Jeff Johnson became Alberta’s Minister of Education in May 2012, just as the Alberta government and the Alberta Teachers’ Association were in the midst of some fairly intense and combative contract negotiations. Despite Alison Redford’s open courting of teachers and other public servants during her leadership run and subsequent election, Johnson made his disdain for, and distrust of, the ATA fairly clear early on in his term. His attacks on the ATA have intensified significantly over his two years as minister. The question is whether the war is sanctioned by the Alberta government as a whole, or if it’s a one-man crusade by the minister to destroy an organization he hates.
As part of his war on the ATA’s regulatory arm, last week Johnson contacted all of the province’s school boards to demand they forward him all records dealing with discipline cases and any resignations or retirements where there have been complaints or allegations of unprofessional conduct. His goal, of course, is to try to demonstrate that the ATA is failing at regulating the profession and as such should be stripped of that function.
The ATA, almost immediately, responded by filing a formal complaint with the province’s information and privacy commissioner saying Johnson’s request is a violation of the province’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FOIP).
The timing was auspicious, as the following day the commissioner released her report on an earlier FOIP complaint filed by the ATA against Johnson and Alberta Education. In February 2013, while in the midst of collective bargaining, Johnson had accessed the work and personal email addresses of every teacher in the province from their files at Alberta Education. He then used those addresses to contact each and every one of them directly in an effort to bypass the established collective bargaining process and browbeat them into accepting an inadequate agreement.
The commissioner’s report was unequivocal—Alberta Education clearly violated FOIP when handing over the addresses to Johnson. In most jurisdictions, that kind of flagrant violation on its own would be cause for dismissal. Combined with his renewed efforts to push the envelope on teacher privacy to score political points, it is almost impossible to fathom why he is still in his position as minister. Especially when you consider that both Premier David Hancock and heir apparent Jim Prentice have worked publicly to distance themselves from Johnson’s positions.
It would be ironic, if it wasn’t so expected and consistent with politics in Alberta, that the same minister carping endlessly about disciplining teachers for unprofessional conduct can unapologetically violate the province’s privacy legislation and publicly bully the ATA with complete impunity.
Why hasn’t he been fired as minister? Why hasn’t he been disciplined? Is it that the Premier and the government actually quietly endorse his efforts to destroy the ATA? Or is it instead that this government, and the PC party as a whole, are in such disarray they can’t even get their act together enough to take action against someone who has clearly violated the law and behaved unprofessionally throughout his tenure as minister?
Whatever the answer is, it is an affront to teachers and Albertans. If the government expects us to take seriously all their rhetoric about accountability, transparency and professionalism, then any violation of those principles from within its ranks should be dealt with quickly and unequivocally. Johnson should have been relieved of his duties as minister long ago, and every day that he remains there is one more reason for Albertans to become cynical about, distrustful of and disengaged from their government and democracy as a whole. We deserve better. V
Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta.