Tory minister denies nixing class trip to Trudeau rally

New Brunswick's education minister is defending the decision earlier this year to cancel a high school class trip to see a federal Liberal leadership campaign event hosted by Justin Trudeau.

Jody Carr said the education department 'should not be funding' the class trip

Education Minister Jody Carr asked his two deputy ministers to see if students were attending a leadership rally for Liberal Justin Trudeau in February. (CBC)

Education Minister Jody Carr is insisting it was a district superintendent who cancelled a February class trip to a Justin Trudeau rally, even though an e-mail obtained by CBC News suggests the directive came from Carr.

"I hear trips are being organized to have students go hear justin trudeau speak while he’s in NB for a partisan liberal leadership event. We should not be funding this. Please do not forward this email, but check into it with our supers. Thanks," said Carr’s email, referring to the district superintendents.

The email was sent to his two deputy ministers, John McLaughlin and Gérald Richard at 7:44 p.m. on a Saturday. That e-mail and others related to the cancellation were obtained by CBC News through the Right to Information Act.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau appeared in Fredericton for a leadership rally in February. A Grade 12 class was supposed to attend the event, before it was cancelled at the last minute.

Trudeau was in Fredericton on Feb. 26 campaigning for the leadership of the federal Liberal party, which he subsequently won.

He took part in several activities for party members, but his noontime rally at the Fredericton Exhibition Centre was open to the public.

David McTimoney, the Anglopone West District superintendent, came up with the idea of having history and political science students from Fredericton High School, Leo Hayes High School and Oromocto High School attend the rally.

Interview transcript

On March 1, the CBC's Terry Seguin asked David McTimoney, the superintendent of the Anglophone West School District, about the decision to cancel the class trip to the Justin Trudeau rally.

David McTimoney: "I was approached."

Terry Seguin: "By --?"

DM: "My initial decision [to suggest the classes participate] was made last week. The invitation went out to school principals. On the weekend it was pointed out to me that we really needed to consider this legislation in making the decision. I had an opportunity to talk that over with my colleagues at the Department of Education."

TS: "OK, on the weekend. Were you working, or --"

DM: "Well, yes. Sometimes I think I’m always working, Terry."

TS: "Sure."

DM: "So yes, it was over the weekend that I further had the chance to look at this a little more closely."

TS: "Okay, so who approached you and said, `Hey, we better take another look at this?’"

DM: "It was a colleague from the Department of Education and we had a chance to view the scenario, to talk about how things unfolded, to look at the legislation in particular and then come up with a decision on the best course of action to be line with the guidelines I have to follow."

"My conclusion was that this is an opportunity to see a sitting MP speak, who is of Canadian historic significance, being the son of a former Prime-Minister," said McTimoney’s email on Feb. 25 at 8:42 a.m.

"I down played any political partisan tone to it and reinforced this in another message to the principal when I knew who was going. Equal opportunity would be offered for any similar function, regardless of political ties.

"As I mentioned in our phone conversation, I will follow your direction."

The other message referred to by McTimoney came on Feb. 19 when he approved funding for a supply teacher, he said, "… this event is to experience a talk by Justin Trudeau… not to sign up as a voter or engage in a partisan political activity."

McTimoney had already arranged buses and a supply teacher so the students could go to the Trudeau event. But on Feb. 25 McTimoney cancelled the trips, citing Education regulation 97-150 which says "symbols, or emblems" of political parties "shall not be exhibited in or on school property or in school exercises."

When asked about the decision by Terry Seguin on Information Morning Fredericton on March 1, McTimoney said he reconsidered it after a conversation over the weekend.

"On the weekend it was pointed out to me that we really needed to consider this legislation in making the decision," McTimoney said in the interview.

"I had an opportunity to talk that over with my colleagues at the Department of Education."

When asked who exactly he spoke to, McTimoney said, "It was a colleague from the Department of Education."

What the e-mails make clear is that it was Carr’s Saturday night e-mail that prompted the reversal.

"Yes, will do," McLaughlin, his anglophone deputy minister, replied two-and-a-half hours later. "I am not aware of it."

Final decision was McTimoney's, Carr says

The province’s education minister insisted on Monday the final decision to cancel the trip was McTimoney’s, not his.

Education Minister Jody Carr said the decision to cancel a class trip to hear Trudeau came from the Anglophone West School District's superintendent. (CBC)

"I'm confident that the superintendent came to the conclusion that when the legislation and regulations, in his consultation with the department, made it clear that [this was] an activity of a partisan political nature … upon that reflection and his consultation with the department, then he made the decision to enforce the legislation and the regulation," Carr said.

Carr said the decision had nothing to do with the fact he's a Progressive Conservative and Trudeau is a Liberal.

The education minister pointed out on a subsequent visit to the city, Trudeau spoke at Fredericton High School without the party logos or Liberal sign-up sheets from the rally.

"So whether it's Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party, whether it's the Green Party, whether it's the Progressive Conservative Party, our education system does not fund, through taxpayer dollars, students attending partisan political events," Carr said.

"What we do fund are bipartisan, multiple-partisan, non-partisan events at the legislature, at Parliament."

The cancellation of the Trudeau visit led to a week-long debate about the role of politics in the school system.

It was revealed the same week that Miramichi MLA Bill Fraser and Brian Gallant, who was then campaigning for the provincial Liberal leadership, had read the daily announcements at a Miramichi school before jokingly exhorting students to "listen to your teachers and remember to vote Liberal."

In response, Gallant’s team pointed to the PC riding association in Grand Lake-Gagetown funding a trip by Cambridge Narrows students to visit the legislature.

The local riding association president, Shawn Douthright, said the association sponsors many community events. He added he didn’t have a problem with students attending the Trudeau rally, either.

The e-mails obtained by CBC News also reveal how the Department of Education dealt with the controversy over the Trudeau cancellation.

When CBC News sought its interview with McTimoney on Feb. 26, after the cancellation came to light, McLaughlin recommends to "just send the [written] statement" but leaves the decision up to McTimoney and communications director Lori-Jean Wallace.

"If we need a line about trips cancelled in the past, we can just reiterate that our position all along has been to not organize participation in partisan events," he says.

Two days later, a Thursday, Nancy Boucher, the superintendent of Anglophone School District North, e-mailed Wallace about a CBC inquiry about the school announcements read by Fraser and Gallant. "Is it March break yet?" Boucher asked.

"OMG," Wallace responded, before noting it was late in the day and suggesting Boucher wait until the next day to answer the reporter’s call.