The offices of former premier Alison Redford and current Education Minister Jeff Johnson specifically planned to use children as props in a school announcement in Airdrie, Alta. late last year, documents show.
Internal premier’s office documents, obtained through freedom of information by CBC News, show the Dec. 18, 2013 announcement of a new school in Airdrie was planned down to the minute by Redford’s office, in conjunction with an Education ministry staffer.
The closely stage-managed announcement involved photo and video opportunities for the politicians with children in front of the assembled media.
'Watching something like this, sometimes you think you’re in North Korea.' - Airdrie Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson
The planning directed Nose Creek Elementary Grade 1 choral singers to take to the stage at 8:40 a.m. to await Redford’s announcement at 9:05 a.m.
The documents show that three minutes later, at 9:08 a.m.. Redford was to join the child singers on “left stage” to help sing the carol, “Celebrate the Season.”
The planning included sending the premier’s office a copy of the lyrics to the carol so Redford would know the words.
As it turned out, both Redford and Johnson stood on stage with the students and sang the holiday carol.
At the time, Airdrie Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson told the Calgary Herald that “watching something like this, sometimes you think you’re in North Korea. You’ve got politicians sitting up there on stage, with the premier singing with them, it is just distasteful.”
CBC News showed the documents to Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith and Liberal leader Raj Sherman.
“I think it was more than just trying to get a message out to the public that a school was being built,” Smith said.
“I think it is pretty clear that if you are going to have kids in an environment where messaging is coming out from the government, then it has got to be free from partisan language and it cannot be perceived that they are using the backdrop of children for a political and partisan game.”
Sherman said using children as political props was “the ultimate in moral bankruptcy.” He called on Johnson to explain “why he used the children in the education system he is charged to run, as partisan political props.”
Education minister defends practice
Redford’s office declined an interview request, saying the former premier was not available for the next week.
Johnson was not available for an interview, but in an emailed statement his press secretary Dan Powers said Alberta Education often works with school boards to make government announcements.
“We believe it is appropriate for these announcements to take place in the schools and with the students and staff that will benefit from them,” Powers said.
Redford and other Conservative ministers made a series of school announcements last year.
Opposition parties unanimously criticized the events as nothing more than political photo opportunities because many of the announcements contained no specific information about when construction would start, when the school would open or how much it would cost.
“We know it is important to announce schools,” Smith said. “We think that it is legitimate for her, or any premier, to be making school announcements.
“But I think the trouble with that particular one is that the messaging ended up being very partisan,” Smith said. “And I don’t think that that is an appropriate use of taxpayer resources and I don’t think that that is how parents want to see their kids used in a photo-op.”