By Paul Wells - Friday, September 21, 2012 - 0 Comments
Paul Wells on the Tories’ NDP smear campaign
The Conservatives could not possibly have made it more obvious that they were itching for a week’s worth of headlines about the NDP’s environmental policy. They could not be happier that the NDP has obliged them. Eventually the NDP will figure all of this out.
On Sept. 2, Ottawa newsrooms received copies of “a memo from Conservative campaign manager Jenni Byrne to the Conservative caucus.” I put that last bit in quotation marks because Byrne, like her predecessor Doug Finley, doesn’t ever “write to the caucus” unless she wants to see what she writes appear in the newspapers. Leaking a “secret memo” is cheaper than buying ad space and guarantees better play.
Byrne’s message to Canadians was that it was “important to ensure Canadian middle-class families understand the threat posed by Thomas Mulcair’s risky and dangerous economic plan.”
By Dale Smith - Tuesday, September 18, 2012 at 6:39 PM - 0 Comments
Elaine McCoy, the last Progressive Conservative in the Senate, remembers the former Alberta premier
Progressive Conservative senator Elaine McCoy remains a Progressive Conservative to this day, in large part because of former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed.
“There was an honesty and a decency to Peter Lougheed, and certainly in the way he conducted himself,” McCoy says from her home in Calgary. “Before he was elected–and in fact I have that document–they had made up rules for themselves on how to behave, and the one that strikes me so powerfully these days is ‘never attack the person; only attack an idea.’ That’s a message or a policy or a practice that is just not being honoured these days. I think people need to be reminded of it.”
McCoy first met Lougheed when she moved into his riding, around 1980, and volunteered with his constituency association.
“That was my first memory of him being my MLA, and watching him looking after his constituency,” McCoy says. “I didn’t realise it then quite so much, but he was an example of all of his MLAs. He never forgot his responsibility as an elected representative. He would do things like hold town hall meetings at least twice a year; he’d go door knocking twice a year. Of course he had an annual meeting, he regularly met with his constituency board. He was on top of it all the time.”
By Colby Cosh - Friday, April 20, 2012 at 10:52 AM - 0 Comments
Inside Danielle Smith’s campaign to topple Alberta’s most powerful political dynasty
In a Calgary hotel bar, a long-time newspaper and TV pundit sips white wine and plays the favourite sport of the Alberta literati: arguing about the province’s weird political history. She has a theory. (Everyone has a theory.) It is not a bad one.
“The sudden regime changes that Alberta is famous for seem to follow the evolution of new media,” she explains. “The 1935 election, the Social Credit election, was a radio election. [William] Aberhart won because he mastered a new medium. The 1971 election was a TV election. The baby boomers responded to a young leader, Peter Lougheed, who looked like them.”
“And now,” she says, “I think we are looking at a social media election.”
By Tamsin McMahon - Thursday, April 19, 2012 at 11:00 AM - 0 Comments
Centralized health care may be cheaper, but it comes at a political cost
Alberta’s experiment with centralized health care appears to have been a cost-cutting success according to a national report card on Canadian hospitals, but it has been a never-ending political headache for the Progressive Conservative government.
Last week, after the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) published comparative hospital data for the first time, it showed Alberta spent the least on hospital administration of any province: just 3.5 per cent of its budget, or $338 million. Ontario, whose hospital executives have come under intense scrutiny since their salaries became public, spent the most: nearly six per cent of its budget, or $1.13 billion, went to administration.
On the basis of those numbers alone, one might expect Ontario to follow Alberta’s lead and abolish its regional health authorities, as the Prairie province did in 2008 in favour of a single “superboard” called Alberta Health Services. After all, the hospital reporting project shows that, with the single swipe of a pen, Alberta reined in administration expenses.
By Colby Cosh - Friday, April 13, 2012 at 10:57 AM - 0 Comments
What the embattled premier might have learned from Ralph Klein
Political campaigns aren’t what they used to be in Alberta. In 2012, the press is raising hell because the Wildrose party, which has a stranglehold on the polls halfway through the election race, has occasionally been rebutting individual newspaper columnists by means of terse little press releases. Not cricket, say the media old-timers. Yet most of these people are old enough to remember the unpredictable premier Ralph Klein and his consigliere Rod Love, whose interactions with critics were sometimes more like headbuttals than rebuttals.
Take one famous scene that preceded the 1993 provincial election, when the Conservative government of Alberta was in the deepest doo-doo it has known until now. An upstart lobby group, the Association of Alberta Taxpayers (AAT), was successfully spreading word of the crazy defined-benefit pensions MLAs had voted themselves—plans which, after repeated increases, often gave members twice the value of what they had kicked in. With dozens of caucus members jumping ship, Klein had stood behind the pensions, saying it would be “immoral” to change them. But the voters were in a lynching mood, and Klein’s campaign bagmen were freaking out.
With the election about four weeks away, the AAT held an impromptu afternoon press conference under the dome in Edmonton. The group had just unveiled a 30,000-word petition calling for reform of the odious pension plan. Unexpectedly, Klein tottered into view on his way back from lunch. Seeing the AAT’s man, the premier charged like a buffalo and, with the legislature bureau looking on in horror, began to berate the AAT at top volume over its direct-marketing tactics. The group was “robbing” feeble seniors, bellowed a crimson-faced Klein. (This was a rare failure of Kleinian instinct; AAT contributors mostly just loved its newsletter full of baroque tales of government waste.)
By Colby Cosh - Monday, October 10, 2011 at 10:10 AM - 4 Comments
Alison Redford sings from the Tory hymnal, but her Calgary business connections confirm her liberalism
Alison Redford, who has captured the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives and will soon be sworn in as the province’s 14th premier, was the preferred candidate of those who wanted to blow up the “old boys’ network.” One of the ways she sought to establish her probity/transparency bona fides was to release a complete list of her major donors. This proved deft: the list won her brownie points, but few noticed that it is practically an index of highly connected, politically conscious Alberta money men.
Redford got five-figure donations from Maclab Enterprises, the property-rental giant co-founded by philanthropist Sandy Mactaggart; Ed McNally’s Big Rock Brewery, longtime provider of social lubricant for conservative events; Irv Kipnes, who spun Tory booze-retail privatization into gold as CEO of the Liquor Stores Income Fund. Name an elite Calgary clan and you’re almost certain to find its handle in Team Redford’s accounts: McCaig, Southern, Haskayne, Markin, Hotchkiss—builders whose names are physically all over the city, chiselled into the stones of schools and clinics.
These forces backed the “outsider” whose victory in the Oct. 1 PC leadership showdown sent ripples of surprise across the country. The original heir apparent had been Gary Mar, a Klein-era health and education minister who left the province to become its official agent in Washington in 2007. Mar, a Chinese-Canadian who could count on a strong ethnic ground game, started strong but watched inherent weaknesses transmute into fatal flaws.
By Charlie Gillis - Tuesday, September 20, 2011 at 9:45 AM - 3 Comments
Mostly Liberal supporters shell out to get heard above the din
Outsiders have never been terribly welcome in Canadian election campaigns. In federal votes, the 95 per cent of us who don’t belong to registered parties face a bulwark of laws restricting third-party campaign spending—rules rooted in the fear that, left unguarded, democracy will be sold off to the highest bidder. This theory has been an article of faith among left-wingers since the early 2000s, when a conservative activist named Stephen Harper waged a court battle against the limits, to the delight of Bay Street’s heavy hitters.
The Supreme Court of Canada ultimately upheld federal third-party spending limits. But few provinces have strong limits of their own. And if Ontario’s current election campaign is any guide, fears of big business stealing elections for conservative parties may have been laughably misplaced. As of last week, all six third-party advertisers registered with the province’s election watchdog were either labour organizations or coalitions who have in the past run attack ads against Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak. Meantime, an array of environmentalists, NGOs and green entrepreneurs have joined forces in hopes of saving the province’s two-year-old Green Energy Act, with plans for unprecedented forays into the ground-level campaign. Leaders of the ad hoc group deny they are acting for or against specific candidates or parties. But Hudak is the only leader committed to undoing the act’s key provisions.
The Tories might have seen this coming. Four years ago, they felt the full force of a labour-funded coalition called Working Families, which took advantage of Ontario’s loose laws on third-party advertisers by unleashing more than $1 million worth of anti-Conservative attack ads that helped propel Premier Dalton McGuinty to victory. The Tories later complained to the province’s chief electoral officer, claiming the group was a front for the Liberals. An investigation indeed revealed ties between Working Families and Grit campaign director Don Guy. But the probe found no evidence that the group was outright controlled by the party.
By Andrew Coyne - Monday, September 19, 2011 at 10:20 AM - 6 Comments
The election talk in Ontario over “foreign workers” has reached a new level of “huh?”
Every now and then the province of Ontario takes leave of its collective senses. Grown men jump at shadows. House cats are conjured into dragons. For a time it seems as if the only thought on anyone’s mind is the length of their own toenails. We call these periods “elections.”
Just now this province of 13 million souls is preoccupied with a vast and far-reaching proposal on the part of the governing Liberals to give every new job that comes up to a foreign worker. You read that right: if the Liberals are re-elected, they will make the province’s unemployed sit at home—I believe the slogan is “Ontarians need not apply”—presumably until the supply of foreign workers is exhausted. Indeed, so determined are the Liberals to see these itinerant labourers take over the province that they are actually paying employers to hire them: $10,000 a job.
Quite why the Liberals should wish to do this is unclear, but I have it on no less authority than the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. The party has been blanketing the province with advertisements to that effect, while its leader, Tim Hudak, hammers the point home at every opportunity.
By Colby Cosh - Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 10:10 AM - 3 Comments
As the PC party soars again in the polls, a gang of potential leaders is scrambling for the top job
Alberta’s Progressive Conservative government turned 40 on Aug. 30. That first win back in 1971 was regarded as an upset, but one man saw it coming—Peter Lougheed’s rural boss, House leader, and political Merlin, Dr. Hugh Horner. In the days before the election, the tall, soft-spoken Horner circulated amongst legislature reporters, promising skeptical scribes that the upstart PCs would capture about 50 seats (the final figure was 49). Today Horner’s son Doug is part of a six-person field from which PC members will select a chief for an election fight anticipated next spring.
It’s the latest chapter in the tale of eternal Alberta PC renewal. This time last year there were many who didn’t think the Tories would make it to age 41. Premier Ed Stelmach, the compromise candidate who had succeeded Ralph Klein, had turned out to be a tongue-tied bungler. And the Wildrose Alliance, a right-wing alternative party led by young and eloquent Danielle Smith, was at the government’s heels in the polls. A January caucus coup led by Ted Morton forced Stelmach into a slow-motion retirement.
Morton is one of the candidates for the leadership, and whether or not he triumphs, his move seems to have been the best thing for the party. With a gang of possible leaders capturing media attention and shoplifting Wildrose policies, Alberta’s natural governing party has surged back into a commanding lead. A late July Environics survey gave the PCs a towering 54 per cent share of voters, with the Wildrose (renamed simply the Wildrose Party this summer) at 16 per cent and the NDP and Liberals even further back.
By Aaron Wherry and John Geddes - Friday, November 12, 2010 at 12:00 PM - 11 Comments
Those who think Jim Prentice might come back to politics and romp to power should think again
It was not long after Jim Prentice announced his impending departure from federal politics that speculation about his leadership aspirations began anew. But it’s entirely possible, perhaps even probable, that Ottawa has seen the last of him.
Explaining the decision to accept a senior executive position with CIBC, Prentice said it was merely a matter of time. “When I entered federal politics in 2001 I made a commitment that my time in politics would last eight to 10 years,” he said. “It has now been nine years and it is time for me to pursue new opportunities outside of public life.” A well-regarded cabinet minister who ran for the Progressive Conservative party leadership in 2003 (finishing second to Peter MacKay), he was sometimes thought to be a potential successor to Stephen Harper. That speculation will not end with Prentice’s exit, but if he stays away he would do so in good company.
By Colby Cosh - Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 5:06 PM - 0 Comments
My story for print Maclean’s on Conservative fortunes in provincial politics is now on the web. As is often the case, I had help with the story from lots of people who didn’t make it into the finished version, and gathered information and had thoughts that didn’t quite fit.
1) A lot could still happen to derail or deplete the in-progress “blue surge”, but the mere possibility does create problems for the folk wisdom that the party in power in Ottawa tends to lose in the provinces. Trudeau’s dynamic personality had completely wiped out the Liberal brand in provincial politics by 1980; the Mulroney years left the Conservatives barely hanging on in the Prairies; Chretien’s brought them back, in ’04 and ’05, to the peak they’re now trying to re-climb. Wouldn’t we expect the Harper government to create costs for Conservatives like David Alward?
The thing is, if you ask a political scientist about this folk wisdom they’ll make an unsweetened-lemonade face. Despite the apparent trends of the last 30 or 40 years, there’s still a sizable controversy about how independent the federal and provincial political scenes are.
A couple of years ago, UBC’s Fred Cutler made a close study of Ontario’s 2003 election and found that the decisions of Ontario voters were dominated by “arena-specific factors”. Cutler’s analysis confirmed what I suppose we all imagine to be true of ourselves: we mostly aren’t blind automatons who adhere to national brands. Knowing a voter’s national-level identification gave you surprisingly little additional information about how he would vote in Ontario in ’03, even though there was a perfect one-to-one mapping between federal and provincial ridings and the same parties were contending in both arenas. Voters chose their party pretty strictly on within-Ontario criteria, especially economically. Their degree of satisfaction with the federal government didn’t affect their Ontario decision.
Cutler has been building and juggling a dataset that contains every provincial and federal election since Confederation, and he has ransacked it for several different types of effect of federal politics on provincial ones. He says you can find evidence for common forces in the background—policy fashions, economic factors—that predispose voters to choose the same party on both levels. At the same time there is also evidence the other way, for the folk wisdom that voters act to “check” the party in power at the top—particularly after three or four years in office. “But electorates,” Cutler told me, “neither check nor balance the federal government when it is a minority. They don’t need to.”
2) There’s a passing mention in my story of new Toronto mayor Rob Ford, Canada’s one-man tea party. I was talking to people a full week before the election, and I had to be careful about presuming a particular result. But the writing was on the wall. Ford’s name came up a lot; he could easily have been the whole story.
Ford terrifies all the right people. How he will perform as mayor, God knows. But his triumph has relevance for provincial and federal politics. Graham Murray, editor of the Inside Queen’s Park newsletter, was the first to talk to me about how a Ford win would affect the prestige of “strategic voting”. We agreed that it is hard to say exactly how.
Some people think Ford’s win is so overwhelming that a concerted push behind one candidate of the left could never have mattered. I wonder what Linda Duncan thinks about that? Ford didn’t win half the vote, and the next two candidates’ combined votes would have beaten him—even though Rocco Rossi dropped out (or was forced out by defecting advisors) so late that his advance voters weren’t available to help anybody. It seems to me, from a very distant vantage point, that Ford couldn’t have arranged the campaign any better to suit himself. In the debates he almost seemed to take on the heroic aspect of a Roman gladiator fending off concerted attacks from a half-dozen smaller animals—ocelots? Weasels?
For many Torontonians, particularly the ones most inclined to think of themselves as representing the spirit of the city, the idea of Ford bedecked in the velvet-lined chain of office may be an ongoing torture. That, in turn, could encourage strategic voting and even overt trade-offs on the polite left—which has always found such affairs distasteful, because its adherents see politics as a means of self-expression and cosmic justice rather than a method of selecting managers and keeping them appropriately off-balance. The idea of voting for the least horrible bastard who can actually win isn’t very romantic. But maybe it has a certain appeal today that it didn’t before?
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 1:12 PM - 9 Comments
Something like 750 words on the last of the Progressive Conservatives on Parliament Hill.
She defines herself as socially progressive and fiscally conservative. And by her estimation, the Harper government has been neither. Tied by partisan afﬁliation to the past, working within an institution many consider antiquated, McCoy seems rather contemporary. She uses Twitter, has created an elaborate website (albertasenator.ca) dedicated to “meaningful, informed, open discussion” and regularly blogs about matters of policy and legislation. Last fall, with statistics and graphs, she doubted whether legislation on cigarillos would result in fewer children smoking. She speaks now of early childhood learning as a Progressive Conservative ideal: both socially and economically sound. She says, “I’m very fond, privately, of decrying the messaging, the narrative, that comes from our leaders these days of being positional instead of visionary and pragmatic.”
By Ken MacQueen - Friday, October 23, 2009 at 8:00 AM - 2 Comments
Newsmakers of the week
The thorn in Stelmach’s side
It was a rough week for Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach. A new poll suggests he and his Progressive Conservatives are in free fall. His televised speech, intended to reassure Albertans about his handling of the recession, was widely panned and his attempt to set an austerity example with a 15-per-cent cut in his premier’s allowance fell on deaf ears. The nurses’ and teachers’ unions have rejected his call for voluntary wage freezes. And on Saturday, the Wildrose Alliance chose former journalist Danielle Smith as its new leader—continuing the Alliance’s evolution from cranky protest party to credible conservative alternative.
To ghostbust, you must first believe
Peter Aykroyd, an 87-year-old former federal civil servant who lives in a spirit-infested family homestead north of Kingston, Ont., has penned one of the season’s odder memoirs. A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Seances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters tells the multi-generational story of his spiritualist family. The foreword is supplied by his famous son, Dan, Saturday Night Live comedian and co-writer of the hit movie Ghostbusters. Dan writes how his family, from his great-grandfather onwards, were serious and scientific investigators of the paranormal. “Part of Ghostbusters’ appeal derives from the cold, rational, acceptance-of the-fantastic-as-routine tone that Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, director Ivan Reitman, and I were able to sustain in the movie,” he writes. With good reason: the Aykroyds are believers. Dan’s grandfather was a Bell Telephone engineer who considered the possibility of contacting the spirit realm via a crystal radio set. And one of Dan’s daughters, he writes, claims “glops of light and other shapes attend her when pictures are taken in and around the old family farmhouse.”
They did it for their families
An extramarital affair with a legislative assembly clerk has damaged the personal life and reputation of Northwest Territories Premier Floyd Roland. Now his political future rests with Ted Hughes, a no-nonsense former judge and one-time B.C. conflict-of-interest commissioner. Hughes conducted a hearing in Yellowknife to determine if Roland breached the public trust by keeping secret his relationship with clerk Patricia Russell. Both were married and have since left their spouses to live together. During the hearing Russell denied allegations she shared confidential caucus discussions with her lover. Roland told Hughes they kept the affair secret out of consideration for their families. Hughes may table his report by the end of October.
Beatles vs. Stones, next generation
The children of two of rock’s biggest names have taken a different approach to fame. James McCartney, son of Paul, has always avoided attention. He recently debuted his band Light to just 30 people in a tiny Oxford pub. McCartney, 32, and his band went to extraordinary attempts to conceal the name and parentage of their lead singer. “James has a way with melody,” wrote an approving gossip columnist for the tabloid Sun, “and a set of pipes which are more than a match for his dad’s.” Meantime, Mick Jagger’s toothy daughter Georgia May Jagger is sprawled topless atop a Union Jack in a new advertising campaign for Hudson Jeans. While crossed arms or strategic camera angles keep the photos just on this side of decency, they have still caused a stir, because, to paraphrase an old Beatles tune, she is just 17.
This little piggy went to Paris
Newsmakers spoke in haste last week when it suggested Paris Hilton was unlikely to acquire a British-bred micro-pig because the extremely intelligent animals aren’t available in the U.S. Hilton has now ordered a bred-in-the-U.S. Royal Dandie Extreme miniature pot-bellied pig from an Oregon breeder. “So excited for my new piglette [sic] to come home to me,” she Tweeted on Friday. The always predictable folks at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are less than enthused, saying she treats her pets as “disposable.” In fact, the pet-loving Hilton has quite a menagerie; it’s boyfriends that end up in the discard pile.
From hell, straight to Whistler
Skateboarding San Diego chef Dave Levey survived the fire-and-brimstone of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay to win the top prize on his Hell’s Kitchen reality show on Fox TV. Levey wins a job for a year working under executive chef James Walt at Araxi Restaurant in Whistler. He starts Jan. 4, barely a month before the start of the Winter Olympics. Of course, he’s survived greater challenges. Not only did he endure the usual hazing by Ramsay, he spent most of the competition in pain after breaking his wrist. Such grit, combined with the 32-year-old’s skater-boy vibe, should make for a perfect Whistler fit. Levey says the tightly edited reality show was mostly real. “What people saw,” he says, “is very similar to who I am.”
Curves and all
Meghan McCain, daughter of former U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain, would like to get something off her chest. “Don’t call me a Slut,” she thundered in her column on the Daily Beast website. The furor erupted after McCain used Twitter to post a picture of herself spilling out of a low-cut tank top. Reaction to a revealing photo of a Republican-values gal generated almost as much Web traffic as a certain Colorado family’s errant balloon. First an abashed McCain Tweeted an apology: “I have clearly made a huge mistake and am sorry 2 those that are offended.” Then she got mad. “Honest, I don’t feel that I have anything to feel ashamed of,” she wrote in her column. “I’ve always embraced my curves and will continue to do so.”
Kids say the darnedest things
Lisa Scott of Paulina, La., promised her son Tyren she’d take him to see U.S. President Barack Obama, so last Thursday they went to the President’s town hall meeting in New Orleans. Tyren raised his hand during a question period and Obama gave him the floor. “I have to say, why do people hate you?” he stammered. “They supposed to love you…. God is love.” The President gave a diplomatic reply about how such anger is politically motivated, and people are worried about their futures. The answer was fine, but the question later gave some commentators pause. Just when and why had the hate and rage so troubling to a young boy become a daily part of American discourse? “It was a pretty good question, I must say,” Tyren’s mother later reflected.
Free from Evin
Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari was released on bail Saturday after almost four months in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. Maziar, who holds dual Iranian- Canadian citizenship, was arrested June 21 after reporting on the demonstrations following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election. “Hopefully this is a sign that other journalists who continue to languish in jail in Iran will also be released in the near future,” said Annie Game, executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expres sion. Bahari’s wife, Paola Gourley, is confined to a London hospital where she is due to give birth to their first child on Oct. 26. It’s unclear if Bahari, who still faces charges, can leave Tehran to attend the birth.
Fortunately, only the marriage is dead
Just three years ago they were rockers in love. The musical marriage in 2006 of Avril Lavigne and Sum 41 frontman Deryck Whibley ended last week with Lavigne filing for divorce. Neither said what caused their “irreconcilable differences.” Lavigne was seen this summer in St. Tropez with oil heir Brandon Davis. Whibley was recently in Las Vegas with model Hanna Beth Merjos. It may simply be they married too young. As Lavigne said on her website, “Deryck and I have been together for 6 years. We have been friends since I was 17, started dating when I was 19, and married when I was 21. I am grateful for our time together, and I am grateful and blessed for our remaining friendship.” And Whibley is grateful to be alive. Internet rumours last weekend had him dead—not a good start to single life. Luckily that was just a hoax.
There’s a bit of a ham in any politician but the Elvis-loving former Japanese premier Junichiro Koizumi is uncommonly blessed. He once famously crooned the King’s tunes while on an official tour of Presley’s Graceland mansion. But now Koizumi, 67, is really reaching for the stars. His newest gig is as a voice actor for an extraterrestrial hero who fights aliens from outer space in the movie Mega Monster Ball: Ultra Galaxy. Sure, it was great to be premier of a major world power, but being Ultraman King has its advantages.
Sarko’s son also rises
Jean Sarkozy, all of 23 and repeating his second year at the Sorbonne, has been given a boost into the family business by his father Nicolas. The French president has appointed his son chairman of La Défense, the public agency administering France’s biggest business district, in west Paris. There are predictable cries of nepotism and even some of Sarkozy’s cabinet squirm at claims he is running a presidential monarchy. Sarkozy has denounced the “hysterical manhunt” against his son. Jean maintains a dignified silence, relying on what critics concede are two of his greatest assets: his golden good looks and his very nice hair.
By Charlie Gillis - Friday, March 13, 2009 at 6:35 PM - 11 Comments
Should taxpayers be forced to foot the bill for the political agenda of a small group of parents?
When public school enrollment in Toronto began tumbling a few years ago, board officials settled on a bold-sounding solution. Why not make the city a magnet for parents suspicious of one-size-fits-all education? Toronto had a healthy network of specialized arts and tech schools—along with a handful of “alternative” schools dating back to the 1970s aimed at kids needing extra help with their studies. By opening the doors to local groups who want to start new schools, the board reasoned, it could create the sort of choice parents often say lures them to put their kids in private schools.
But with freedom comes unforeseen questions. At what point is “alternative” just a byword for ideology? And why should taxpayers across an entire province foot the bill for the political agenda of one group of parents?
The problems are coming clear after Toronto’s board gave the go-ahead last month for an elementary school in the city’s west end dedicated to “environmentalism, social justice and community activism.” The Grove Community School’s mission speaks of supporting the diverse needs of children aged kindergarten to Grade 3 (if all goes as planned, the school will eventually go up to Grade 6). But its educational program is shot through with language that would not look out of place in the manifesto of an anti-globalist protest group. It is the first school in Canada to “fuse robust environmentalism with action-oriented equity education,” its website boasts, and when it launches next September, the school will foster an environment that challenges “competitive individualism” and “promotes ‘public good’ over any individual’s right to accumulate privilege and power.”
To Joyce Savoline, the education critic for Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, the philosophical statement highlights the problems with opening the doors to everyone who wants to start a school. Though Grove will be required to follow the provincially mandated curriculum, she says, its proposal speaks more to the parents’ desire to reshape the world than anything to do with education. “What do you send your kids to school for?” she asks. “To learn to read and write and do arithmetic. Teach the kids basic skills that they are going to need to communicate and learn as they go through life. Don’t teach an idea at the age of five they’re going to have trouble letting go of when they’re 20.”
In Savoline’s judgment, such programs rightfully belong in the private system (as a point of fairness, the Tories had favoured extending public funding to all faith-based schools, on the grounds that Catholics received it, but later abandoned the policy). But more such controversies are bound to arise as publicly funded boards try to answer the growing demand for customized schooling. From the charter system in Alberta to B.C.’s independent schools, hybrids of the public and private models have in recent years been springing up across the country, with the taxpayers footing all or part of the tab. In B.C., independent schools receive 50-percent per student operating grants that the province provides to mainstream public schools; Alberta’s charter schools get full funding. At the same time, local boards like the one in Edmonton have swung open the door to full or partial mobility for students who wish to attend schools outside their catchment areas, which has led to further specialization within the public system.
Toronto, for its part, now has 37 alternative institutions, ranging from schools for gay and lesbian students to the controversial Afrocentric school planned for one of the city’s most troubled neighbourhoods. Each receives the standard $10,020 per year operating grant for each student, and some—including Grove—are housed in other schools’ buildings.
Sarah Blackstock, one of the parents instrumental in starting the Grove project, acknowledges its goals are more “explicit” than those of other alternative schools. But she denies her group’s program is overtly political. “I really believe this school is about developing critical thinking skills, because I think that’s the most fundamental skill we all need in terms of being responsible people in the world.”
Perhaps. But the starting point for that critical thinking will be a rather distinctive world view. The school’s vision draws on, among other theories, the academic work of Paolo Friere, a socialist academic from Brazil whose 1970 book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed set a path for leftist education scholars around the world. The result, as it appears in the school’s promotional literature, is a decidedly dark view of the mainstream public system. “Teaching based on radical individualism is not of real and long-term benefit to children who are members of interdependent communities,” warns the Grove website. Radical individualism is a label some intellectuals have affixed to the perceived decline of community life in the U.S. When asked whether public-school pedagogy is based on radical individualism, Manon Gardener, the superintendent responsible for the area where the Grove School will be located, deflected the question, saying only that the school’s program had undergone rigorous review.
How this will play out in the classroom is not yet clear. Lessons will be rooted in discussion, problem-solving and community projects, rather than traditional blackboard teaching methods. But the sound of political axes grinding will never be far off. When the children discuss the media, for instance, instructors will be required to “make visible how and why certain representations of race, class, gender etc., are constructed in the media, and to ask whose interests these representations serve.”
The irony in all of this is that the board is taking its cues in part from the private system—understanding, perhaps, that the attraction of alternative schooling lies as much in a sense of exclusivity as any philosophical underpinnings. Blackstock, for one, notes that many of the 60 pupils signed up for the Grove school will be coming from private schools.
That’s a development that fascinates Peter Cowley, the director of school performance measurement at the Fraser Institute. “I’ve seen public school systems bending over backward in Quebec and Edmonton and to a lesser extent in British Columbia to make themselves look like private schools,” says Cowley, whose organization has lobbied for greater choice in education. “What does that say?” To Cowley, the Grove school’s program differs only in degree from prevailing values within the public education mainstream. If the intent is to provide genuine choice, he says, provinces should switch to a fully privatized system in which parents are permitted to take their funding to whatever schools suit them best.
Which, of course, is about as likely to occur as the eradication of the schoolyard bully. For all the talk of drift toward private schooling, Canadians show no inclination to get rid of public schools (nearly six out of 10 in a poll taken last fall described their provinces’ systems as good or excellent). But as our tastes in education grow ever more particular, and as more parents demand schools that reflect their particular world view, public boards will be faced with a daunting challenge. They must still try to be all things to all people, while offering a little something extra to everyone who asks. Somehow, at some point, they will have to draw a line.