Archive for October, 2022


One of North America’s favourite ice cream chains, Ben & Jerry’s, has intervened in the current cycle of school trustee elections in Canada. The Canadian branch of the Unilever-owned ice cream company, best known for serving up frosty treats with quirky names for children and families, launched a September 2022 campaign to warn Canadians about the dangers of “far-right” school board slates of candidates.

“The Far-Right is Stacking our School Boards,” Ben and Jerrys’ proclaimed on its website. “Many people do not realize what school boards can do, and many people don’t realize that there is a far-right campaign to take over these governing groups.” The campaign was national in scope because it referred specifically to upcoming school board elections in British Columbia (October 15), Ontario (October 25), Manitoba (October 26) and two of the territories.

The multinational corporation applied a broad definition of “far-right” and, in effect, labeled a whole swath of Canadian candidates campaigning for school reform and pledging to “take back the schools.” That label applies to any candidate raising concerns or simply asking questions about board spending priorities, “critical race theory,” the age-appropriateness of sex education, professional teaching standards, or safety in schools.


Organizing and running “slates” of candidates and announcing “endorsements” of candidates is not really new; nor is attempting to torpedo the campaigns of school trustee candidates who challenge the status quo or the prevailing order of social norms. Everyone who has run for school board office or campaigned for a candidate knows about the pre-election endorsements of favoured candidates by teacher federations, local labour councils, or education worker unions. It was also commonly used to marginalize incumbents with an independent streak or promising new candidates committed to systemic or curricular reform.

Public dissatisfaction with governments, even lower-order school boards, is running high in the wake of two-and-one half years of pandemic disruptions.  Significant student learning losses, mental health stresses, scarcity of resource supports, and unresponsive school systems combined with growing ideological polarization have produced social panic, instability, and a fair share of ‘crackpots.’ School trustee Twitter feeds in Ontario districts like Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) are full of anger and rage.  All of a sudden, local school boards are no longer just boring political backwaters, sanctuaries for retired educators, or low-risk testing grounds for aspiring politicos.

School boards were ripe for structural reform because, over time, they have become larger, more centralized and distant from local citizens.  That process of bureaucratic change and unaddressed public alienation was documented in my 2020 book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools (2020).  Pent-up desire for change was gradually building, but it took a pandemic to bring it out into the open in the public square.

What’s really changed is that movements to challenge the status quo, mostly — but not exclusively — leaning to the right, are getting organized and mounting credible campaigns with clearly-articulated policy positions.  Most school trustee incumbents, nominally autonomous but often captive of school administration, were terrified since “acclamation” was normally the route to re-election. Confronting slates of candidates, running under the banner of ABC Vancouver and Parents’ Voice BC, or the Ontario “Blueprint for Canada” platform or endorsed by the “Vote Against Woke” Coalition made it all-to-real and sparked the usual education backlash, closing ranks against outsiders.


School board wars have arrived in Canada but will not likely mirror what has happened since 2020 in school systems across the United States. Progressive values hold much bigger sway here, especially on social and moral questions, and social equity provision is embedded in human rights legislation – and that explains the fierce backlash. 

Social conservatives have learned, for the most part, to sublimate their inner-most thoughts and tend to conceal their views, for fear of being exposed.  Being “outed” for holding such sentiments can bring consequences.  That’s why many trustee candidates endorsed by the Ontario “Vote Against Woke” Coalition either ran for cover or asked that their names be removed from the list.

The Canadian mainstream media, with a few exceptions, is openly hostile to school trustee candidates daring (or foolish) enough to voice “anti-woke” sentiments with respect to matters of gender identities and rights.  Many education news reporters have also proven to be cool to those questioning the rise of “critical race theory” or advocating diversity and respect for, and acceptance of, one another, regardless of skin colour, race, or creed.


The Ben and Jerry’s Canada intervention sought to capitalize on prevailing political and social sentiments. But, as Toronto Sun columnist Jamil Juvani pointed out, it could also be evidence of “the bubble that corporations create for themselves.”  That happens when corporate entities engage in political activism instead of encouraging balanced, informed, fair-minded conversations over critical issues, including the present policy positioning and future direction of school boards.

Community organizations, education unions, and even public-spirited corporations are, and should be, free to engage in school board elections within some limits.  It is never acceptable to express racist, misogynist or anti-trans views.  Having said that, those who seek to identify enemies of the “far-right” or “woke-left”, label opponents, or silence half the population are not helpful and do damage to public discourse and responsive, representative local government.

We should ensure that the mainstream Canadian media and participating organizations, whatever their stripe, fairly represent causes, interests and organizations spanning the political spectrum.  When school boards and news outlets are open to all views, it should be applauded as a vital component of a healthy, energetic and functioning local democratic culture.  If the 2022 school trustee elections are any indication, we are a long way from that set of circumstances.

Why are school board elections now a zone of conflict in the “culture war”?  What are the underlying sources and causes of the growing dissent with the prevailing order?  Will the fierce ideological battles seen in U.S. states and school systems materialize here?  How many elected school boards are already ensnared in intractable battles and mired in factionalism? Do institutions that foreclose on meaningful parent engagement and peaceful dissent lose their democratic legitimacy?

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Every time the top education bureaucrat turns over, the accompanying shake-up has profound implications for provincial school systems. Education ministers come and go at the whim of premiers and the electorate, it’s who runs the bureaucracy that really matters.

Few outside the system notice such seismic events. The schools chug-along seemingly unaffected by bureaucratic upheaval. In my home province of Nova Scotia, it’s largely contained within the Education and Early Childhood Development headquarters, aka the “Trade Mart bunker.”

The recent unceremonious departure of Nova Scotia’s latest Deputy Minister, Cathy Montreuil, left most teachers, parents and reporters scratching their heads. Learning that she received a $227,289 severance added to the intrigue. It begged the fundamental question –  did she jump or was she pushed?

Three weeks before the termination announcement, current Minister of Education Becky Druhan ran interference. “We have accomplished so much in one year, and we’re just getting started,” she said in a posted, and remarkably positive, You Tube video. When the news leaked out, she was nowhere in sight.

Montreuil is typical of most DMs in Nova Scotia education. First appointed in March 2018, she served for four years and one year after a change in government. Over the past 20 years, six top officials have held the post, including Dennis Cochrane (1999-2009), Rosalind Penfound (2009-12), Carole Olsen (2012-13) and Sandra McKenzie (2014-17). All lasted four years, except Olsen who served under Darrell Dexter’s NDP and was sacked after 18 months when the Stephen McNeil Liberals took power.

Since 2003, nine elected politicians have served, so far, as Education Minister. Three held office under the Progressive Conservatives, Jamie Muir (2003-06), Karen Casey (2006-08), and Judy Streatch (2009). Two held the post in the Dexter government: Marilyn More (2009-11) and Ramona Jennex (2011-13). Under the Liberals, Minister Casey returned for a second stint (2013-17), then was replaced by Zach Churchill (2017-21), and briefly by Derek Mombourquette (February to August 2021).

How Montreuil performed and what she accomplished is far harder to ascertain, given the veil of secrecy enveloping the department, code-named DEECD. It can, however, be pieced together with a little digging through a mass of disaggregated information.

Deputy Minister Montreuil was hired out of Ontario in March of 2018 with two fundamental responsibilities: (1) to oversee the abolition of elected school boards and centralization of provincial education management; and (2) to implement the 2018 Inclusive Education Commission recommendations.

Elimination of Elected Boards

She carried out the first task with quietly effective and managerial efficiency. All seven elected English boards were dissolved in favour of Regional Centres of Education, run like duchies by newly elevated Regional Superintendents. Public accountability counterweights – a College of Educators, an Education Ombudsperson, and an arms-length student assessment agency – all proposed by Dr Avis Glaze in her infamous January 2018 report, never saw the light of day.


Curtailing Parent Voice and Input

A Provincial Council for Education (PACE) was installed, strictly for closed door advisory purposes, composed of a dozen hand-picked members. The contentious and NSTU-dominated Council on Working Conditions was also brought under tight control.  Enhanced authority for School Advisory Councils (SACs) as envisioned by Glaze never materialized.  A CBC News Nova Scotia investigation, conducted by Brittany Wentzell, revealed that most SACs actually atrophied between 2018 and 2020, including many whose web presence and meeting minutes disappeared.

Inclusion Confusion

preliminary research report published in September 2020 by University of Ottawa professor Jess Whitley and her associate Trista Hollweck indicated that Inclusive Education reform stalled in 2019-20. While $30 million had been spent and 364 new positions added, implementation was not going smoothly, even before the massive pandemic disruption.  Shifting of roles caused confusion, new roles lacked clarity, and misalignment presented obstacles to providing effective support for students.

Many regular classroom teachers remained committed to the “pull-out” model of Special Education and continued to rely heavily on resource centre teachers for ongoing support. Psycho-social specialists were still coming to terms with the shift from supporting students to in-servicing classroom teachers.  The final review, focusing mostly on staff engagement rather than impact, was never released to the public or provincial legislators.

The Litmus Test — Student Achievement

Improving academic student learning and well-being are fundamental priorities for all top education bureaucrats. In Nova Scotia, during Montreuil’s tenure, the results were mixed at best. Student performance, measured by standardized test scores, stagnated or declined from 2018 to 2022 for most students, with the possible exception of African Nova Scotians. Two-and-a-half-years into the pandemic, after school had been cancelled for 22 weeks, the results were posted, without official comment, at the end of June 2022.

Studying the latest installment of Nova Scotia provincial student results, covering the 2018-19 to 2021-22 period, it was easy to see why the Minister remained silent. Nothing was reported covering Grade 3, the critical first step in monitoring the acquisition of student competencies in reading, writing and mathematics. Instead, the province released Grade 6 results showing, as predicted, a pronounced achievement decline, most acute in mathematics and writing, but also affecting reading competencies and comprehension.

Conclusion – Musical Chairs in Education

Removing a top bureaucrat sets off a chain reaction in the education bureaucracy. In this case, the Tim Houston PC government simply reverted to past bureaucratic practice. Resurrect a veteran bureaucrat to fill the hole and respect the existing hierarchical pecking-order, booting Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) Regional Superintendent Elwin LeRoux upstairs to ADM and replacing him at HRCE with his second-in-command, Steve Gallagher. In short, it’s education’s version of musical chairs all over again. All of this raises the question of whether such self-perpetuating bureaucratic systems simply run themselves.

Who knows what Deputy Ministers of Education really do? Why do elected Ministers of Education absorb all the public flack? Is there any way to assess how they actually performed in their roles? Does it even matter in self-perpetuating bureaucratic systems?

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