Back to School in Pandemic Alberta

Jason Kenney’s attacks on public education continue. Politicized attacks on Alberta’s curriculum review, farcical comments by government spokespeople, and poor planning for the return to classes mid-pandemic are all eroding trust in public education. Medeana Moussa and Barb Silva from Support Our Students join Team Advantage to discuss what awaits students as they return to school.

Learn more about Support Our Students at https://www.supportourstudents.ca, on Twitter @SOSAlberta, on Facebook, and download their toolkit at https://www.supportourstudents.ca/constituents-toolkit.html.

A full transcript follows the break.

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Kate: The Alberta Advantage is supported by listeners like you. Independent listener-supported media like this podcast is possible only thanks to the generous support of our listeners. If you think what we do is important, please head over to patreon.com/albertaadvantage and support our work with a monthly donation.

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Kate: Hello, and welcome to The Alberta Advantage. September is here, and you know what that means — Alberta students are going back to school. I am your host, Kate Jacobson, and with me for today’s episode is Joel —

Joel: Hello hello.

Kate: — as well as special guest Medeana Moussa, the executive director-elect for Support Our Students —

Medeana: Hi there.

Kate: — and Barb Silva, current but outgoing communications director from Support Our Students and longtime favourite of the podcast.

Barb: Always a pleasure to be here.

Kate: Thank you both so much for joining us here today on Team Advantage. And last time — for folks who don’t remember, we looked at K to 12 education in Alberta — was actually with you in February of this year, and a number of strange things were already going on with Alberta education. Jason Kenney was using claims of Alberta’s curriculum being secretly rewritten by the NDP to score cheap points, even though drafts of curriculum progress had been regularly released, and the process had involved 32,000 submissions from the public. Kenney’s government also paused the curriculum review that was five years in the making and had actually begun under the Progressive Conservative government and been continued under the NDP. He appeared to be very concerned about mentions of Canadians being settlers, injustices in Canadian history being taught, intersectionality, critical race theory, and, of course, the bogeymen of all conservative bogeymen, New Math. Instead, students — according to this government — should be learning really important stuff like a balanced perspective on climate change, or, most importantly, how to write in cursive. Barb and Medeana — if you had to summarize, very briefly, what the curriculum pause that came about in late January meant, what would you say?


Medeana: I would say that there were other priorities for this government at this time. There was the priority of Bill 15 (Choice in Education). They were also presenting a new funding model to school boards, and they were also setting the scene to use the curriculum attacks to continue building distrust in teachers, building distrust in public education.

Barb: Yeah, I would agree with that. I would say that the government really wanted to put an emphasis on undermining public education, as Medeana says. And one of the great ways to do that was to pause the curriculum, create this gaping, wide vacuum in the entire process, leaving thirty-year-old curriculum still in the classrooms, all the while supplementing that, like Medeana says, with Bill 15 and a new funding model.

Kate: So, on August 6th, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange issued a ministerial order which, quote, “sets the vision, values, learning foundations, and outcomes for students’ learning in K-12 education,” end quote. And it also included some truly unbelievable comments from Angus McBeath, the chair of the Curriculum Advisory Panel tasked with undoing the supposed evils of the previous curriculum rewrite.

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Angus: Literacy and numeracy. And we think they’re so important that they should be part of every subject that gets taught in school. Oh, I can hear people say, “Well, I went to university and became a history teacher. I teach history. I don’t teach anything to do with literacy and numeracy.” Not quite true. In the future, all teachers will be teachers of literacy and numeracy. You can’t do so many subjects if you can’t read, think, compute, comprehend, well. Those are essentials that we want for all Alberta students. We don’t want any kids in Alberta left behind.

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Angus: I said, you can have a really bright young person graduate from high school, and they get a job, and they’re fast, and they’re quick, and they know how to fill orders, and they wait on customers. But if they steal you blind, are you sure you got a good one? So we want to teach students a certain reverence for honesty, integrity, perseverance, stick-to-itivness (better learn how to say that word!), resilience, respectfulness, and many other virtues that we think are important for students to possess.

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Angus: How many people here — and I don’t wish to put down any industry in this country, but some people are nervous when they go to buy a used car. It’s possible that they think maybe they won’t hear the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about that car and its history. Well, we want every Albertan that we produce, through our schools, along with their families — we want every young person who graduates from our schools to be the kind of person you’d want to be selling you a used car.

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Angus: Now, I have a young relative who went to work for The Gap. After four days, she asked for three weeks off. They laid her off. I thought — clearly this young person didn’t understand the world of work culture. So we think all young people should be exposed to work culture. I’m delighted that we’re moving away from discovery math and constructivism. I think it’s high time that parents understand how to divide when your child comes home from school. This may have happened to you. [laughs] “Can you help me with my math homework?” “Oh, sure.” “That’s not how my teacher does it. She thinks the way you divide 31 into 466 is wrong.” Because, you remember, we had this thing where is goes like this, and you have the 431 here and you have the other number here, and then — well, it’s become so constructivist that parents don’t believe they can help their kids with schoolwork.

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Kate: What was your thought on both this ministerial order and on this press conference?

Medeana: Well, I took in that press conference, and I found it to be a bit shocking, not well-planned. They were talking about curriculum that the Progressive Conservatives had actually started the rewrite on and took that as an opportunity to be very political and attack the NDP and undermine, again, public education. We have, as a province, scored very well on PISA standardized tests —although there’s a problem with standardizing education and measuring it that way, but nonetheless — we have done really, really well on that. It was a very bizarre press conference. And I think it actually undermined the credibility of the conservatives — it came off as a bit kooky.

Barb: Yeah, it definitely was. I mean, I was really shocked, as well, at the press conference. I thought that it takes an incredible amount of boldness to parade a man who was going to do exactly what they knew they were going to do — they knew he was going to speak like this — and to be so bold as to give zero Fs about it, and still have him go up there and ramble complete nonsense. The second part of this is the ministerial order, which actually doesn’t vary very much from the original ministerial order, so there isn’t a huge change, and there wasn’t really a need to do this; it was change for the sake of change, and I don’t think it serves to benefit Alberta students in any way.

Joel: It’s probably worth noting here that Angus McBeath is a Fellow in Public Education Reform with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. And the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies is merged with the Fraser Institute and had, among others, John F. Irving as a chairman for a while. They’re both right-wing, neoliberal think tanks that have, generally, as an end goal, the privatization of public education.

Barb: I just want to say — I think Angus McBeath also exemplified what every student disliked about school — this patronizing, dismissive language about Alberta’s youth, that they’re either going to rob you blind, or they’re going to be late, or they’re lazy, or they’re unfocused and they have a poor work ethic. I mean, he really, literally, underscored the worst component of every single person’s experience in education and really laid that at the feet of Alberta’s children. And I found that, really, the worst and most offensive part of his entire nonsensical ramblings, was the way he spoke about Alberta’s youth.

Kate: Absolutely, and one thing I was thinking about when I was watching this press conference was, really, just how bold the United Conservative Party was being with their ideological and political project when it comes to the curriculum, and — I mean, it was really upsetting and kind of horrifying to watch, but it was also really refreshing to see a party almost be honest about the fact that they consider a school curriculum to be an ideological piece that is about the values of our society, and being oddly honest about what terrible values they believe are important to emulate and teach people who are going to school in Alberta. Of course, when they talk about it, it’s all cloaked up in, “We’re going to be teaching, finally, numeracy and literacy,” so I guess my question there is — Medeana, had Alberta been neglecting to teach its students how to read or do math all of this time? You know, will Alberta students finally know what letters and numbers truly look like now that the NDP’s fiendish curriculum review has been stopped?

Medeana: Considering this curriculum is thirty years old — and I think I’ve met quite a few thirty-year-olds, twenty-year-olds, who can read and write — this is a ludicrous accusation, that we have not been focusing on literacy and numeracy. And we can go back to those PISA scores, and I think Alberta is number three and four in science, number eight in math, and we have shown that we have been learning literacy and numeracy. I think what I really saw in this curriculum review was that they just want to go back to basics and take out the critical thinking component. And that’s really worrisome. And then they put up somebody with these really old-fashioned views to push that forward, and it was just the visual of that combined with how old-fashioned this perspective is — it’s like taking this thirty-year-old curriculum and then pushing it back even further.

Barb: Yeah. I mean, I think, from my perspective, Alberta performs very well on the global scale by their own measures — certainly, Support Our Students Alberta’s no fan of standardized tests, but by this government’s measures, which does seem to like standardized tests, their claims that we have an illiterate and an innumerate society as a result of the curriculum is not borne of absolutely any evidence. So, the facts don’t lie — we have, as Medeana says, people reading and writing and performing math all around us every day.

Kate: I’m going to try not to get too into some of the things he said in that press conference because they’re quite ludicrous, but —

Barb: Well, they’re ludicrous, and some of them were racist, and some of them were offensive. And I would agree with you a hundred percent that I think it takes an enormous — you’ve got to give zero fucks to parade that guy out in front of all these people. And that — there’s something to be said about the fact that they knew he would say the things that he said in the way that he said and what it represents about moving children forward to put a man who has had the privilege of standing in front of children, as a teacher all the way up to as a superintendent, to parade him out like that. I mean, it spoke volumes.

Kate: Well, I mean — realistically, what’s going on is that the United Conservative Party doesn’t think that there is going to be any actual, material consequences that their government will have to deal with for doing something like that. And, up to this point — unfortunately for us — they are correct in that there haven’t been any real consequences for their government in parading out a man that is so incredibly racist, out of touch, offensive, and backwards thinking. And it’s sort of like —

Medeana: That’s exactly it.

Kate: — one of the things that I find so wonderful about Support Our Students is that the project that you are working on is the attempt to make there be actual consequences for this government when they do things like that.

Barb: Yeah, I mean, I think that those are the things that we have to start reading between the lines on. It’s not just what they say, but how they say it and who they have say these things. We have to stop just listening to just the words, but analyze every other aspect of the things this government does. And what they are saying repeatedly, over and over and over again — and we’ll see this again when and if we touch on the most recent meeting between Adriana LaGrange and ATA president Jason Schilling — is what they are telling you is they are moving forward, full throttle, full steam ahead. They don’t care what it looks like, they don’t care what the general population things — they have an ideology, and they’re sticking to it.

Joel: Yeah, the not caring is really what came through, particularly with Mr. McBeath’s performance. It really was just, like, “We’re going to parade this old fossil out, he’s going to say a bunch of stuff and ramble on like we know he does, the people that get upset are going to be people we don’t care about.” That’s it, that’s all. [laughs] It’s almost consequence-free for them.

Kate: And it’s not just that they don’t care about people who are going to have objections to it, but that they have, unfortunately, correctly analyzed that, right now, we don’t have the numbers or the organization to actually enforce meaningful consequences for when they do these things. And that is kind of going to be a theme around K-12 education in this province, I think, as we go through this episode. And also, a theme that I hope will emerge, is how to build the power to force the government to have to make u-turns when they do things that we find distasteful, dangerous, or morally wrong. Minister LaGrange and Premier Kenney have repeatedly claimed that they are going to get rid of bias and of ideology in the curriculum. Is there such thing as a bias-free curriculum, and what do you think that Kenney and LaGrange actually mean when they say that they’re going to make a curriculum that is bias-free?

Medeana: The bias-free, in this instance, I just see as further criticism of teachers and taking an opportunity to build on this mistrust that they continually try to enshrine into parents, and to build doubt about what the kids are learning, and the parental choice involved in that, and just preying on parents’ insecurity and our need to do the best for our kids. And it’s another attack on public education, essentially, and a political attack on the NDP. It hasn’t been biased — I mean, this is a PC curriculum — and it’s just an opportunity for them to take another hit towards public education.

Barb: Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely not bias-free. What they want is their bias, right, is an opportunity to put forward their biases into what they want and feel should be taught. But the problem is: all the rhetoric that they have, when you start talking about literacy, numeracy, or even curriculum, is — none of their claims are based in anything that’s true. If there is bias, if parents are complaining about assessments and tests and conversations with teachers, the curriculum that is currently in every single one of our children’s schools is not a leftist curriculum, it was not put in by the NDP — nothing the NDP has done has seen the light of day in a classroom — it was all borne out of PC governments. So, this is how we know that it’s rhetoric, this is how we know that it’s ideology, this is how we know that it’s meant to inflame and exploit parental concerns and create, as Medeana says, distrust with teachers and the public education system. And the other thing, you know — this goes back to when Angus McBeath was talking about teaching sequentially — they want teachers to act as robots, to deliver material. They deliver it, students learn it. That’s it. Teachers are human beings, students are human beings; we have relationships, we each come to a classroom with a lived set of experiences, whether we come from war-torn countries, are immigrants, or are tenth-generation Albertans. And through that process, through our lived experiences, what happens in the classroom has a lived reality all of its own, and so it’s impossible to be in a room without bias, and it’s impossible to be in a room without reflecting the needs and experiences of thirty kids in your classroom. And when McBeath speaks about teaching sequentially, he wants to take all emotion and all of those factors out of that experience.

Joel: What really struck me — first of all, about the bias and ideology talk — was that they’re playing this classic game where everybody has ideology, or everybody has bias, except for me; I am perfectly objective. This is a classic game of ideology that people love to play, and we see it with the UCP quite plainly here. But another thing is going on, and it’s that the whole approach — and this came through in a lot of what McBeath said, but it comes through in a lot of the documentation around the ministerial order — is that they expect almost a kind of, like you said, robotic, rote ability to regurgitate facts without putting them into context or being able to think about them, and that, to me, is the most disturbing part about what seems to be going on with all of this curriculum talk, is that it’s setting people up to claim to have knowledge but not be able to think.

Barb: That’s exactly it. And that’s part of the rhetoric around sequential learning, that children are this empty vessel, they don’t come — and this is the biggest part about inquiry-based learning or the discussion around the types of pedagogy, is that the conservative values see children as vessels that we fill with knowledge, and they don’t acknowledge — and they don’t even admit — that children come to a classroom every day with their own lived experiences, with their own ideas, with their own thought processes, and that learning is a process that you go through as part of a relationship, not just with your teacher, but with the other kids in your classroom. So they’re not empty vessels — it’s not something you just pour knowledge into and then they regurgitate, sequentially, numbers on a number line or a timeline. And so it actually shows how little they understand, not just about pedagogy, but about how people learn.

Kate: I also think, too, what is taught is very much a reflection of the values we have in our society. If you even just think about how much there is to know about Calgary, about Alberta, about Canada, about all of the nations that were here before it was Canada, about the continent, let alone about everyone else on the planet — you cannot teach everything, so making decisions about what is taught, at what age, from what perspective, how they relate to one another; these are all decisions that fundamentally are imbued with values. And in a society that was good, this would be a process that was ideally, in some way, democratic and took into account the perspectives of the many different people who live in our society. But to act like there is even a way that it is technically possible to just imbue that knowledge onto children is a massive lie, and is a lie they’re telling on purpose because it is politically convenient to them — you know, they want parents to think that there is a certain set of facts, and a certain body of knowledge, you must have in order to be successful in the world, which is also another lie. I don’t think I’ve ever had a job in my life where I was being asked to regurgitate certain set of facts that I learned in elementary school or middle school and high school, but rather, in every job I’ve ever had, I’ve been asked to perform tasks in certain situations. And that’s not even getting into the whole idea that education should be more than preparing people to enter the workforce. So when I start thinking about this, I really just see that, on every level, it is the government selling educators and parents and children a complete lie about what education is, who it is for the benefit for, and what place and role it has in our society.

Barb: And who it’s centered around. I mean, I couldn’t agree with you more, especially as it relates to social studies. There was a time when we talked about Christopher Columbus in a certain light. As a Latin American, is that a fact? Is there a truth there? Or is there a perspective, is there room to have a discussion about what the impact was for the First Nations and the Aboriginals and the people who were in Latin America before Christopher Columbus arrived. Are we allowed to have that discussion, or is having the preset idea that he was a hero and that he was to be celebrated just one perspective? And why do we need to maintain that perspective? Why is there such a focus on keeping that as a truth? And that’s to maintain power structures, right. And so — whose voices are we prioritizing? Why are we not wanting to talk more about First Nations in this country? Why are we not talking about colonialism in this country? Why aren’t we talking about racism in this country? Why is that? At the end of the day, it’s to maintain power structures.

Medeana: The timing of this announcement and how it coincided with the largest protest that we’ve seen in a generation about racism and system racism. So, here we are, where the rest of the world — or, especially, the US — is in this huge movement; and here, our government, this conservative government, continues to act as though we’re in a vacuum and talks about revising curriculum in the most irrelevant way possible.

Kate: Yeah, absolutely. From a classical Marxist perspective, when we talk about education, we say education is a part of society that we call “social reproduction;” so, basically the act of reproducing not only our society — by educating young people — but reproducing a certain type of society. And I think the battle over the curriculum rewrite really rings home, for me, how much education is about not only producing members of a society, but producing very certain and specific members of the society who interact with each other and with the structures around them in really, really specific ways that are of benefit to a society that is structured around the needs of the ultra-wealthy. So, moving on a bit to the pandemic. As we saw in March and in April, the Alberta government’s response was deadly in many circumstances, particularly in both long-term healthcare and in Alberta’s meat-packing plants. At the time, Alberta was already looking at a reduction in per-student funding for K-12 education, and then, in March, the UCP government actually announced the province’s largest mass layoff in Alberta history with $128,000,000 cuts to funding for 26,000 educational assistants, bus drivers, substitute teachers, and other K-12 support staff. And, around roughly the same time, I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that the Alberta government invested $7,500,000,000 into the US’ Keystone XL pipeline — which, at the time of this recording, is currently wrapped up in a lot of legal trouble. As the pandemic went on in late July, Kenney announced that Alberta students would be heading back to in-person classes come September. Guidelines included hand sanitizer, self-screening for symptoms among staff and students, 2-meter distancing when possible (but if that wasn’t possible, you should just try not to face each other), no new funding. The Alberta NDP did respond with an an alternative proposal — they did call for capping class sizes at 15 students, hiring enough teachers to make this feasible, grants to ensure physical distancing on school buses, and working with municipalities to find public spaces to use. They estimated the cost at $1,000,000,000 and argued it was worth it so that education happens, a), and also that people don’t get sick. The government, under pressure at this point, decided about a week later that Alberta school staff and students would receive masks. They were awarded Old Navy and IFR Workwear with contracts to make masks for students. And I must say, as a complete coincidence, IFR Workwear’s CEO is Reg Radford, who donated thousands of dollars to now-Education Minister Adriana LaGrange in 2019 and had donated to Kenney’s UCP leadership campaign, as well as thousands of dollars to the Progressive Conservatives before the UCP. Just in case you were wondering if the government was openly and nakedly corrupt. So, when we’re looking at the government’s plan for back-to-school: a few million bucks in public funds for masks and giving business to a conservative donor. Is there something I’m missing here?

Medeana: I don’t think you are missing too much. It’s not much of a plan whatsoever; it was not comprehensive in any way. In fact, I think we heard that there was a set of guidelines for the general public to follow, and then the back-to-school plan disregarded some of those and said, “You know what, we’ll just do our best with some hand sanitizer and a mask, and that will have to do.” It was a really, really disappointing confirmation of where this government’s priorities are — it is not with the people, it is not with students, it is not for our health, it is 100% in corporate pockets.

Barb: No, I mean, I agree; I think that we knew this was coming. Listen — every single thing that we needed to mitigate COVID in this current climate was things we needed well before COVID came. We’ve had ballooning class sizes for over fifteen years. We have buildings that are 50 years old with windows that don’t open and obsolete HVAC systems for centuries. We have over $2,000,000,000 in deferred maintenance. We have overcrowded busing. We have transportation that hasn’t been funded in thirteen years. So, listen — none of this was new. Our schools were in bad shape before the pandemic; they’re in worse shape, obviously, because of a pandemic. We didn’t have a government, under the NDP, willing to address that, and now we have one that’s willing to exploit that. So our children and our education workers are on the front line, here, and they’re going to be the ones who pay the biggest price of all.

Kate: So, I think we can all agree that the UCP plan is not only not much of a plan, but it’s also incredibly dangerous for students, for parents, for anyone that the students are in community with, and also for teachers, educators, and support staff. When we’re looking at the NDP’s plan, which was the major counter-proposal in the electoral political sphere, what are your thoughts on it?

Medeana: Well, I mean, I think it was a good plan. Some of it was not as achievable for the timeline; we put out a different approach to physical distancing, I think lower class sizes is really important. Our suggestion was to focus on the actual space being the parameter that we had to work with rather than capping class sizes at fifteen. I think the NDP missed the boat when they were in power to try to do something about these problems in education, but the pandemic has done is magnified all of these neglected parts of our social structure, and we’re seeing them suffer. And we also wanted — I’m glad that they’ve added masks, and addressing some transportation issues, we’re still waiting on, but I do think the NDP, their plan is generally good. But, of course, they’re not in a position to implement it. And this government isn’t going to do that.

Kate: I mean, that is classic Alberta New Democrat Party — completely squandering the opportunity to do anything while they are in power, and then, the minute they are out of power again, they have all of these incredible ideas about ways they could improve peoples’ lives, improve public services, things that’ll be wonderful to do. If only they were in power.

Barb: Yeah. Honestly, as someone who’s been doing this, now, for six years, I found it rather insulting, because I remember sitting across the table from the minister of education, David Eggen. We had conversations with this government about all of these very same issues that they now want to be the hero on. We talked about class sizes, we talked about busing, we talked about HVAC systems, we talked about proper ventilation, we talked about kids eating lunches on gym floors, and now they’re going to be eating lunches on gym floors during a pandemic. So, it’s a little insulting to those of us who have been trying to ring the bell on these issues for years now, to have them try to ride in on a horse and say, “We’ve got all these solutions.” Their solutions aren’t bad — again, our biggest caveat and difference between what we put forward with red educators and AB docs for patients was the idea that we must mitigate this virus based on the first line of defence, which is 2-meter distancing. It’s not a class size cap in and of itself — if your room can hold twenty students and they can be 2 meters apart, then that’s what you can do. And if your room can only hold nine students at 2 meters apart, then that’s what you’re going to do. And so that’s different than just a blanket class cap size, and that’s one thing that I think that they missed completely.

Joel: Yeah. Probably it’s worth mentioning, also, that in downtown Calgary, at least, there’s tons of available space in these office towers. Prior to the pandemic, there was something like a 20% vacancy rate — I can’t imagine what it’s like now — but pperhaps that space could have been used for some reason.

Barb: There’s university lecture halls. There’s community centres. There’s libraries. There’s tons of space that we could be using.


Medeana: The point that we have continually tried to emphasize at SOS is that it’s not that there aren’t solutions — it’s deliberate. The fact that this government that we have right now is not investigating or pursuing solutions isn’t an accident, it’s not because they’re too daft to notice — it’s because they’re exploiting that very same fear that Kate was mentioning about sick kids, sick grandparents. They’re exploiting a parent’s natural and innate fear for their own children so that they leave the system, so that they have less confidence in the system. It’s no coincidence that, around the same time, we had businesses popping up, offering de facto pseudo-charter schools for twelve, thirteen, fourteen hundred dollars a month so that parents can choose online hub learnings. We’re talking about organizations like, businesses like, InjaNation, dance studios, cheer academies. So the goal was to create a parallel economy, and that’s exactly what’s happening.

Joel: So, the classic privatization scheme of defunding and eroding the public system so that people don’t trust it, or lack confidence in it, which then propels them to go seek private sector options.

Medeana: Yeah, they want you to be afraid. They want you to fear going to an overcrowded classroom so that you find the solution of a class size of fifteen, which is either a private school or a business solution.

Barb: And there has been an increase in interest in private schools. I’m curious to see what that registration is going to be like once the school year starts. But the plan is working — I think a lot of people are wanting a different solution, they want those small class sizes. And I just think to myself, this is such a destructive message. What the government is really saying is: if you cannot afford to put yourself in a private school, your health, your education, your life, isn’t worth as much as somebody that can pay for it. And that, I find to be very upsetting.

Kate: Oh, it’s an absolutely disgusting message for a government to be sending out. And, ultimately, the reason they’re sending it out is because they want to destroy public services, as you’ve pointed out, and to transfer wealth to their friends who own private schools and who can make money out of what is now a public service in the education of youth. I also think what’s going on here is this performative and completely false helplessness of the public sector that we see conservative governments do all of the time, which is, really, putting on display real issues and very real problems that do exist within public services, whether it’s education or healthcare or anything like that. But the truth is that the government absolutely has the capacity and the ability to fix these problems, and we know that that’s true because there are many times, throughout living through this pandemic, where we’ve seen the government be able to mobilize resources extremely quickly and extremely fast. You know, the federal government was able to re-deploy thousands of workers to deliver income support programs. We know it’s possible for governments to make these massive investments into infrastructure programs or re-training or re-skilling or hiring, but there’s always — when you have conservative governments — this performative helplessness of, “What could you expect us to do? How could we possibly do it? The system itself is inefficient, is bloated, is never going to be able to deliver the outcomes that the public is absolutely within the right to expect and that they deserve from their public services.” And it’s so endlessly frustrating for me to watch because it really has given birth to this extremely reactionary and regressive folk wisdom that government services are inherently inefficient or inherently worse than what you get in the private sector. And not only is that morally unfair — because it suggests that only people who can pay should have nice things — it’s also just flat-out wrong. It is not reality — it is a choice that these governments are making, to defund and to not deal with issues that exist in the public sector.

Medeana: And I think it’s also an obsession with lower taxes, right?

Barb: Absolutely.

Medeana: The only way you can have lower taxes — if you download all of these programs that are paid for by taxes. So I think that is the overarching goal of this government, by far, and they’re quite happy to create an industry while they’re at it.
Kate: And, you know, why would you want your taxes going to a program or a service that consistently and purposefully, on the behalf of the government, lets you down? You know, if your only experience with the public education system, is that the teachers are overworked and the classrooms are overcrowded and your kids don’t get the support they need, of course you’re not going to want your taxes funding that system because it’s not working for you and your family and your community. So it’s absolutely part of manufacturing that consent for lower taxes.

Barb: I’d just like to add, as well, that there’s this really divisive rhetoric that, when Jason Kenney talks about getting workers back to work, getting people back to work, it’s always a certain type of person, right? When they have funding to reclaim abandoned wells — or wells that haven’t actually been abandoned [laughs] — you know, he’s talking about putting certain people back to work as though teachers aren’t workers, as though education assistants aren’t workers, as though doctors and healthcare worker aren’t workers. There are also Albertans who deserve to make a living, who deserve to be a part of the economy, who have trained skills, and who contribute to Alberta as a whole. And so, when they talk about starting the economy, it’s always interesting that it’s only one part of the economy that they want to put people back to work in, and they fail to recognize public servants as workers.

Kate: And I think one of the reasons, Barb, that they fail to recognize public service worekrs as workers is that women are incredibly over-represented in the public service —

Medeana: Amen.

Kate: — particularly in healthcare and in education, and this government thinks that the work they do doesn’t matter because it is highly gendered care work.

Medeana: Which is another reason why this scenario one plan is also going to hurt women more, right? Because we already know that, during this pandemic, women are leaving their jobs. It exploits this conversation that women have, and have had for decades now, about “Do I prioritize my career or my children?” And now, that discussion is at full throttle. “Am I going to send my child into an overcrowded school with forty other students or go to work?” And so, it is on every single level, a mysoginist take, an attack on women’s rights, and exploiting the work that women do, both in and out of the home.

Joel: So, in late August, groups across the province gathered outside UCP MLA offices against provincial school re-opening plans, and, a few days earlier, the Alberta Teachers’ Association requested that the first day of school be pushed back until after Labour Day. So, do you have any sense of how those protests at MLA offices went, and are you aware of any MLAs responding to the concerns of protesters?

Medeana: Well, I actually went to one of those protests. Even though it wasn’t put on by SOS, I felt a need to go there as a concerned parent, and to have my voice heard, and to meet other concerned, like-minded individuals. And I was actually quite impressed to see how many people were there protesting: students, grandparents, parents. And we were not able to speak with our MLA, and I have not received a response. I don’t know if it really impacted them that much, but I don’t think they’ve ever seen that many people speak out against their policies in recent history, so I’d hope that they’re heeding that information, or that response. But I still think it’s a long time til the next election, so I don’t think they’re too worried yet.

Barb: And from my perspective, I think the Alberta Teachers’ Association has been incredibly, desperately ineffective in their advocacy; now, more than ever, they’ve been ineffective. So, you know, request a meeting that basically got snubbed since they wrote a letter (June 25th) for a minister of education not meeting with them during a global pandemic. Requesting a delay was a very poor strategy. You can’t just a request a delay for delay’s sake; you need to request that certain parameters be met, and, in order for those parameters to be met, you may need a delay in order to comply with those priorities, such as finding additional spaces, such as hiring a school nurse for every school, such as putting forward policy, province-wide, on substitute teachers. So, the delay, in and of itself, was an incredibly, incredibly weak stargety, and she made a fool of them, full stop. She made a fool of them.

Kate: Teachers in the ATA did just get embarrassingly dunked on by Adriana LaGrange, the minister of education. It was the exact same playbook that this government did to post-secondary students unions, which is: these unions request a meeting, a meeting is really, really low stakes for you as a politician, so, obviously, you agree to go to this meeting, and then what you is you take a photo and you use it to manufacture consent for the idea that you are meeting with people, that you are meeting with them where they are, that you are doing the due diligence that a government requires, but you don’t actually make any concessions. And it’s a really easy PR win for the government, and, right now, the ATA is just not willing to back it up with any kind of action. And I think it’s really doubling embarrassing to another group of people, and then to fall into the exact same trap.

Barb: It’s insane. So, we always get called out by Colin Aitchinson and Minister LaGrange for never having requested a meeting. And we no longer have to respond to why, we can just point to the meeting she had with Jason Schilling. That’s why we don’t ask for meetings. This is why SOS will continue to inform and engage and advocate on behalf of citizens rather than ask for these performative, non-generative meetings where the minister — she doesn’t just show her power, she highlights the ATA’s weakness, which I think was the dunk. It wasn’t that she had power — everyone knows she has the power, the minister of education — you need to flex that power. But she put on full display how inefficient, ineffective, and weak the ATA is in this situation during a global pandemic.

Kate: One thing I’ve heard Guy Smith (who is the president of Alberta Union of Provincial Employees say) at rallies, that I think is a good model for trade unions and trade union leaders in Alberta, is: I can go, and I can have as many meetings with whatever minister as I want, but at the end of the day, in that situation, I don’t have any power, and we don’t have any power as workers. And that’s why we have to take the fight to our worksites, where we have the actual power to take on this government and win. And I think that is a perspective that is sorely lacking within the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

Barb: And I think it’s lacking everywhere. So, you know — and I’ve heard you say this, Kate, a million times over — this government only recognizes power and money. And so, when we ask parents to rally — and I never want to impede or put a barrier to people getting active in any way, shape, or form, whether that’s a phone call, a letter, a rally, just getting out of their homes, I don’t want to impede that — but when I go to a rally, when and until I withhold job action, when and until I impede the economy, nothing is going to move this government. A rally on a Saturday afternoon, unless it is impeding some economic transfer or withholding job action, is just a rally.

Kate: Absolutely.

Barb: To them, it’s an indication that they are actually on the right track. They want to see that, because they know that they’re doing things right. So job action is the ony thing that’s going to get this government’s attention.

Kate: The government has said that they do not care about their poll numbers, that they do not care how many rallies people have, that they do not care how loudly people yell — all they care about is fulfilling their political project that they believe they have a mandate to do because they were elected into government with an overwhelming majority and a majority of the popular vote. So we need to find a different terrain where we have actual power to fight them on. And I’ve said this before on the podcast, but I’ll say it again — and I think, Barb, you were hinting at this — there’s nothing wrong with protests or petitions or phone calls or any of these less-confrontational tactics, the issue is that, so often, it stops there and we’re not seeing these as tactics in part of a larger overall strategy that aims to both a) build power, and b) ultimately use that power to confront the government on a terrain where you can win.

Barb: I mean, I’m going to add that I think one of the things we don’t talk about enough — and maybe not enough in our social studies classes — is that democracy is a muscle, and, if you don’t exercise that muscle, it will atrophy. And we’ve had 44 years of atrophy in this province. And we see it with the ATA. We have never been more privatized than we are right now in education. The only province with charter schools, we subsidize private schools higher than any other province, our classes are more crowded than ever, our fees are higher than ever. So when I say we need to exercise that muscle, that’s what the ATA should be doing. And not just the ATA — we’ve got the Alberta School Councils Associations we’ve heard boo from. We have the Alberta School Boards Association, who’s been capitulating and collaborating with this government. We have the Public School Boards Association. We have the Association of Superintendents. These are well-funded, well-resourced organizations that should be standing up for children as education advocates, and they are nowhere to be found. And this is disappointing to us, that it falls to SOS, a volunteer-run grassroots organization. We’re happy to do the work, but it’s a sad state of knowing how to exercise our democratic rights in this province.

Joel: One thing I’ve been kind of curious about is the Alberta Teachers’ Association and their hesitancy to do anything substantive about what’s going on, particularly because they went on strike in 2002, which isn’t a distant, distant memory; that’s something people can still kind of remember. And they struck over class sizes, among other factors. And so why do you think it is that they don’t remember that, or have completely forgotten how to even think about that anymore?

Barb: The line they’re going to tell you is that they can’t legally strike. So, until they’ve gone through their bargaining process and their contracts are up, they can’t do any of this legally. The problem is, is that they have been largely — their ineffectiveness, at this point, is just magnified, but it’s been a decade, now, where they have not showed any leadership against the ongoing privatization of education in this province. And so they’re trying to flex a muscle they haven’t been using in eighteen years, and they don’t know how to use it anymore. So there’s a real lack of leadership here, there’s a real lack of — again, it’s incrementalism, right? It’s incrementalism for those who have nothing to gain by going an inch forward, and they have nothing to lose by going two steps back, either. And the unions in this province have forgotten how to union.

Kate: Yeah, Barb took the words right out of my mouth, which is that the ATA’s facing what I think is a Canadian labour movement widespread problem, which is that it is essentially impossible, in this country, to go on a strike that is both effective and legal. And, if you do get to a point where it looks like you are going to go on a strike that is effective and legal, you will get legislated back to work. This is what happened to the Canadian Union of Postal Workers when they went on strike at Canada Post two years ago. The government has flat-out said, when it comes to teachers, that they will get legislated back to work. And I would bet, with this government, that, if teachers ever go into a strike position, they would get legislated back to work before any of them ever stepped foot on a picket line. So I think that we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that there actually is a meaningful legal strike option for public sector workers in Alberta. I do not think that there is a meaningful legal option. Now, of course, I would never advocate to do anything illegal. However, illegal strikes have been extremely effective in the past, and illegality is not an insurmountable barrier. I know people who have been on illegal strikes in this province; they still have their jobs, they got a pay raise out of going on that illegal strike. It was something that was scary, something that took a lot of work for them to get into a position where them and their coworkers were willing to do it, but it was absolutely something that can be done. And I think this idea that we have to play by the rules of a government that has made it extremely clear that they are very hostile, and that they havae every intention of using those rules to (pardon my French) fuck us over, is really, really ridiculous and is, frankly, really childish. That is not how you can approach a conflict that you actually expect to win. And, in case people think I’m just being really negative on the ATA, I think there’s two extremely concrete things they could start doing if they wanted to get serious about actually fighting both this government and the ongoing privatization of public education across the world and, particularly, in Alberta, is a) they should start building a strike fund, and they should start building it extremely aggressively, and b) they should hire organizers to do the work of organizing teachers. Like Barb says, democracy is a muscle. Going on strike is a muscle, too — if you haven’t done it in eighteen years, it’s probably not something you’re going to feel super comfortable with. You’re going to need people to get you into a position where you and your coworkers feel comfortable and confident taking strike action regardless of whether or not the government or the labour board gives you a piece of paper saying that you can.

Barb: And the other component to this, which is something we hear a lot at SOS because we do also engage a lot of teachers, is this really overarching concern that, if the ATA were to act, and weren’t to take that lovely seat at the table, and weren’t working in good faith, and weren’t using their manners, that they would be destroyed, that the ATA would be broken. And SOS will continue to assert that that’s going to happen anyway. That is 100% the trajectory that we’re on. And I, personally — as Barb Silva, not even as SOS — would venture to say that the last meeting proved that. The last meeting between Adriana LaGrange and Jason Schilling showed the ATA’s actually broken and ineffective. And it was on full display. To me, personally, I thought it was a humiliating moment. The ATA is on the verge of being broken. You have businesses talking about hiring tutors to tutor your children. We have completely deregulated homeschooling, we have taken away regulations around charter schools. Vocational charter schools, I guarantee you, are going to hire non-certified teachers. So either you allow this government to kill you in death by a thousand cuts or you can take control of the reins, but the death is written on the wall unless you take control of your fate. And that’s something that I think teachers and the ATA need to get square right away — there is no negotiating yourself out of this.

Kate: This is something I hear all the time, that the government wants teachers to give them an excuse so they can attack unions, as if the government is not already attacking unions Alberta, as if the government is not already attacking public education, as if the government is not already laying off tens of thousands of educational workers in Alberta. You know, they’re not waiting for an excuse — they’re enacting their ideological and political project. The other thing, too, is saying that this is going to break the union. Frankly, what’s the point of having a union if it can’t keep you safe during a pandemic, if it can’t protect a public service that everyone in Alberta relies on? What is the point of having it?

Barb: And what’s the point of having a professional association if someone can just become a tutor? I, as an engineer, would have never have been able — APEGA would never have allowed someone to call themselves an engineering consultant unless they actually had that accreditation. So, the ATA is failing both as a professional association and as a union. And I do also want to say that so committed to the ideology, so absolutely committed to the ideology of breaking unions, is this government that they want to break the ATA even though the ATA has effectively, for forty years now, provided no resistance to their movement. None. So there could be no other reason, other than pure ideology, because the reality is, like I said, we have the most privatized system — only province with charter schools. Our class sizes are higher than ever. So the ATA has never provided any resistance, it’s been largely ineffective. So why the UCP even want to attack them has to be, and can only be, attributed to ideology.


Joel: I just find it very amusing to think that the UCP has been sitting on its hands this whole time and is only waiting for the ATA to act, at which point they will then attack public education.

Barb: Well, and if that were the case, what have you got to lose?

Joel: Yeah.

Barb: You know, teachers —

Kate: Just so completely detached from reality, too.


Barb: So detached.

Kate: Okay, my last thing about the ATA, and then I promise I will stop being the labour movement crank, is that if you are a teacher in Alberta and you have a problem with the way the ATA is structured and is organizing their response to this, what you can do is you can go to the local body of your union — so, if you’re a teacher in Calgary or in a certain rural county, there’s almost certainly a local area council — you can get together with people. If you get a small group of people, I guarantee you you will be able to convince other people into meeting there. Get your local to pass motions calling on the provincial body to re-allocate resources to strike prep and call on the provincial body to re-allocate resources from ads and lobbying, as needed, to preparing to strike. This includes both hiring organizers and building up a strike fund. And you can also — I’m not sure the precise constitution of the ATA and how much autonomy locals have, but I know, in many unions in Alberta, it is possible for local unions to allocate their own money and their own resources towards strike prep. That means having your own strike funds, hiring organizers — these are all things that can happen at a pretty small, local level and are a great place to start if you want to organize a caucus and simply take over the Alberta Teachers’ Association, which should be your long-term goal.

Barb: And read up on how the Chicago Teachers’ Union did that.

Medeana: I have to tell you, this whole ATA stuff is actually quite new to me, but I have heard teachers say that they’re concerned that they won’t have the public with them, that they’ll do more damage to their reputation, or it won’t be received well by the public.

Kate: The fact of the matter is that, if every single teacher in Alberta went on strike, they could have the power to win even if the public didn’t like them.

Medeana: Well, exactly! So why do they care about that?

Kate: Yeah, and the other thing, too, is that, by taking action, you force the public to pick a side. And you can do it for reasons, and you can foreground reasons that benefit the public; like, in healthcare — which is my background, so this is what I always go to — we can foreground things like safe staffing ratios. You know, that’s something that people who use healthcare really, really benefit from. And absolutely, it’s not going to bring everyone onside, but by doing it, you force people to pick a side, and you will be surprised by how many people will come out of the woodwork and say, “I support this.”

Barb: And what better time than during a global pandemic?

Kate: [laughs] Yeah.

Barb: I mean, it’s not like you’re going on strike for a pay rise, right? I mean, here’s your choice — in two years, if you want to go on strike for pay raise and class size, they’re going to say, “Why the hell didn’t you do that during the goddamned global pandemic?” Right now, they have one overarching issue, which is student/education worker safety. If there is no more altruistic purpose than that, it’s now or never. I do want to say something, if I can. I want to say a big thank you for all the support Alberta Advantage has given Support Our Students over the past five years. We are really excited to have new breath, new eyes, new faces to take over the organization. I want to have a huge thank you and acknowledge Carolyn Blasetti, who has done a ton of work as my colleague, my ride-or-die, in this fight for equitable and accessible public education; who, because she is not at the face and the mouth — I always call her the brains, and I’m the brawn, of the organization — but we have committed five years, six years now, to this cause, and it has been some of the work that I’m the most proud of, and I’m really happy that we are leaving SOS in great hands with Medeana as the executive director, and some other folks across the province. And we hope that SOS goes on to do amazing things, and we’re very proud of the work that we’ve done.

Joel: If folks who are listening want to get involved with SOS, where should they go and what should they do?

Barb: They can email us at info@supportourstudents.ca. Our Facebook page is at SOSAlberta, as is our Twitter handle, and they can message us there. We do need more hands, we do need more voices. This situation’s not going to get better; it’s going to get worse. And, again, we want to encourage you on your journey to advocacy, however that starts. We actually created a citizen’s toolkit, which you can download by subscribing to our newsletter, and it’s an amazing toolkit that has a lot of knowledge that Carolyn and I put together that we wanted to leave behind. And again — advocacy, democracy, is a muscle. If you don’t use it, it’s going to atrophy.

Kate: Medeana, you’re coming on to this new position and organization at a very stressful, but also exciting, time, with a lot of opportunity in public education. How are you feeling about the fight ahead and the terrain in Alberta?

Medeana: Well, I do feel like I have a lot to learn. Barb was coming at this from a teaching perspective; my background in education is as a student, and now as a parent. Education is a foundational part of building a strong society, and the erosion that’s happening here in Alberta is really concerning, so I’ve always been motivated by that, even before becoming a parent. And I think equal access to quality education is really important to me, but it is feeling like I’m jumping right into the fire. It’s learning a lot really quickly, and I’m hoping that we’re able to attract more and more people that are willing to help, because we really need that expertise and for people to start spreading the word and understanding what is changing in the education landscape here. And it’s been changing since the ‘90s — this has been a slow drip that is now coming to a head.

Barb: There’s a rally going to be happening on September 7th at the Alberta Legislature in conjunction with the Alberta Federation of Labour, and that’s going to be in support of public services against the attacks towards privatization. So that will be, again, September 7th in Edmonton. We really, really want people to download the toolkit and find their own voices, get educated, understand how the system works, volunteer for SOS in whatever capacity we can, and talk to your teachers. If you’ve got kids in school, if you’re a parent, if you’re a grandparent, go to your community school and talk to your teachers and let them know that you support them. That’s really important to do, is to let the teachers in your lives and the education workers in your lives know that you support their work.

Kate: On behalf of everyone here on The Alberta Advantage, we hope you have enjoyed today’s special back-to-school episode of the podcast. Take care out there, and have a good one. Bye, folks!

All: Bye!

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Kate: The Alberta Advantage is part of a loose affiliation of left-wing podcasts hosted by the bilingual journalism collective Ricochet, who you can find at ricochet.media. Our podcast is primarily supported through Patreon by listeners like you. We use the money for equipment and other semi-serious pursuits and, as a thank you, we send out fun packages with grain elevator-themed stickers and weird tote bags a couple times a year. You can support us at patreon.com/albertaadvantage. Thanks so much for listening, and take care out there.

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