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Critics demand Cullen quit as education minister

Caught on camera cheering for Bill 64 to be scrapped — despite months of publicly supporting the Tories’ controversial reforms to public schooling, Education Minister Cliff Cullen is facing calls to resign from cabinet.
Manitoba Education Minister Cliff Cullen
Manitoba Education Minister Cliff Cullen

Caught on camera cheering for Bill 64 to be scrapped — despite months of publicly supporting the Tories’ controversial reforms to public schooling, Education Minister Cliff Cullen is facing calls to resign from cabinet.

The official Opposition demanded Aug. 20 the PC MLA for Spruce Woods quit overseeing the K-12 education portfolio if he cannot back the Education Modernization Act.

“It’s a parliamentary tradition: if you can’t support your own bill, then you need to resign,” said Nello Altomare, NDP education critic.

In a video captured by the NDP, Cullen is standing behind Heather Stefanson, PC MLA for Tuxedo, at her campaign kickoff event on Wednesday as she declares, “Bill 64 is done” if she is elected leader of the governing party. Cullen then smirks and claps, alongside more than a dozen colleagues who have also endorsed Stefanson as frontrunner for the Tory leadership.

The clip is a stark contrast to his steadfast support for the 300-plus page bill that aims to replace elected school boards with a centralized education authority made up of government appointees, which Cullen unveiled in March.

He declined media requests on his appearance last week and directed reporters to his office. Cullen has not given any interviews since the event.

On Aug. 20, the minister’s press secretary indicated Cullen was unavailable again.

Altomare accused Cullen of being focused on internal caucus politics rather than ensuring a safe back-to-school season and “abdication of duty,” since he is not answering to his actions.

Over the last five months, the minister has touted changes that will empower parents with new school councils and redirect as much as $40 million in repetitive administrative costs to classrooms. He has also accused critics of the bill, who he once called “a vocal minority,” of spreading “misinformation” about it.

“People are absolutely right to be questioning the education minister’s suitability for his role,” said Jon Bettner, a middle school band director and member of ProtectEdMB, one of many anti-reform campaigns that has launched in recent months.

Bettner noted Cullen was “very dutifully carrying water for this (Pallister) government” until Stefanson’s announcement, which occurred one week after Premier Brian Pallister announced his imminent leave. 

ProtectEdMB — alongside the teachers union, school boards association, and parent councils, among others — has raised concerns about the bill’s centralization of power and lack of proportional representation.

“Bill 64 doesn’t address any of the glaring problems in Manitoba classrooms,” Bettner said, “Those are, namely: child poverty, the Indigenous graduation gap, (the fact) our current system doesn’t do a good job of reaching Indigenous learners, and there’s not enough support for students with exceptionalities.”

Critics, Bettner and Altomare included, want confirmation from the Pallister government that the bill will be tossed in its entirety.