Six Calgary trustees apologized to Metro Calgary reporter Jeremy Nolais for “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” comments they made to him during a heated conference call. But some Calgary journalists say the incident highlights the ongoing difficulties journalists have in dealing with the board.
By Tamara Baluja, Associate Editor
Six Calgary Board of Education trustees apologized to Metro Calgary reporter Jeremy Nolais for “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” comments they made during a heated conference call.
Nolais told J-Source he was “completely caught off-guard” by the call during which some trustees asked him to reveal his sources and told him he was reporting on behalf of the board and was like another trustee.
But other reporters said the incident highlights the ongoing difficulties journalists have in dealing with the board and the dysfunction at the school board.
Nolais, who has been covering the education beat for more than three years for Metro Calgary, said he was pulling into a parking lot on March 4 when he got the call from six of the seven trustees at the CBE. At first, he was concerned he had gotten something wrong in an article published earlier that week and started recording the conversation.
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Nolais’ sources had told him about a private meeting at which the board decided against a motion to release the capital plan for school infrastructure funding earlier than scheduled. The document outlined which Calgary schools and neighbourhoods were being prioritized by the board for infrastructure funding from the province. With school enrolment at more than 100 per cent capacity in some cases, the source thought parents might have wanted more than one day to review the lengthy document, as set out in the original plan.
“I thought this was in the public interest, so I went with it,” Nolais said.
The following day, he got a call from six of the seven trustees at the CBE, who asked him to reveal his sources. They suggested he was attempting to influence school policy and said he reported on behalf of the CBE.
Nolais said the decision to publicize the conference call was “not one we took lightly.”
Judy Hehr, one of the trustees on the conference call, asked Nolais to reveal his sources. “We literally know nothing about this having gone to the press, nothing, and you are reporting on behalf of the Calgary Board of Education,” she said in the call.
Nolais responded: “I’ll stop you right there. I’m reporting on behalf of my readers. I mean I’m not reporting on behalf of you, I don’t require your permission.”
Metro Calgary said it has tried to get a clarification on what trustee Joy Bowen-Eyre meant when she told Nolais “you’re like the eighth trustee.” When Nolais pressed the trustees to explain what they meant by the comment, followed by an awkward silence, Hehr said, “We will take back that comment, respectfully.”
Other journalists and media rose to Nolais’ defence. Trustees “who went after a journalist who is doing his job—that is bunk,” Calgary’s Newstalk 770 host Roger Kingkade said on his show.
He said politicians who think the media are against them is bothersome. “Saying a journalist is a political operative is almost slanderous,” Nolais said.
Calgary Herald education reporter Trevor Howell said the “whole conversation sounded like bullying.”
“It does encapsulate some of the dysfunction at the Calgary Board of Education,” he told J-Source. “I honestly don’t know what they (the trustees) were hoping to accomplish.”
Nolais has continued to follow this story, despite being at the centre of the controversy. “I never wanted to become the story,” he said. “I still think the real issue here is the capital plan.”
He said he feels some of the board members need to understand the role of the media and how journalists work.
But Howell said the issue is more serious than that. For example, he said, according to the board’s policy, only the chair is allowed to speak on behalf of the board once a decision is voted on. “I’m not a fan of this one-voice policy,” he said. “As a journalist, you want to get as many voices as you can, and it makes no sense to me that if a particular decision affects a ward, that the trustee whose ward it is wouldn’t speak up.”
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