Former students say Christian school forced them to do political work

Students being asked to volunteer during school hours are unlikely to be a violation of election law.

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In the world of Saskatoon municipal politics, a relatively small number of well-organized people can have an outsized impact.

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Several alumni of a private Christian academy say the school’s parent church worked feverishly for years to influence election results.

“I’m pretty sure our church was directly responsible for moving the casino out of town, because we were the ones who polled the whole town and received petitions. It was us. It was me. And that was not an option,” said Christian Center Academy 2003 graduate Chris Kotelmach. The school has since been renamed Legacy Christian Academy; the attached Christian Center Church now operates as Mile Two Church.

Kotelmach recalled that academy students were bussed around the city, with assigned routes for them to visit or deliver materials to every doorway in Saskatoon during the 2003 civic referendum campaign, when a casino First Nations-run downtown was defeated by a margin of 55.33 percent. cent to 44.67 percent.

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A class action lawsuit recently filed by former students alleges years of physical and emotional abuse at school. These claims have yet to be tested in court. Former students have also filed statements with Saskatoon police, who are investigating,

Although they said the threat of corporal punishment still lingers, many former students also described feeling like they were doing God’s work, after years of intensive indoctrination by church and college officials. school, especially former pastor Keith Johnson.

Stefanie Hutchinson said she remembered Johnson’s sermons would be recorded and that he would ask that the tape be stopped before delivering particularly explosive political messages and endorsements from the pulpit.

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“He was very clear about how the Liberals were either stupid or evil or basically their agenda was going to destroy life as we know it. So really, I mean, when we were going to be filling out flyers and going door to door and waving signs, it was like ‘we’re doing this to save our future.’ ”

Along with the 2003 casino vote, Christian Center students also worked on campaigns for various federal, state, and municipal candidates.

“It was Don Atchison for most of my time in the municipal affairs school,” Hutchinson said of the church’s efforts to support Atchison’s election and subsequent re-elections as mayor. She said students had to stuff envelopes, knock on doors, deliver flyers and stand by roads waving signs.

Atchison told Postmedia he never had a clue that no one wanted to be there.

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“We gave them pizzas and cokes after they finished delivering brochures, and that was it,” he said, adding that he was just grateful for people showing up to bring their support.

Ward 5 Councilman Randy Donauer served as the church’s volunteer coordinator. He now says he recognizes the church’s political activities were “inappropriate”.

Although he stressed that he does not speak on behalf of the church or other members of the congregation, Donauer said there has been a change in recent years.

“I got to a point of realization where I became very uncomfortable with the church’s involvement in partisan politics, and I told them ‘we have to stop.’ And many years ago they quit,” he said.

Hutchinson said it’s unlikely most politicians who had church support were aware of the conditions at the school or the level of coercion applied to student volunteers, but she doesn’t think that the same is true for Donauer.

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“He was Keith Johnson’s henchman,” she said. “He was the one who coordinated the volunteer effort, the ‘volun-told’ effort.”

While the police and courts will assess whether the school and church operations broke any laws, they seem likely to be immune to any repercussions on the side of the law on the municipal campaign. In an emailed statement, Saskatoon City Clerk Adam Tittemore said that while the law governing municipal elections requires strict disclosures when it comes to cash or in-kind donations, there is a specific provision exempting voluntary work.

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