Sask. education minister admits there may have been oversight gap at church-run schools

Saskatchewan Education Minister Dustin Duncan said a church-run, government-funded school may have started complying with provincial curricula after it started to receive government funding – even though adhering to the curricula is required to receive the funding.

Duncan, in an exclusive interview, responded to Global News’ reporting that a school official at a government-funded, church-run school told a student being gay was wrong.

Cody Hamilton, who attended Prairie Christian Academy (PCA), said the principal of the school, Rene Boutin, called him into his office in the fall of 2013 when he learned Hamilton was gay. Hamilton said Boutin told him he needed to choose God because being gay was wrong.

Read more: ‘I almost took my life’ — why some former church-run school students are calling for change

PCA, as a qualified independent school (QIS), received more than $200,000 from the Saskatchewan government for the 2013-14 school year, according to government accounts.

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Boutin, who was listed in the Education Ministry’s records as the school’s director at the time and not the principal, did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Hamilton also said the school taught that the world is approximately 6,000 years old.

“If there were things that maybe were not in alignment with the curriculum in that timeframe, that 2013-2014 timeframe,” Duncan said, when asked about Hamilton’s allegations, “I think that probably was just a reflection of the fact that the ministry was still working with the schools to ensure that what they were teaching (and) the resources that they were using were in alignment with the provincial curriculum.”

During the interview, the minister frequently touted new regulations he announced in August, after former students at another church-run school filed a lawsuit against their former church, now called Mile Two Church. Those regulations allow for more inspections of QIS, up to one a month, he said. Previously inspectors only visited schools three times per school year.

The students allege church staff abused them. The allegations have not been tested in court.

Read more: Saskatoon plaintiff in abuse allegation against church-run school suffers vandalism, house fire

In an interview on Tuesday, Global News asked if the ministry had taken any new steps regarding PCA since Global first contacted the minister’s office on Oct. 31.

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“So, certainly the ministry has conducted one of their inspections,” Duncan said.

He said the ministry had worked with the school to ensure it is providing a safe and welcoming environment for all the students.

Global News obtained the government’s inspection reports for PCA using a freedom of information request. The 2013 report, conducted in January of that year, shows the inspector found “the intellectual, emotional and physical well-being of children is acceptable.”

Hamilton said that in August of 2013 he became suicidal because church teachings condemn homosexuality and he realized he was gay. He said Boutin called him into his office in September of that year to tell him being gay was wrong.

The 2014 report, which was conducted in May of that year, does not have the same box to check on the form regarding children’s well-being. But it does quote the inspection regulations, which includes “observing any aspect of the educational activities and educational operations… to protect the societal interests of educating the pupils in the school.” The report did not note anything that would seem to violate that objective. And a letter attached to the report stated the inspector found the school adhered to The Education Act and The Independent School Regulations with regards to educational operations.

“I wish you success in the 2013-14 school year,” the inspector wrote in May 2014. The inspection shows the 213-14 school year was scheduled to end in June.

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Ministry staff did not provide any other inspection reports for that period in response to Global News’ freedom of information request.

Global News asked the minister about the apparent discrepancy between the reports’ findings and what Hamilton said he experienced.

Certainly our ministry staff are not there in the schools each and every day. But we certainly trust the professionals that are working in those schools, that they are first and foremost teaching the Saskatchewan curriculum, providing a safe and welcoming environment for their students,” he said.

“Just like in in any school, any public school … the ministry is not going to catch everything that may not be in alignment with the curriculum or may not provide a safe and welcoming environment for every single student.”

But he said the ministry takes all allegations seriously and follows up on any allegations. Duncan also said allegations should be taken to the appropriate entity, such as the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission.

Read more: Former student says government-funded church school staff said being gay was wrong

He told Global News allegations are not specific to qualified independent schools, which, he pointed out, students are not required to attend.

Former members of Faith Alive Family Church, which runs PCA, have told Global News their view that the church is a cult and that their value is determined by their adherence to the church leaders’ directives.

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Several former members said they were expected to donate 10 per cent of their gross income and that they were encouraged to donate more. One member said he was giving 20 per cent of his gross income.

Global News contacted Faith Alive and asked church leaders to comment on this. Albertos Polizogopoulos, Faith Alive’s lawyer, in an email said “the tithes and offerings of Faith Alive Ministries are none of your or Global News’ business,” saying they are private voluntary donations made by members to their church.

When asked if the allegedly controlling environment would affect parents’ decision to remove their children from the school, Duncan said the ministry’s increased regulations ensure schools are following Saskatchewan curricula, policies and procedures and that the schools are employing professional teachers.

A previous statement from the education ministry said, starting in the 2022-23 school year, QIS are required to provide records of supervision by a Professional “A” teacher of any non-professional staff.

The PCA website no longer provides biographical information for school staff, with the information disappearing around the end of August. The public registry for Saskatchewan teachers shows only two people listed on the website prior to the biographical information disappearing who are certified Professional “A” teachers.

Read more: Former students of church-run school decry lack of mental health supports

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During the interview, Duncan said there is a constitutional right to provide for groups of people to organize and register schools as it relates to their freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. He cited the province’s Catholic schools as an example.

Unlike qualified independent schools, Catholic schools in Saskatchewan are fully funded by municipal and provincial governments. QIS receive provincial funding of 50 per cent of the provincial per student average based on the number of students who attend the school.

The president of the Saskatchewan School Board Association (SSBA), which represents public, Catholic and French school boards in the province, and the president of the Saskatoon Teachers Association (STA) told Global News previously that Catholic schools have Professional “A” teachers in every classroom. QIS are required to have one Professional “A” teacher per 40 students.

John McGettigan, the STA president, and Shawn Davidson, the SSBA president, both said the education in a Catholic school matches the education in any other publicly funded school except that the religious schools offer specific religious courses. What is taught in science or history is fact-based and separate from religion, they said.

Duncan said the Education Ministry is comfortable that the 2022 curricula at QIS schools and provincial curricula are in alignment.

Read more: Quality of education criticized by former students of church-run school near Saskatoon

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Mile Two Church has not responded to several requests for comment, though a statement posted on Facebook on Aug. 3 says “(t)he people that are accused of (the actions alleged in the lawsuit) are no longer here or affiliated with us in any way. We have and will cooperate fully with any officials or authorities that are investigating their actions.”

Global News contacted Faith Alive leaders several times and asked for interviews with church and school leaders. A statement from “the Directors of Faith Alive Ministries” said they are “a Christian, faith-based school entitled by law and under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to teach our students love of God out of a theological, anthropological, and moral perspective derived exclusively from what we sincerely hold as Biblical truth.”

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