Electoral Voices is a series that gives people and organizations around Edmonton a chance to voice their views and concerns regarding the candidates, parties, and platforms vying for power in the upcoming federal election.
Gabriel Lippmann once said, “Life is short and progress is slow,” but for Edmonton Public School Board Chair Michael Janz, the shift from a 44-year Progressive Conservative (PC) reign to a New Democratic Party (NDP) majority government in Alberta has borne significant results just months after the 2015 provincial election.
Since the beginning of 2015, the administration at Edmonton Public Schools was immersed in a culture of fear and uncertainty spurred from rumors that then-Premier Jim Prentice would be slicing the education budget by 5% through his proposed fiscal reforms. Janz was relieved by the “tonal shift” under the new NDP government, and believes that Premier Notley’s outreach to branches of primary and secondary education in Alberta have been far more positive: “You feel that in [the NDP’s] DNA, they are committed to the goals of public education. It’s a different feeling than we felt with their predecessors.”
Primary and secondary education in Canada is under provincial jurisdiction. Though the federal government accounts for only 2% of the Edmonton Public School District’s funding, Janz believes that the outcome of the upcoming federal election could indirectly impact public education in Alberta, particularly in the realm of Aboriginal education, which is predominantly a responsibility of the federal government. Given the recent process of learning through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) – a task force launched in June 2008 and completed in June 2015 that aimed to gather statements from former students of residential schools – Janz believes that the elected prime minister has both an opportunity and a responsibility to build on the recommendations made by the commission and invest more seriously in Aboriginal education.
According to Maclean’s, at least half of Aboriginal children in Canada live in poverty. They are more likely to experience violence, live in overcrowded housing, and lack access to clean drinking water. 92 of Canada’s 100 poorest neighborhoods are First Nations communities. It is hard to expect children living in these conditions to be able to utilize the education system as well as their more privileged counterparts. Edmonton is currently the second-largest population of urban Aboriginals in Canada. Janz believes this is an opportunity for the Edmonton Public School system to prove their commitment to First Nations education and development: “We know by demographics that more and more Aboriginals are choosing to come to our city, and we want to help the students of these families be successful.”
Because of Section 93 of the Canadian Constitution, which gives the provinces power over public education, Canada is the only G7 country without a federal ministry of education. The only comparable department in recent years was the Liberal government’s Canadian Council on Learning, whose five-year 2004 grant was not renewed by the Conservative government in 2009. For Janz, this decision is harming the education system more than helping it: “There’s very little coordination. I understand that the provinces are very different, but as a federal government, if we’re looking at how to make Canada successful in the next century, it starts with investing in our K-12.”
With Syrian refugees and the niqab debate taking centre-stage at every leaders’ debate, public education has been put on the backburner. Given that young families are on the rise in Canada and the nationwide median age is under 40, Janz finds this “strategically surprising.” “The Conservatives are trying to keep the discussion focused on ISIS and security and crime,” he said, suggesting his disapproval towards the foreign policy focus of this election. “If you go to the ballot and your question is, ‘Who will keep me safe? Who will stop crime?’ that’s a question that’s favorable to them. It’s not in their interest to talk about social issues like education.”
For Janz, the onus is on the opposition parties to move issues like public education to the forefront when they are not addressed by the incumbent party. But so far, the candidates in the federal election have hardly touched on K-12 education in their platforms, if at all. Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau has pledged to invest $2.6 billion in First Nations K-12 education and NDP party leader Tom Mulcair has pledged $4.8 billion over eight years.
Janz hopes that, in the future, we will no longer have to use a student’s postal code as the top indicator of their success in school. Ultimately, this is a responsibility of broader governmental institutions, not school systems: “If people have good jobs, if the poor are being cared for, if we are dealing with health issues broadly in our country, it will trickle down to better outcomes in our K-12 education system.”
Photography courtesy of Wanderer Online Photography Editor Bryan Tran; banner design courtesy of Wanderer Online Design Editor Janelle Holod.