democracy, but of course it is not.  The really important question is this:  having made the statement, who decides which decisions get made where?  Here, the Bishop and others part company with democrats.  The immediate problem is that, when local separate school boards indicated they might make a decision inimical to the interests of the Bishop, the Bishop stepped in to assert his right to determine which decisions get make at the grassroots and which decisions get made ‘further up the food chain’.  This reflects the bigger challenge facing the Roman Catholic Church, that the principle of subsidiarity does not correspond to the historic decision-making process of the Church itself.

This is important in the current debate because, no matter where an LBGTQ student – or any other student — attends school, the necessary questions to ask are then, “what will they learn about the nature of inclusion in a civil democratic society?”, and “what will they learn about democratic decision-making?”

This is precisely what Kevin Feehan, legal counsel for the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association, was referring to in 2008 when he wrote: “So let Catholic education be “separate” different, radical and based upon a concept of education fundamentally opposed to that of the public school system. (Catholic Dimension, Fall, 2008. P. 8.) Mr. Feehan was anticipating the thoughts of Bishop Henry who believes that separate school education should be fundamentally opposed to (the principles and values of) the public school system.

Leaving aside the very questionable Church position on gender (in light of current knowledge of genetics), Albertans should focus on the question of whether to continue separate school education further into the 21st century.

  1. Separate school education represents a State preference for one denomination and a bias against others.  There is no reason to exclude faith from civic life, but there are many reasons to separate the institutions of the Church from the institutions of the State.
  2. Advocates of separate school education (Bishop Henry, the ACSTA, and others) favour its evolutionary development in opposition to basic tenets of civil democratic society.
  3. In 1905 separate school education was imposed on Alberta and Saskatchewan, over the opposition of residents, on the insistence of federal politicians representing Ontario and Quebec
  4. Separate school education originated in the outcome of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 and is no longer relevant to maintaining the great compact between the Francophone and Anglophone co-creators of the modern nation. (Quebec did away with separate school education in 1997.)
  5. Alberta, by itself, can amend our Constitution to disestablish separate school education. (Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Quebec have all amended their respective constitutions to disestablish denominational-civil education.)
  6. Separate school education is only an occasional experience across the country, and it is disappearing from other provinces.

The larger question remains. At the beginning of the 21st century does the continued establishment of separate school education represent the best way of protecting minority rights and endorsing equality treatment for all, diversity, inclusion, and a commitment to democratic decision-making? Can we do better? Should we do better? Does a concept of “inclusion” based on noblesse oblige meet the current standards of our community? Are we satisfied to model, to the next generation of citizens, a concept of decision-making that is strongly hierarchical? The debate is worthwhile, and I am very interested in the comments of readers.  In fact, if you would like to encourage the debate, or if you want to know more, comment or contact me directly at:


  1. Reasoned, cogent and thoughtful, not surprising given your political pedigree David. As a parent with a child attending a Christian school, I am solidly in favour of the debate as it pertains to unifying our two school systems. Bishop Henry has thrown the stone into the pond. Let’s see where the ripples take us.

  2. Thank you David for this very articulate and logical counter-point to Bishop Henry’s ill-conceived entitlement to discriminate in the name of his faith. I believe the vast majority of Albertans agree that it is long-overdue for one public school system in Alberta.

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