Q & A: Breaking us up would be difficult and unwise

May 15, 2018
Dennis Theobald, ATA Executive Secretary

Question: The United Conservative Party (UCP) policy convention passed a resolution to split the Alberta Teachers’ Association into separate union and professional organizations. What would be the implications of such a move?

Answer: There were more resolutions advanced at the UCP policy convention concerning education than any other single topic. Included among them was the following:

The United Conservative Party believes that the Government of Alberta should… divide the two main arms of the Alberta Teachers [sic] Association, union and professional body, into two separate and independent organisations.

This resolution and many others promoting “parents’ rights” and “educational choice” were moved through the policy process and supported at the convention by individuals who are associated with the group Parents for Choice in Education. Supporters of that organization were visible and vocal, voted as a block.

Most notably, the Parents for Choice delegates advanced a resolution requiring advance parental approval for student participation in instructional or extracurricular activities involving “subjects of a religious or sexual nature” over the objections of senior members of the UCP caucus, who said the resolution would diminish protection and support for gender minority students. Despite the pleas of MLA Ric McIver, who stated “This is about outing gay kids,” the resolution was adopted with 57 per cent support.

This provides important context. Of course those delegates who want to out gay students would also want to split the ATA. While they are not enamoured of the Association’s advocacy for public education and participation in curriculum design, nothing has raised their ire more than the Association’s efforts to protect and create safe and caring spaces for gender minority students, teachers and others in the school community. These people understand that they will have to go through teachers to advance their agenda, and they are cunning enough to know how to make that easier—just strip the profession of its autonomy; just split the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

Unifying professional and union functions within the Alberta Teachers’ Association has been the practice since 1935, when the Social Credit government of William Aberhart passed the Teaching Profession Act, which set out both functions in the Association’s objects. Over the decades, the Association has evolved structures and processes that allow it to do both without conflict.

The investigation and prosecution of complaints relating to professional conduct or practice is handled separately from the protection provided to members in matters of employment and collective bargaining. The Association does not represent members who are subject to its professional discipline processes.

On the professional side, the Association also supports a wide range of professional development activities as well as advocating for the cause of public education in the public interest. All this is paid for by its 45,000 member teachers through fees set by their representatives at the Annual Representative Assembly.

Splitting the Association and imposing a government-controlled college would undermine teachers’ collective responsibility and commitment to upholding professional standards of conduct and practice. The focus of the resulting union, as is set out in law, would be primarily on protecting members and advancing their employment interests with the public interest being a secondary consideration at best. It would destroy a culture of collaboration that has helped to maintain stability and 15 years of labour peace while ensuring that Alberta’s students continue to benefit from one of the highest-performing education systems in the world. I can guarantee you that a government’s attempt to split the Association would be strongly resisted by Alberta’s teachers and supporters of public education.

UCP leader Jason Kenney, who is no fool, very quickly moved to distance himself from any notion that a government he led would implement the resolution denying students the ability to participate in GSA/QSA without prior parental permission. Perhaps he might want to think about how many votes his “friends” with Parents for Choice may have already cost him and consider a similar declaration concerning their short-sighted proposal to split the

Alberta Teachers’ Association. ❚

Questions for consideration in this column are welcome. Please address them to Dennis Theobald at dennis.theobald@ata.ab.ca.