Who is Adriana LaGrange?

Like Kenney, Alberta’s education minister is driven by her faith.

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Education, owing to the important and intimate role it plays in our lives, has long been a cultural battleground. It’s elemental, essential, a key foundation to a better life. It affects our children, shaping their view of the world.

What a society chooses to teach—or not to teach—its children says a great deal about its values.

Given the importance of this portfolio, the minister of education has great power and responsibility. Almost as much as the choice of curriculum, a government’s selection of an education minister speaks volumes.

So far, Adriana LaGrange’s tenure as education minister has been marked by controversy and acrimony.

In March, after COVID-19 led to school closures, LaGrange cut funding for over 20,000 educational assistants, substitute teachers, bus drivers and maintenance staff. The rationale was that her ministry would redirect $128 million in education funding to Alberta’s coronavirus response.

The CBE has never had to contend with layoffs of this magnitude.

Christopher Usih,

CBE superintendent

It’s one of the largest public-sector job cuts in Alberta’s history (although LaGrange has promised it's only temporary), and it sent school boards scrambling. "The CBE has never had to contend with layoffs of this magnitude," said CBE superintendent Christopher Usih when announcing layoffs of 1,900 CBE staff in April.

In addition to cutting the education budget, LaGrange and the UCP government went from promising the most supportive gay-straight alliance policies in the country to removing protections for vulnerable youth.

For a first-term MLA, she’s had quite an impact.

But who is Adriana LaGrange, and how did she get here?

Adriana Dametto (holding volleyball) at her Guelph junior high school in 1975. Photo courtesy of Guelph Public Library Archives, Girls Are Mighty Proud (F38-0-2-0-0-319)

Childhood in a ‘faith-filled Italian family’

Unlike Alberta’s previous education minister, LaGrange is not a former teacher. Nor is she an education expert or academic. Her experience in education comes from a decade as a Catholic school trustee in Red Deer.

LaGrange, 58, was born Adriana Dametto in Guelph, Ontario, into what she’s described as a “faith-filled Italian family.” Her parents, Rina and Luigi, were immigrants with a large family of six kids. One of her brothers, Louie, was born with Down syndrome.

In her June 2019 maiden speech in the Alberta Legislature—which she entitled “The Lord Leads Me Where He Needs Me”—she described how she’d been deeply hurt by what Louie endured.

“While the majority of people were kind and could see beyond the disability label, others were quite cruel: jeering, making fun at his expense, ridiculing, and, yes, even physically abusive at times for no other reason than that he was born different,” she said.

“As his older sister by two years I became one of his defenders.” He died in 2012, one year before their mother.

As his older sister by two years I became one of his defenders.

Adriana LaGrange

After a Catholic education in Guelph, LaGrange attended Humber College in Toronto. She graduated in 1981 with what was then called a “mental retardation counsellor” diploma; more recently, she’s described it as “rehabilitative studies.”

(LaGrange declined to be interviewed for this story. Numerous other people— former classmates, co-workers, and people in the education sector—either declined or did not respond to requests to speak about LaGrange.)

Moving to Red Deer in 1980s for work

After graduation, LaGrange was quickly recruited by the Michener Centre in Red Deer, a provincial institution with residential programs for people with severe disabilities. LaGrange moved to Alberta in 1981, just as the province’s unrestrained 1970s boom was about to collapse.

In Red Deer, she met Darren LaGrange, whose family had farmed in the area since 1942. They married in 1984 and would have seven children.

During this time, LaGrange became involved in anti-abortion activism.

Though it isn’t mentioned in her UCP biography, this was a cause she was deeply passionate about and would remain actively involved in for decades: organizing protests, speaking to the media, lobbying politicians and contributing to newsletters with the goal of denying women abortion rights—“murdering little children,” in her words.

We must be vigilant in doing everything in our power to safeguard faith-based education.

Adriana LaGrange in 2007

By the late 1980s, LaGrange was president of Red Deer Pro Life. By 2007, the year she became a school trustee, she was on the board of directors of Alberta Pro Life.

The Red Deer Advocate published open letters by trustee candidates in October 2007. LaGrange decided to run, she wrote, “because I am a woman of my convictions. I believe in Christ. I value my Catholic faith/roots and I appreciate the gift of Catholic education.”

She described Catholic education as “second to none,” and, citing her concerns about the lack of public funding for Catholic education in other provinces, declared that “we must be vigilant in doing everything in our power to safeguard faith-based education.”

She did not mention her anti-abortion work.

Like Kenney, LaGrange has downplayed activism

Stepping into electoral politics may have caused LaGrange, like Premier Jason Kenney, to play down her longstanding views on abortion, at least in public. Privately, however, she accepted the help of anti-abortion activist group RightNow in her 2019 provincial campaign.

As reported by PressProgress and CBC, RightNow quietly helped organize in support of 52 UCP candidates with anti-abortion views, including LaGrange.

Like Kenney, LaGrange has a history of social conservative activism that she has highlighted when it suits her and obscured when it might be a liability. Both bring a deeply-rooted conservative faith to their endeavours, and both have sought to impose their religious morality on a secular society.

It’s not surprising Kenney chose LaGrange for his education minister. They are, in many ways, kindred spirits: Kenney made a name for himself in his twenties as an aggressive anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ2S+ activist in San Francisco. He infamously threatened to ask the Vatican to decertify his Catholic university over its willingness to allow abortion-rights petitioners on campus.

Although Kenney bragged about his activism as recently as 2000, he has sought to distance himself from his radical views as they increasingly became a liability with a majority of Canadian voters.

Nevertheless, given that he has never apologized for his actions, it makes sense that he selected as education minister a longtime anti-abortion activist who shares his conservative Catholic faith.

Premier Jason Kenney shakes hands with Adriana LaGrange, Minister of Education, after she was signed into office April 30, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

LaGrange championed Bill 8, despite outcry

LaGrange helped Kenney fulfill a longstanding promise in passing the Education Amendment Act, also known as Bill 8, in July 2019.

The legislation made several changes, including devolving more power to local boards and removing the cap on the number of charter schools. But most controversial were the changes around LGBTQ2S+ rights.

The UCP’s bill removed a prohibition on parental notification when a student joins a gay-straight alliance club—a prohibition designed to protect vulnerable youth who may face severe repercussions at home.

The bill also eliminates a requirement that students be permitted to use words like “gay” or “queer” in naming their club, and allows schools to keep their mandatory policies on inclusivity secret.

“They’re deliberately trying to hide what this group is about so that kids don’t go to it, and kids who need it don’t know what it is,” said Tonya Callaghan, an associate professor at the University of Calgary and an expert in homophobia and transphobia in Catholic education.

They’re deliberately trying to hide what this group is about so that kids don’t go to it.

Tonya Callaghan,

U of C associate professor

“That in itself is homophobic. That in itself is heterosexist.”

Unlike Kenney, LaGrange appears to have no prior public record of homophobia. But she nevertheless championed Bill 8, attempting to deflect criticism by saying that the government does not support mandatory outing of students, despite granting principals the power to do so at their discretion.

The protections around GSAs were brought in by the previous NDP government, and the UCP indicated their intention to scrap it at their inaugural convention in 2018. But that wasn’t the only educational matter on the agenda.

Putting curriculum ‘in the shredder’

One of the best-received parts of Jason Kenney’s hour-long speech at that meeting was when he accused the NDP of “smuggl[ing] their politics into the classroom through their curriculum.” Kenney received a raucous 50-second standing ovation when he declared that the UCP, if elected, would “put that curriculum in the shredder.”

After hollering about the NDP’s supposedly nefarious curriculum review process that would put politics in the classroom, the UCP has been open and transparent about promoting a positive image of the oil and gas industries while ensuring “balance” in teaching about the climate crisis.

Getting politics out of the classroom sounds reasonable enough on its face—most people would probably agree that children should be taught the straight facts without any party or special interest putting their thumb on the scale.

Things get messy once people can’t agree on what the facts actually are.

The UCP has been open and transparent about promoting a positive image of the oil and gas industries.

Both Kenney and LaGrange have said they believe climate change is real (though Kenney said he’d welcome climate-deniers in the party). What’s less clear is whether they accept the scientific consensus that it poses a serious and immediate threat to civilization.

At a press conference in January, LaGrange said that the government wanted climate change “presented to our children in a balanced way.” When pressed, she mentioned “evidence-based knowledge,” “age-appropriate” curricula, and concerns about “extremist” views on the subject in the classroom.

At the same press conference, Glenn Feltham, a member of LaGrange’s curriculum review panel, was asked about the resource sector’s appearance in the curriculum. He said the panel was concerned that “all of our learners have an understanding of Alberta's economy, have an understanding of the innovation that is occurring within this province.”

“Really, they should have been embarrassed to put forward that document,” said Barbara Silva about the curriculum advisory panel’s report.

A former math teacher and chemical engineer in the energy sector, Silva co-founded the citizens’ action group Support Our Students in 2015.

Worries about more privatization

Alberta is the only province that allows charter schools, which have significant autonomy over their programs. Under LaGrange, the UCP has removed the cap on the number of charter schools.

And Kenney has long expressed support for charter and private schools in the name of educational choice, along with the right of parents to pull their child from lessons they disapprove of.

LaGrange issued a ministerial order in August to remove the word public” from school boards.

“That’s a slippery slope,” said Silva. “At the end of the day, what they’re trying to sell is that education is a parent’s choice. And Support Our Students believes that education is a child’s right. And those are two conflicting ideas.”

Callaghan agrees. “You can’t just let parents say willy-nilly that they’re going to pull a kid out of a certain lesson,” she said. “Why do we even have curriculum experts?”

LaGrange also issued a ministerial order in August to remove the word “public” from school boards. No explanation was given.

But to Silva, all of these steps fit a “playbook” that has been used around the world towards the same goal: “Number one, to privatize education. And number two, to break unions.”

LaGrange takes on Calgary Board of Education

Shortly before ordering an audit of the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) in December 2019, LaGrange wrote an op-ed in the Calgary Herald attacking the board, saying the CBE should have been able to find ways to reduce its budget.

“As a former board chair myself, this leads me to believe that the CBE trustees need to look at their own internal operations with a critical eye and address those problems,” she wrote.

CBE trustees need to look at their own internal operations with a critical eye and address those problems.

Adriana LaGrange,

Alberta Minister of Education

Yet as a trustee, LaGrange was clear about the fact that education is underfunded in Alberta.

In a video of a 2017 Alberta Party panel, she noted the difficulties of trying to run a complex system on limited funds, adding that “there isn’t the funding increases to the rest of the systems that need to be addressed.”

Support Our Students shared that video, and also called for an audit of the education ministry after obtaining documents that the group says demonstrate a clear per-student funding cut by the UCP despite LaGrange’s assurances that no cuts would be made.

Two days later, on February 13, LaGrange failed to appear for a public “ministerial engagement” session in Edmonton—but managed to keep a speaking engagement at a conference for Alberta private schools the following day.

Broken promises on education—again

Stephanie Quesnel, an elementary school teacher with the CBE, says the cuts and contentious tenor from the UCP have made it clear they have a preference for private education.

“I’m all for parents having choice, but a healthy society has a healthy public education system,” she said.

Never much of an activist in her decade of teaching, Quesnel has felt compelled to step up recently. She was one of the organizers of a province-wide protest in February against cuts to public education and healthcare.

A healthy society has a healthy public education system.

Stephanie Quesnel,

CBE elementary school teacher

“It’s a really disheartening feeling that our profession gets attacked so harshly when we’ve been trained to do our best with less every single year,” she said. “We’re trying to do what’s best for students.”

Aside from the school staff being cut by LaGrange, the hardest hit are likely special needs students who rely on educational assistants.

A mere 13 days before she made the cuts, LaGrange had promised that “school authorities will receive their full allotment of funding for the 2019-2020 school year.” This marked the second time in the same school year that the UCP had broken a promise to not reduce education funding.

These latest cuts came with a new promise: the layoffs would only be temporary.

But given their records, it’s difficult to imagine Kenney and LaGrange putting every dollar back into public education once they’ve pulled it out.

Taylor Lambert is a Calgary writer and the author of Darwin's Moving, which won the 2018 City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize. His 2019 Sprawl investigation into Jason Kenney's San Francisco activism is nominated for a National Magazine Award.

Support in-depth Calgary journalism.

Sign Me Up!

We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but can't do this alone! We rely on our readers and listeners to fund our work. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!