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Politics at elementary schools are a potential teaching moment, literally

Image: Flickr/Premier of Alberta​

Can we all agree that most Albertans just don't like it when politicians make pronouncements in front of school kids?

And can we also agree that if you're going to dish it out in politics, you really ought to be able to take it?

This may not be entirely reasonable. Call me an iconoclast, but, personally, I reckon politicians should be able to make a strong political statement, even express profound political disagreement, before the tender little ears of your typical grade six student. After all, they have almost certainly heard worse at home and without any doubt much worse on the schoolyard, where disagreements are frequent and no Anglo-Saxon noun or verb is unknown, and not just lately.

Nevertheless, if you are a politician and you speak frankly in the presence of school children, you will be sharply criticized for it. Get used to it. It's just the way it is.

A couple of politicians have been caught saying things deemed inappropriate right here in St. Albert, the Edmonton bedroom suburb where your blogger resides, and the shock has been deep and profound -- though highly unlikely to have lasting consequences.

Most recently, Rachel Notley, the NDP premier of Alberta, came to town and spoke frankly about political differences to a gaggle of 11-year-old students at the city's new Lois E. Hole Elementary School.

Premier Notley used the opportunity to take some entirely justified shots at the province's Conservative opposition: "There are some people who would say we shouldn't be building new schools," she stated. "They would say we shouldn't have so many teachers and they would say your classrooms should have more kids in them, not less."

Hard to argue with this, if you ask me, but the media, ever mindful of the political taboos of the era, were on her like white on rice about it. To the premier's credit, she made no apologies, responding accordingly: "These buildings, these communities, the quality of education don't happen accidentally. They happened as a result of choices. And so we're going to talk about those choices. We're not going to back down from talking about those choices."

Notley is not a politician prone to verbal gaffes, so this may have been mindfully done with the understanding the opportunity to make the point was too good to worry about the inevitable criticism. Then again, maybe not.

Regardless, opposition politicians were, quite predictably, appalled -- or, at least, said they were. Quelle horreur, responded United Conservative Party leadership candidate and former Wildrose Party top dog Brian Jean in the usual fundraising email. "Using innocent and blissfully unaware Alberta elementary school students as the backdrop for a taxpayer funded, government-led attack on opposition parties is simply unacceptable," he screeched, before sticking his hand out for a donation to his leadership campaign. (Emphasis added.)

In his fund-raising email, headlined "NDP using school kids as props," Jean also vowed as premier to promote "historical, numerical and energy literacy," which is code for not allowing anything bad to be said about colonialism, claiming teachers aren't teaching arithmetic right, and not teaching science if it even hints there might be something to this global warming stuff.

But Opposition politicians need to be careful about attacking their colleagues across the aisle for this kind of thing, for reasons I'll get to in a moment, although I'll concede that the temptation in the circumstances is almost irresistible.

By coincidence, just days before Notley came to town, a local politician of a decidedly conservative stripe found herself in trouble for speaking her mind in front of a bunch of grade six students at another elementary school.

City Councillor Sheena Hughes, identified by the local newspaper as the speaker criticized without being named in a recent consultant's report on the rather negative state of the community's city council for expressing to a different group of 11-year-olds at Muriel Martin Elementary School her view of some of her colleagues on council. This happened back in 2013, although it only came to light a week ago.

"One student asked if you needed a university degree to be in politics," wrote the principal of the school to Hughes soon after, a letter the local paper was able to obtain through a Freedom of Information request, "and you replied, in obvious reference to the other councillors, 'No, you can be as dumb as a sack of hammers and still get in!'"

Hughes was too negative, the principal complained. The school wanted students to learn how to co-operate, and didn't want her back as a speaker.

In truth, as many of her supporters pointed out, it is very hard to argue with Hughes about the truth of her proposition. Some here might even point to some of her closest political allies as proof!

The cases are not strictly analogous, of course. Hughes was being criticized for being part of a pattern of nasty personal comments about opponents endemic on St. Albert City Council, whereas the premier was assailing policies proposed by the opposition. Nevertheless, there were enough obvious similarities to attract notice.

"Delivering a message is one thing, but attacking political opponents in front of children is not appropriate," the local newspaper huffed in yesterday's edition -- to which I say, in defence of them both on this point, Oh, pish-posh!

Local conservatives, who just hours ago were angrily chattering on social media in defence of Hughes, are now furious at Notley for much the same thing.

Which brings me to my final point: If you can dish it out in politics, you must be prepared to take it.

Back in 2013, the same year Hughes was getting in trouble for being too frank with school children, yet another Alberta politician was having her knuckles rapped for the same thing, in pretty much the same terms.

The politician? Progressive Conservative premier Alison Redford. Her sin? Criticizing the Wildrose opposition for its "build nothing" approach after she announced new schools before audiences in Edmonton and Calgary that included young school kids. It is worth noting that the UCP is essentially the Wildrose Party operating under a new name, with little change in its rhetoric or policies.

"When she's acting as premier and she's making a taxpayer announcement about new schools, that is a rule that she should keep completely non-partisan," complained then Wildrose Opposition leader Danielle Smith. "And I think she crossed the line on that!"

But the strongest words came from another Brian, Brian Mason, then leader of the small NDP caucus in the Legislature and now Notley's Government House Leader and a member of her cabinet.

"She pulls kids out of class to serve as props for her partisan political attacks on the opposition," barked Mason.

Which just goes to show that what goes around in politics does seem to come around.

To politicians, I say: Take note.

To the schools: You have missed an excellent opportunity to inform their students that politics is a full-contact sport, played with the elbows up, and if they're contemplating a career in that field, they'd better grow a thick skin. Grade six is not too early for such a lesson.

To the rest of you: Get used to it!

Lois Hole was a tough St. Albert businesswoman, known for the gardening centre that bears her family name and the numerous books on gardening she authored. As Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, from 2000 until her death in 2005, she became a beloved figure.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Flickr/Premier of Alberta​

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