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The new head of the class?

A controversial bill gives Alberta parents more of a say in school


 

Soon after the Alberta Tories began discussing how to revise the province’s human rights legislation early this year, Lindsay Blackett, the cabinet minister stickhandling the issue, received a visit from an interfaith delegation of religious leaders—evangelicals, Anglicans, Mormons and Muslims—led by Frederick Henry, the outspoken Roman Catholic Bishop of Calgary. Henry, who in the past has been less than shy about discussing such things as the future of Jean Chrétien’s eternal soul, laid out for Blackett the group’s concerns about including sexual orientation in Alberta’s Human Rights Act—and particularly how the topic would be dealt with in schools.

He argued parents should have more of a say in shaping sex-ed curricula, which he and others fear may encourage homosexuality and contravene parents’ own values. As it stands, Alberta children get lessons on the changes of puberty in Grade 4, the perils of blood-borne diseases like HIV in Grade 6, and “safer” sex in Grade 9. Though sexual orientation isn’t specifically addressed in the curricula set out by Alberta Education, the teachers’ union website encourages teachers to create “safe, caring and inclusive environments” by including the topic. In talking with Blackett, Henry sought more control for parents. “We felt it’s high time that there be some attempt on behalf of parents to push back, because many of their rights are seemingly being ignored,” he says.

It’s always tricky to figure out how much social or moral education is just right and how much too much. Alberta is the first province to wade into the issue by giving parents what amounts to a veto. Even here it happened by accident. An update to the province’s human rights law was overdue: more than a decade ago, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Vriend vs. Alberta called the legislation unconstitutional because it failed to include sexual orientation as a ground for discrimination. And many on both the left and right hoped the Tories, under Premier Ed Stelmach, might excise Section 3, which deals with publications “likely to expose a person or a class of persons to hatred or contempt” and has led to controversial human rights cases.

Then Blackett did the unexpected. His Bill 44 added sexual orientation to the act but kept Section 3 intact. More mysterious still—and to the delighted surprise of social conservatives—he included provisions granting parents the right to remove children from lessons in which teachers plan to discuss religion, sexuality and sexual orientation—the only provincial human rights legislation to do so. Specifically, the bill permits mothers and fathers to pull kids out of sex-ed classes, though not from academic classes where, say, evolution is taught. And it grants them the power to file human rights complaints against teachers and school administrators who don’t notify them in advance of these topics.

None of this went over well. The Alberta Teachers’ Association argued that the threat of human rights complaints would stunt classroom discussion, despite a later amendment that permitted teachers to handle sex and religion if they came up in “incidental” discussion. The union pointed out that Alberta’s School Act already permits parents to pull children from sex-ed and other sensitive discussions, so that enshrining it in human rights legislation was unnecessary. Others called the bill vague (Stelmach suggested early on that parents could pull kids from classes dealing with evolution). Alberta media fed off the controversy for weeks. “I have never seen so much name calling,” says Henry, who received a good deal of criticism himself. “To be called a hillbilly bishop!”

The bill passed into law this week, at 1:30 a.m., after protracted debate, backed by the whole of the Tory caucus and opposed by all else. Its adoption represented for some the triumph of the social conservatives in caucus. According to this analysis, it was a quid pro quo—robust parental rights in exchange for the inclusion of sexual orientation in the Human Rights Act. But social conservatives, invoking what’s traditionally been the language of the left, see it differently. “The healthy thing to do is to allow people to raise their children as they see fit—and then you end up with a pluralistic society rather than a government-indoctrinated society,” says president of United Families Canada Jill Cahoon. It’s a principle echoed by Henry: “We’re just trying to create a level playing field, where the rights of all are protected and no one is allowed to co-opt the agenda.”


 

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