Century-old Alberta law prevents mother from running for public school trustee because she is Catholic

A century-old code governing education in Alberta is preventing one Catholic mother from running for trustee because of her faith.

Tamara Miyanaga’s three children attended public schools near her hometown of Taber, Alta. She has also worked for the public Horizon School Division on contract or as a classroom assistant for the past 13 years.

But Alberta’s separate school system, which provides parallel Catholic, Protestant and public school boards, forbids Catholics such as Ms. Miyanaga from voting or running for office in the public school system. The rules trace their origin to the earliest education laws on the books, pre-dating the formation of the province in 1905, Ms. Miyanaga said.

“As an Albertan, a democratic right is in question because of my affiliation,” she added. Ms. Miyanaga said she was ignorant of the laws before picking up her nomination papers. She called the Alberta School Board Association, Alberta Education, a lawyer and the Human Rights Commission to confirm the legalities. However, in the process of examining the requisite affidavits and laws, it became apparent that the devout woman would not be able to run in the public board elections in good faith.

“I would have to either claim that I wasn’t Catholic, which I won’t, or to say that I was Catholic and choose to run in a separate school board with which I have no affiliation at all.”

Alberta has publicly funded Catholic and Protestant school board systems. Most separate schools are Roman Catholic.

Residents are asked to which board they want their property taxes diverted. At voting time, they can submit a ballot for only one set of boards. And, unless there are no religious boards available in that district, Catholics are expected to remain distinct from the public system.

In other words, Ms. Miyanaga could only run for trustee in her area if there were no Catholic boards in the area or if she lied about her faith.

“I think people need to be aware of how strong the School Act can be and not just on the trustee and voting front. There are other aspects that are very important and as Albertans we need to be more aware of the law. I wasn’t aware, and I should have been when I picked up the nomination forms.”

Considering how old the law is, conflicts remain relatively rare. In 2005, former MLA Roy Brassard was technically made ineligible to serve as a public board trustee when a nearby Catholic school district extended into his area. The matter was taken to the Alberta Human Rights Commission, but Mr. Brassard died before it could be resolved.

Leanne Niblock, a spokesperson for the ministry of education, said the religious prohibitions will be overturned when the province proclaims its new Education Act in 2015.

“Under the Education Act, a separate school elector will be allowed to run and vote for public trustee, but the reverse will still be prohibited,” she told the Calgary Herald.

In the meantime, Ms. Miyanaga has written a letter to the premier urging a speedy resolution.

“I believe Alberta is a province of tolerance and acceptance,” she wrote. “I believe in religion and culture and that we must respect and nurture each other so we become an understanding and compassionate society. Anytime faith or culture is discriminated it can create animosity and distrust. As a citizen of Alberta I believe we are a leading example of acceptance; we do not want laws that clearly discriminate or restrict based on religious affiliation.”