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BC Politics

Government Silent on BC School, Teachers Caught in Qatar Crisis

Five weeks after election, officials still refusing comment on issues; gag goes too far, say critics.

Katie Hyslop 6 Jun

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Find her previous stories here.

The provincial government is refusing to say whether it is taking steps to ensure the safety of 48 B.C.-certified teachers working at a school in Qatar certified by the education ministry.

The small but wealthy nation is in crisis after five Arab neighbours cut diplomatic ties and imposed sanctions, citing Qatar’s “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region.”

The actions by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Yemen include a ban on air, sea and ground transportation that has made travel difficult and sharply reduced food supplies to Qatar. News reports have described a rush to stockpile food and rows of empty supermarket shelves.

The provincial government certifies the Hayat Universal Bilingual School in Doha under its offshore program, and 48 B.C.-certified teachers teach the B.C. curriculum to more than 1,000 Qatari children. Teachers are recruited with the understanding the school is inspected by B.C. education officials and operates under provincial government supervision.

But the education ministry refused to provide information on the status of those teachers or the school Monday as concern about the crisis mounted.

The reason for their silence? British Columbia is still in an election period, government officials say. Ministries have refused to provide comment to media since the writ dropped eight weeks ago on April 11.

An education ministry spokesperson told The Tyee if there was a health and safety issue at the school, the ministry would “possibly” issue a statement.

Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said the silence is based on the “caretaker convention” during election campaigns. The convention is intended to ensure that government staff don’t appear to be partisan during election campaigns.

Gogolek said the convention isn’t supposed to shut down communication with the media and the public.

“It seems that in B.C. we take a very, very non-communicative view,” he said.

Sean Holman, a B.C. journalist who covered information access before becoming a Mount Royal University journalism professor, says that by not talking, government communication staff are being partisan in favour of the sitting government.

“If you have a situation where the government is not commenting on policy and matters of public interest, you are essentially advantaging the government for the most part,” said Holman, who has worked in communications for governments.

“We have seen government communications become increasingly partisan, quite the contrary to the rationale they’re currently giving for not providing information.”

Both Gogolek and Holman say the government’s silence means the public can’t get information through the media.

“The public has to rely on propaganda to make informed decisions about issues of public interest,” Holman said. “And that’s profoundly troubling.”

The government certifies 46 offshore schools with 12,000 students around the world, mainly in China. It receives about $5 million year from selling the province’s curriculum and granting B.C. graduation certificates.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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