Education minister tasked with creating universal nutrition program

Manitoba’s new education minister has been handed an ambitious to-do list that includes developing a universal nutrition program, appointing a senior advisor of Indigenous excellence in schooling, and introducing P3 accountability legislation.

Education Minister Nello Altomare and Renée Cable, who is now in charge of the advanced education and training portfolio, were among the cabinet members who received mandate letters this week.

Premier Wab Kinew has asked both rookie ministers to execute a number of complex tasks — the majority of which were planks in the NDP’s election campaign — during their terms.

The top priority for the kindergarten-to-Grade 12 office is establishing a healthy meal program that every public school in the province can access.

“(Hunger) is a barrier that impacts child learning, and we need to remove it,” Altomare, a career educator who worked as a principal in River East Transcona leading up to his 2018 retirement, told the Free Press.

Altomare said his office will work with the Child Nutrition Council of Manitoba — the charity that currently accepts school applications and grants funding for breakfast, lunch and snack programs — and clear its wait-list.

The minister of education and early childhood learning’s other immediate priorities will be revisiting the K-12 funding model, hiring more teachers and educational assistants, and shrinking elementary class sizes.

Manitoba Education is going to provide transitional dollars to school divisions in the new year with a goal of introducing a modern formula for distributing operating sums in 2025-26 and beyond, Altomare said.

“The funding formula is a beast unto itself,” the Transcona MLA added.

Undoing cuts to the Bureau de l’éducation française, continuing to work with Manitoba’s francophone university to train additional French language teachers, and bringing in legislation to regulate public-private partnerships in school construction are listed as long-term goals in his mandate letter.

On the early childhood education file, the Kinew government has signalled plans to prioritize building child-care spaces — in particular, flexible facilities for parents on shift-work schedules — and ensure $10-a-day child care for students under 12 is available over the summer and holidays.

“We have to get to true $10-a-day child care so that on an in-service day, it’s $10-a-day. If it’s during the summer, it’s $10-a-day,” Altomare said during a phone call Tuesday.

He has also been tasked with collaborating with colleagues to develop a comprehensive strategy for recruiting and retaining workers in the preschool and child-care sector.

In a statement, Nathan Martindale, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, said he is pleased to see his members’ major concerns front and centre.

The Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations endorsed the NDP’s blueprint to boost funding for Research Manitoba, restore international student health-care coverage and repeal Bill 33 (the Advanced Education Administration Amendment Act).

The controversial legislation, which came into effect in 2021, enabled the minister in charge of universities and colleges to issue guidelines related to tuition and student fees and prohibit compulsory charges.

Academics have raised concerns the law interferes with institutional autonomy.

“The new vision (for post-secondary education) will be interesting to see and, of course, this is where it becomes really important to consult with all the different constituencies on campuses,” said Allison McCulloch, a political science professor at Brandon University who serves as president of MOFA.

Cable’s mandate letter explicitly requests she “respect universities as self-governing institutions,” in addition to recognizing the entrepreneurial nature of colleges and the role unions play in delivering high-quality training.

The MLA for Southdale has been directed to expand the University of Manitoba’s Bannatyne campus to train more health-care professionals, create 10 new doctor training seats for Brandon, and establish a pathway for licensed practical nurses to become registered nurses.

“There’s been seven years of strained relationships all across the public sector, including with post-secondaries, and so my first job is to help rebuild the trust between government and institutions,” Cable said after she was sworn-in with cabinet colleagues on Oct. 18.

During a wide-ranging interview, Cable, who has worked in various management, human resources, advocacy and public policy roles, said her post-secondary experiences changed her career trajectory for the better.

The minister recalled being a single parent and full-time student at the University of Winnipeg, which she described as a crash course in understanding a local campus’s shortcomings and successes when it comes to delivering services.

“I just want to make sure that we can open the doors for as many people as possible,” she said, adding she wants to continue building Manitoba’s reputation as a destination for higher learning opportunities.

Cable noted that if the province is going to continue to recruit international students, providing them with healthcare coverage is “a humane thing to do.”

In addition to their individual goals, the premier has asked Altomare and Cable to work together to expand STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education in high schools across Manitoba.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press