Deranged curricula, abuse and anti-LGBTQ bigotry infest Saskatchewan’s “parental choice” schools
Feature by Gregory Beatty
The Saskatchewan Party government loves to champion parental choice in education. It used the phrase in 2017 to justify a 27-student K-to-8 Theodore, SK school’s transfer from the Public to Separate system to avoid being closed for low enrollment.
Parental choice also underpins the government’s recent push to increase funding for private schools while public schools, especially in cities, struggle with overcrowding and shrinking staff resources.
The government even trotted it out in the Legacy Christian Academy case to defend its decision to continue funding the private school — despite the growing scandal, which began in August when 18 former students stepped forward to allege years of physical, psychological and sexual abuse (see Cruel School).
Since summer, the number of student complainants has grown to over 100 and other Christian schools have been implicated, including Briercrest College in Caronport. Both Saskatoon City Police and the Children’s Advocate are investigating, but the government has refused to budge.
For the Sask. Party, it seems, parental choice is sacrosanct. And obviously, parents do have an interest in their children’s education.
But what does ‘parental choice in education’ mean? And since education is also a key part of how we, as a society, prepare children and youth for adulthood, doesn’t society have an interest, too?
Dinosaurs and Evolution
“Parental choice in education” sounds like something everyone should support. Even in this divided and polarized province, we can all agree parents need a say in how their kids are educated, right?
But in Saskatchewan in 2023, parental choice in education isn’t a “value”, it’s a specific policy. It’s the idea that parents should be able to send their children to a publicly subsidized private school of their choice to receive an education — generally a religious one — they approve of.
This is where things get tricky.
For example: what if a child’s parents don’t want their children to learn about evolution, or geology, or anthropogenic climate change? What if they object to fantasy books with magic, hobbits and wizards? What if they dispute the impacts of colonialism on Saskatchewan’s Indigenous Peoples, and don’t want that taught?
More generally, how do choice in education advocates feel about teaching tolerance towards toward cultures, ethnicities, religions and social values that differ from theirs?
Should schools be permitted to teach factually incorrect dogma, such as the idea dinosaurs and humans coexisted? Should they be able to condemn the 2SLGBTQ+ community as immoral? Should such schools get public funding?
In 2023 Saskatchewan, these aren’t academic questions.
RIS vs QIS
Saskatchewan has five categories of independent schools that are allowed to operate outside the public system. The majority, at least historically, were classed as Registered Independent Schools.
“These schools could apply to come under the umbrella of a school board. But they had to abide by board policies and the provincial curriculum,” says Ailsa Watkinson, professor emeritus in Social Work at University of Regina. “If they did that, they got a percentage of funding which was about 50 per cent. But they still had leeway for religious instruction.”
In 2011, the Sask. Party created a new designation: Qualified Independent Schools. Unlike the old model, QIS schools aren’t under school board authority, and they don’t have to follow the provincial curriculum.
Currently, there are 25 QIS schools in Saskatchewan. In last March’s budget, the government increased their funding by 15 per cent to $17.5 million. It also announced plans to change per-student funding from 50 per cent of the public-school rate to 75 per cent.
This year, Legacy Christian receives $700,000 in public funding. Students who have filed criminal abuse charges against the school and launched a $25 million lawsuit have requested the grant be paused until the police investigation is complete. But the government has refused, opting instead to appoint a supervisor for Legacy Christian and a second Christian school named in allegations. (A third school refused to comply and closed.)
Watkinson finds the government’s decision bizarre.
“As the story broke, I thought, ‘Gosh, what is happening here?’. The government’s solution is to have us, the taxpayers, hire someone to oversee the schools where ‘teachers’ accused of abuse continue to work with students?” she says.
“If this was the public system, a teacher accused of abuse would be suspended. Then we wouldn’t need to hire anyone to oversee them,” says Watkinson.
“It’s bizarre. They’re paying someone to watch over a possible criminal,” she says.
Legacy Christian operates out of the basement of the evangelical Mile Two Church and follows the U.S.-based Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) curriculum. Students have painted an evocative portrait of the education they received, says Watkinson.
“We know the education they got, in areas such as science, where Creationism is taught,” she says. “When they left school, they were kind of lost. They didn’t have the critical thinking skills they needed,” she says.
“When you see videos of students in school, they are all sitting at carrels working individually,” says Watkinson. “But we know for kids to learn, they need the give and take of conversation, where they develop the ability to analyze what is going on and exchange viewpoints.”
So even when it comes to the core function of education, unfettered parental choice gets an F, says Watkinson.
“We, as a society, have a keen interest in the education of our children,” she says. “We want to ensure they have the cognitive and critical thinking skills to take part in our democracy. To allow schools where lessons are sopping wet with religious doctrine is counter to the idea of thinking freely and building a more accepting society.”
Pray Away The Gay
Besides being academically deficient, the ACE curriculum preaches some pretty toxic values, including women being subordinate to men and intolerance toward non-Christians and BIPOC people.
But a special place in ACE’s “hell” is reserved for queer people.
2SLGBTQIAP+ students at several Christian schools have said they were subjected to hateful speech and traumatic personal attacks (including exorcism!) by school and church officials seeking to “cure” them of their “affliction”.
“There’s actually an entire subculture called the religious trauma recovery community that deals with this. It’s not exclusively queer people, but queer people are definitely over-represented in the group,” says Stephen Feltmate of Queen City Pride, which recently issued a statement critical of government funding going to private schools that promote hate against 2SLGBTQIAP+ people.
Feltmate grew up in an evangelical community, so he has an inside take on the political link between private religious schools and the conservative, Christian right.
“In the U.S. there’s a movement called Seven Mountains Mandate where they identify seven pillars of society where they want to gain entry and become influential so they can shift the culture,” says Feltmate.
The pillars are family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business and government.
“There’s also a group called Christian Embassy that specifically targets members of parliament and politicians in the U.S. and Canada, and also internationally,” Feltmate says.
As a young adult in Swift Current, Feltmate worked for Conservative MP David Anderson’s electoral district association, and visited the MP in his home. He recalls Andersson was a longtime organizer of the Canadian version of the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast.
Anderson retired from politics in 2019 but remains on the board of International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief.
“They have an agenda to shift government policy towards ‘religious freedom’, which is an Orwellian term to justify a form of Christian fascism to legislate what people can and can’t do in their lives,” says Feltmate. “They also seek exemptions from human rights legislation. That’s really what ‘religious freedom’ means in Canada. We don’t want to follow the law.”
Students at Legacy Christian have described how, during elections, they were routinely pulled from class to campaign for local conservative politicians, so the ties are undeniable.
For Feltmate, that makes the Sask. Party’s non-response to the scandal entirely predictable.
“I grew up evangelical, and Christian apologists do this all the time with bad-faith arguments to try to create a ‘space for faith’,” he says. “But they’re creating a very dangerous environment for us.”
Black & Blue
One example of Legacy Christian not following the law relates to corporal punishment. The Supreme Court outlawed the strap and other forms of physical punishment in 2004 (although many schools had stopped the practice years earlier).
Legacy Christian students have alleged, though, that they continued to be subject to corporal punishment.
Watkinson has written extensively on corporal punishment. She was shocked by what she heard.
“I’ve looked at a lot of cases, and there was never one as ugly as Legacy Christian where phys ed teachers beat the girls’ volleyball team with wooden paddles until they were black and blue from the waist down,” she says. “It was two men who did this, while the girls stood outside and were sent in one at a time. The rest could hear what was happening. It was horrific.”
The team’s alleged transgression? Whispering among themselves in church.
“The public system isn’t flawless, there are warts there too. But we can address that through school boards that provide public oversight,” says Watkinson. “But these QIS schools are answerable to no one outside the church.
“They certainly don’t seem answerable to the government. Instead, it’s like the government is serving them.” ■
This article has been updated since publication to clarify that Stephen Feltmate did not work directly for MP David Anderson but was instead a volunteer for the Cypress Hills—Grasslands Conservative electoral district association.