Question: ATA president Jason Schilling has been very critical of the premier, minister of education and government in recent weeks as well as calling on teachers to be politically active — how can this be squared with the Association’s claim to be non-partisan?
Answer: Being non-partisan does not mean being apolitical and it does not demand silence or acquiescence on the part of the Association or individual members.
This is a distinction that I have commented on in this space on previous occasions but, in light of recent events, it is worth revisiting.
Let’s start with false claims being aggressively advanced in social media by the premier and the minister of education. In the immediate aftermath of their hastily announced decision to remove remaining requirements for masking in schools, both asserted that the Association was seeking to require mask mandates to remain in place indefinitely and that the Association was going to court to seek an injunction to that end. Both assertions are patently untrue and, in making them, these elected leaders needlessly politicized and diminished legitimate concerns shared by many teachers, parents and health experts around the rationale and timing of the decision, particularly given that a mass order of “medical grade” masks was still in the process of being delivered to the province’s schools. Worse still, the tone of their intervention added to the high level of anxiety and emotion in school communities around the issue, creating unnecessary drama for teachers and school leaders to manage.
The response by the Association was an effort to set the record straight for members, parents and public. Unfortunately, to quote Winston Churchill, purportedly one of the premier’s political heroes, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on” (and that was before the internet). So the damage had already been done even as President Schilling was pulling up his drawers, and the original lie continues to persist despite our best efforts and those of responsible media to correct it.
I do not believe that communicating the facts when they contradict the government’s line constitutes partisan activity even when it is inconvenient for a political party. In this, I echo the sentiments of a former Progressive Conservative prime minister who, once while giving a stump speech, was egged on by a member of his audience to “Give the Liberals hell Dief!” John Diefenbaker apparently responded “I don’t give anyone hell, I just tell the truth and it sounds like hell.”
It is important to understand that the Association is not just reactive in political discourse; it does have values that it actively promotes. These values form part of the fundamental identity of the organization and the profession, and derive from its legislated objects as set out in the Teaching Profession Act. The most overtly “political” of these are “to advance and promote the cause of education in Alberta,” “to improve the teaching profession,” and “to arouse and increase public interest in the importance of education and public knowledge of the aims of education, financial support for education, and other education matters.” In advancing these objects, the Association will sometimes take positions and express opinions that some political candidates or parties object to. This again is not being partisan, but rather, being principled.
The provincial byelection in Fort McMurray–Lac La Biche set to take place on the storied Ides of March highlights how the Association operates in the political sphere while remaining non-partisan. One of the candidates for office happens to be a teacher, Adriana Mancini, who will be running for the second time as an Alberta New Democrat. Other candidates are Brian Jean of the United Conservative Party, Paul Hindman of the Wildrose Independent Party and Marilyn Burns of the Alberta Advantage Party.
Quite independently of her party of choice, Mancini epitomizes the political activism that the Association encourages. In addition to being active in the community and in various roles in the Association, she has put herself forward for elected office, just as other teachers have done for other parties in other constituencies in other elections.
Consistent with Association policy, though, she will not be endorsed or materially supported by the Association, nor will any other candidate. That is the essence of Association non-partisanship. Individual members are free as citizens in a democracy to be as partisan as they want and are encouraged by the Association to actively engage in the byelection, volunteering for or making donations to and, of course, voting for the candidate and party of their choice. ❚
Questions for consideration in this column are welcome. Please address them to Dennis Theobald at email@example.com.