It’s Time to Drag Redneck Alberta Out of the Closet

If a government wants to trample the rights of its citizens it can do so in two ways.

It can violate our fundamental rights by passing legislation that invokes the “notwithstanding clause”—this allows the government to pass laws that expressly violate the fundamental rights guaranteed to us under the Charter and human rights legislation.

Or it can do what the Alberta government did when it rolled faith based schools into the publicly funded school system—it can turn a blind eye to school boards that violate the fundamental rights of staff and students on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Until Liberal MLA Kent Hehr presented Motion 503—a recommendation that students be allowed to form gay-straight alliances without being shut down by mediaeval school boards—most Albertans had no idea that the majority of their MLAs condoned the bullying of Alberta’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

Some MLAs tried to argue that the motion would abrogate the independence of the school boards. This is rubbish. In 2000 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that school boards are not independent entities free from provincial control.

Other MLAs went straight to the heart of the matter arguing that being “pro-gay” was “anti-Christian”.  Here’s how Wildrose MLA McAllister put it:

Mr McAllister

“It would be highly inappropriate for us assembled in this Legislature to use our power to force schools, particularly faith based schools, to sanction any organization that might teach or promote concepts that contradict their sincerely held religious belief.  Doing so may be well meaning, but in effect it works to protect the rights of one group by disrespecting the closely held beliefs of another group.”**

In other words, some fundamental human rights are more deserving of protection than others.

Wrong! The shield protecting your right to religious freedom cannot be used as a sword to oppress another’s right to express their sexual orientation.

How to violate human rights in Alberta

Forget the yet-to-be-proclaimed Education Act—if it’s anything like the recently proclaimed Health Act it will languish on the shelf for years before it sees the light of day—the relevant legislation is the School Act.***

The School Act must comply with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Alberta Human Rights Act, unless the government says otherwise by inserting a “notwithstanding clause”.

Does the Act contain a “notwithstanding clause”? No. This is understandable. The “notwithstanding clause” is like the third rail—governments invoke it at their peril because it’s not a very progressive thing to do.

Consequently, publicly funded school boards, including faith based school boards, are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.   So how do faith based school boards get away with forcing their staff and students to sign “community covenants” that prohibit same-sex relationships on pain of expulsion and eternity in the infamous “lake of fire”?

It’s all about politics

The Alberta government and the school boards may fight like cats and dogs, but when it comes to the importance of being re-elected they are of one mind.

In Feb 2009 the Alberta School Boards Association published a report called Educational Choice for Albertans.  It can only be described as bizarre.

Education Minister Jeff Johnson

The Report starts on firm footing by acknowledging that it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that (1) children receive a quality education, (2) the rights and freedoms set out in the Charter, the Human Rights, and Citizenship and Multicultural Acts are protected, and (3) the wishes and expectations of Albertans are met.

But it fails to address the inevitable friction that arises when the fundamental rights of one group conflict with the wishes or expectations of another.

Instead of declaring that all fundamental rights must be protected, the Report wobbles off into a discussion about values and beliefs.  (Apparently they vary throughout the population…who knew?)  It states that educational programs and environments must be responsive to such variations.

Then it lays a trail of breadcrumbs illustrating that in the event of a conflict school boards would be wise to default to politics:

“Governments wishing to remain in power—and that is basic to the political process—must be responsive to the desires of their constituents. Therefore the provincial government will continue to respond to demands of parents, pressure groups and influential individuals for increased opportunities to influence the educational system.”  (p 3)

“Members of the provincial government are the elected representatives of the people and, if they wish to be re-elected, they must respond to the wishes of the majority or to what the majority is at least prepared to tolerate”.  (p 4)

31 MLAs respond

Some Albertans, dare I call them “pressure groups and influential individuals”, appear to have greater sway over our MLAs than the rest of us. Consequently 31 Progressive Conservative and Wildrose MLAs voted against Mr Hehr’s motion. Evidently they thought the majority of Albertans would tolerate their behavior.

But Albertans must not “tolerate” a government that turns a blind eye to publicly funded faith based school boards that violate the Charter simply by playing the “religious freedoms” card.

Dante’s Circles of Hell

The Alberta government has two choices. It can stop the flow of public funds to school boards that discriminate against Alberta’s students on the basis of sexual orientation or it can amend the School Act and the yet-to-be-proclaimed Education Act by inserting a “notwithstanding clause” that allows Alberta faith based school boards to violate the Charter and human rights legislation.

In either case all Albertans will have an opportunity to voice their opinions to their MLAs and in the process we will discover whether Alberta really is the redneck province some PC/Wildrose MLAs believe it is.

*Public School Boards’ Assn. of Alberta v. Alberta (Attorney General), [2000] 2 SCR 409 

**Hansard, Apr 7, p 364

***RSA 2000, c-S3

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30 Responses to It’s Time to Drag Redneck Alberta Out of the Closet

  1. champspersonaltraining says:

    Hi Susan. Excellent post.I went on the Canadian Mental Health Associations website to confirm a statistic I had heard. The CMHA confirmed that suicide amongst teens between the ages of 10 and 23 is the second leading cause of death in our youth. It also said that gay and lesbian youth are at a particularly high risk depending in the community they live in.

    So if I’m interpreting your blog correctly if a government wants to be re – elected it will succumb to the pressures of influential individuals or pressure groups so they get re – elected. Hmmmm. Sounds like bullying to me. So Government in its quest for votes, won’t step up to the plate and stand behind equality amongst gay, lesbian or straight individuals because they might not get voted back into office. Pretty pathetic. Our sexual preference should not be an issue. We are individuals.

    I may have only commented on a nugget of your blog but it’s an important nugget.

    • Joanna, you nailed the important nugget here. Many of us were not surprised that the Wildrose MLAs voted against this motion but we were shocked by how how many Progressive Conservative MLAs joined them. This tells me that the PCs will sell out anybody, including school children, in order to get re-elected and they don’t care if they have to violate the Charter to do it. They may not realize it yet, but Mr Hehr’s motion “outed” them and progressive Albertans won’t forget it.

    • Jane Walker says:

      Hi Champ!
      I appreciate your response and the statistical information …. always brings home the importance of this point!!
      I think it’s important for us to guard our language to reflect the physiology of sexuality … it is an “orientation” that is the result of a physiological drive … not a “preference” or a “choice”. (Meaning no disrespect, I may not have articulated this perfectly but I hope you will understand my point.)

  2. Julie Ali says:

    HI Susan,
    I think that the government of Alberta has always condoned bullying. If you look at how they treated employees such as physicians like Dr. Fanning whose contract was not renewed when she spoke up for TB patients during the Klein error you get a clear picture what the situation is for any public sector employee who doesn’t do their work according to the Tory way.

    If we hire the Wildrosies in the next election, I don’t believe we will have any change in the illegal and sanctimonious position with regard to discrimination against non-heterosexual children. The pandering of the top echelon to the parents who have problems accepting the legal rights of non-heterosexual children is both difficult to accept since they are in positions of incredible power over both staff and students but also an indication of the moral failure of those in leadership positions. We have these prejudiced people both in the school system, in the school administration and in school boards all the way up to the MLAs and I would guess the MPs.

    They don’t broadcast their views but it is evident in the way they yap in the Legislature as you have pointed out by the weird statements of Mr. McAllister who says the government cannot interfere in school boards that are supposed to be “independent”. This is such a joke.

    School boards are under the boots of government. The Wildrosie leader knows this first hand as Ms. Danielle Wildrosie got turfed when she was on the Calgary School Board by the provincial Tories. The fact is that the school board trustees are puppets for the most part. It is the Tory way or the highway in education as in everywhere else.

    You saw how independent school boards were in the last teacher contract discussions where the education minister –Mr. Johnson went out into every school board letting the trustees and teachers they had to obey the Tories with reference to the teacher contract. The ATA president (in my mind) caved as soon as she met with the Redford. The fact is that the school boards, the ATA and the teachers have no power since they are all employees of the government of Alberta. The only power they have—- is the only power we have as ordinary citizens —which is to hire and fire these folks in government at elections.

    Parents have some power over their trustees and administration as was proven by the fuss over the “no zero policy” in Edmonton where they tried to convince us that it was good for our kids to have eternally forgiving teachers who would not hand out zeros for zero work. But while it is good that parents have some say in dissenting about dumb and dumber education policies– I do not believe parents or really any citizens should have any say in the legislation. I believe that sexual orientation and the rights of non-heterosexual children constitute human right matters and so the laws of the land must be applied to them irrespective of any discriminatory religious theory in practice in communities.

    In other words, what parents and citizens want to believe in their own homes if not actually illegal is fine by this parent and citizen.

    But I disagree completely with the imposition of these beliefs on other families and their kids especially when they are using faith based beliefs to harm children with very few defenses against this crap. For it is crap—the anti-gay sentiments and demands of the particular sectors of our society that have such a large influence on the politicians who will avoid controversy at any cost in order to retain their share of the pie which seems to be increasing every time I look at my family taxes.

    I suggest that all parents do what I do which is remind their school board trustees that any sort of discriminatory practices by them will be opposed by parents; that these same parents will publish their dissent on blogs that will in turn reveal the trustees and the board in a highly immoral light for their so called moral work of anti-gay policies or failures to implement equitable policies for both students and staff; and then, parents should send these same letters to the folks in education who have not learned their lessons yet about fairness, respect and love for all human beings.

    It is a shame that the place where you would expect the most intelligence and morality –in our education department–we encounter such a dearth of the required attributes. The folks in power tell us that bullying of our children is not tolerated but the cowards everywhere insist that some of the children are to be exempt from this anti-bullying ban. Only in Alberta could you have such dissonance in thinking, action and legislation.

    • Julie, you summed up the balance between fundamental freedoms and personal values and beliefs very well when you said (and I paraphrase) that it’s OK for citizens to believe what they want in their own homes (and churches I might add) but it’s not OK for citizens to foist beliefs that violate the Charter of Rights on the rest of us. It is shameful that our MLAs, who should be the first to obey the law of the land, would turn a blind eye when school boards under their control violate the law of the land. The fact that our former Premier, Alison Redford, marched in the Pride Parade and the Placeholder Premier and advocate of Children First, Dave Hancock, said he would have voted in favour of the motion, but was absent from the House when it came time to vote, just adds insult to injury.
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  3. If you take public money for your school then you should be required to allow all students to attend your school. Otherwise you are basically a private school and therefore shouldn’t get public money. I don’t care whether students are gay or physically challenged students. If you take public money then you should have to live by the same rules as a public school, namely being open to the public at large. If you want to be picky about which students can attend your school then by all means fund your own school but don’t ask the public to fund your prejudices, ideological shortcomings and your inability to provide proper facilities for all students. I never was a big fan of charter schools to begin with.
    As far as gay/straight alliances I believe that should be up to the individual students to join if they want and as far as I know no one is saying you have to join, just that the alliances be allowed to be started. I’m sure the “word thugs” out there will set their hair on fire by that statement. However in a free society you should be able to belong or not to any organization you choose. Darn, we all can’t be Wild Rosers! 🙂

    • Einar: I agree! Public money to public institutions means the Charter and the Alberta Human Rights Act apply. Private money for private institutions gives them the freedom to shape the curriculum in a way that aligns with their values and beliefs, but they can’t it both ways…public money to fund private schools that violate fundamental rights.

  4. Carly Friesen says:

    I’m just student teaching right now, but the students I’ve encountered (within the public system) seem very supportive of the ‘non-heterosexual’ community. In addition to the obvious contradiction to the Charter and School Act, following through on this discriminatory practice would contradict what many teachers are reinforcing in the schools (regarding bullying) and many of the students’ own values.

    • Carly, the actions of the Education Minister continue to mystify me. On Apr 17 the Alberta government daily news service email included a link entitled “Learn more about Gay Straight Alliances in Alberta”. It takes you to the Alberta Education website which contains a link to a letter Education Minister Johnson sent to the chairs of the public, separate, francophone and charter school boards. This letter refers to Kent Hehr’s motion and says that Mr Johnson and his government “absolutely support gay-straight alliances as an important source of support in schools” but voted against the motion because (1) Mr Johnson trusts the school board “to make decisions that are best for your students”, (2) Mr Hehr brought the motion without consulting stakeholders like the College of Alberta School Superintendents and in Mr Johnson’s view “no legislation should be contemplated without dialogue with all affected” and (3) the existing legislation is good enough.

      My response to Mr Johnson’s three points is this: (1) the Supreme Court of Canada said school boards are not autonomous from government, (2) the government has broken its “consultation” rule many times, a recent example is the pension reform bill and the attack on labour unions in Bills 45 and 46, and (3) the existing legislation is not good enough or we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place.

      Mr Johnson closes his letter by directing the school boards to the two GSA tip sheets on the Alberta Education website which clearly state that students wishing to set up a GSA must follow the regulations and policies of their school. So it’s Catch 22, the kids are right back where they started—at the mercy of the “lake of fire” guys. Unbelievable!

  5. Luke Fevin says:

    I couldn’t agree more – and I thank you for writing the piece as well as you have. I fully support “freedom of religion” but believe it ends when it infringes on the “Human Rights” of another. Bluntly, I believe when we equate or even put “Religious” rights ahead of “Human” rights we have lost several thousand years of progress.
    I invite you to check out our FB page here (on unfair or inappropriate religious privilege in our education system) or to DM me directly.

    Again, both Thanks & kudos for an excellent piece.

  6. Carlos Beca says:

    I would like to understand why people like Mr. McAllister get so disturbed with the fact that a man loves another human being which happens to be another man or a woman with another woman and they peacefully enjoy their life together, but somehow an heterosexual couple where the man beats up his wife and even kills her seems to be acceptable. We still struggle to get enough support to help these women because only a handful of us cares enough about it.
    The reason of course is because it is in some book that for a lot of us means nothing. A book we do not even know how it was written or how factual it is. In other words, the real feelings of two human beings means nothing as compared to what it is in this book or books. Religion on the other hand is the answer to all their concerns no matter what. These are the same people that blindly believe in the power of markets to also resolve their economic concerns. We can see a pattern here – they cannot think or reason and prefer to follow some holy grail in mnay cases they do not fully understand. It is mind boggling and scary.

    • Carlos, the government’s response to Kent Hehr’s motion is beyond hypocritical. I checked out the Alberta Education website which includes some really useful information on why GSAs are a good thing. It talks about minimizing the negative impacts of homophobic and transphobic “bullying and violence”. This means the government is crystal clear on the value of GSAs as a way to protect our children…and yet it does nothing. Turning a blind eye to someone harming a child is as bad if not worse than inflicting the harm yourself.

      • Carlos Beca says:

        I fully agree but it seems the normal response these days. I am amazed really at the whole atittude. It is scandalous. Now Alison Redford is absent and still wants to get paid. Hancock on the other hand says that he is alright with it. I just cannot believe the arrogance, the disrespect and the ineptitude.
        Lukaszuk is on again now with FOIP. My goodness when is this government just going to disappear so that some competent people can come in and run this province before we collapse in shame. This is ridiculous.

      • Carlos, someone told me that if Jim Prentice doesn’t take up the PC leadership the party will crumble immediately and if Prentice does take up the leadership it will crumble six months later. Interesting times!

  7. David Grant says:

    You couldn’t have picked a better title for this post. I think it is high time we stop tolerating the “redneck image” that plagued this province for quite awhile. It seems to be like some of the rationalizations that others have said when visiting Australia(which has some of its own problems to be sure). You always here people resent the fact that others see us as redneck at times, but the only way we can shed is if we stand up to the Education Act and support the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

  8. Margie says:

    I read that about 2/5 of the funding for Alberta schools comes from property education taxes, which can be designated by the taxpayer to support either the public or separate (Catholic) school systems. The rest of the funding comes from General Revenues. Roman Catholics make up about 26% of the Alberta population, so maybe they also pay about 26% of the taxes the province spends on education. Catholic students make up about 23% of Alberta’s school population. It would seem, then, that a significant portion of the funding of the Catholic School system comes from Catholic taxpayers.
    I would imagine these Catholic parents expect to have the right to send their children to schools that teach according to their religious beliefs.
    These beliefs may not be what you or I believe, but this diversity in education and religion is why there is a Catholic School system in Alberta.

    • Carly Friesen says:

      I think that’s a valid point, but I also feel like this issue isn’t about what religious beliefs are taught in a particular school. It’s about mandating that school staff support students who want to protect each other from homophobic bullying and to support each other. To me, having something (in writing) in place to ensure that this happens aligns with other human rights legislation. Even if they believe it to be a sin, I feel like many Catholics would still agree that students identifying as LGBTQ should be helped in some way. I could be wrong.

      • Margie says:

        The parents at my grandson’s school do a lot of fundraising because the provincial funding doesn’t meet the needs of what they expect their school should provide. If the province starts mandating support groups or any other programs such as you are suggesting, are they also going to provide the funding to make this happen? I expect not, when there are so many other activities that are underfunded or not funded at all.

        I agree that homophobic bullying (or any kind of bullying) is a horrible thing, but perhaps it is something that each community should address. Bullying isn’t something that is happening just in the schools.

        It is so easy to demand that the government pass another law or mandate something, and then think that is the solution to a problem. It isn’t. Just because it is in writing, doesn’t mean that anything actually gets done about it. If people really want to see change, they get off the couch or close their computers and form the support groups that are needed.

    • Carlos Beca says:

      Margie I agree with you to a certain point but society norms prevail over the school beliefs. Corporal punishment is accepted in the Bible but we have evolved as a society and we no longer allow it in our schools. In fact it is now considered child abuse. So the question is, should the Catholic schools be allowed to do it? According to you, they should.

      Here is one of the many entries in the Bible:

      Proverbs 23:13-14 ESV / 33 helpful votes
      Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.

      We as a society, we have come to the conclusion that homosexuality is part of the human condition. Catholic Schools just like other religious schools, may not like it but they have to respect the supreme law of the land, just like they do with corporal punishment and other examples like abortion and the use of condoms, which as you know are still not accepted by the Vatican.

  9. Carlos, Carly and Margie: Great discussion which hits on the real reason why so many MLAs rejected Motion 503—they couldn’t reconcile their obligation to protect children from bullying with their religious beliefs and the religious beliefs of their constituents. This is apparent in the comments of certain MLAs who suggested that the Motion would allow the rights of one segment of the school population (LBGTQ2S) to trump the rights of another segment of the school population (devout Christians I presume), but this sets up a false dichotomy. Allowing students to form GSAs has no impact whatsoever on the other students unless the mere existence of a GSA is an affront to their religious beliefs. Under our laws if any institution, including a publicly funded religious school, is not prepared to observe the law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation it is not longer able to access public funding.

    Margie wondered about the additional costs of GSAs (I agree with her point that our schools are woefully underfunded), however Motion 503 didn’t mandate that GSAs had to be created, it simply said that if the students wanted to create a GSA the school board wouldn’t forbid it. I would be surprised is the cost of a GSA, (essentially a club) would be prohibitive in comparison to the cost of school sports teams for example.

    Anyway, this is an extremely difficult issue to discuss and I’m very impressed with the quality of the dialogue. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could have this level of discourse in the Legislature?

    • Margie says:

      Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms lists the fundamental freedoms: freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom of the press and of other media of communication, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association. It also reaffirms the pre-existing special rights belonging to Roman Catholic and Protestant School (as separate entities.)

      A quick bit of research on what the major religion’s position’s are on homosexuality (compared to the number of people in Canada who profess to practice those religions) shows that about 45% of Canadians belong to religions who are against homosexuality. Recent polls suggest that about 66% of Canadians support gay marriage. Acceptance may be legally mandated, but it certainly isn’t a universal feeling.

      While I agree that Roman Catholic Schools have to abide by the law of the land in all matters, they do have the right to practice their religion, maintain their beliefs, and even express those beliefs. Yes, this MIGHT mean then that the formation of a GSA in a Catholic school is as offensive as the eating of pork is to Muslims. But if you read some of the literature of Catholic School Boards, such as the one in Calgary, they address bullying in general with specific programs – thus skirting the homosexuality issue, I suppose.

      My point is – we live in a country with a huge diversity of people. If we are all going to live together, we have to be tolerant, respectful and accepting of people who don’t think the same way as we do. If that means Catholic Schools don’t have Gay-Lesbian alliances (at this point in their evolution), so be it.

      • Margie, you’re right about us all trying to get to the same place–a tolerant and respectful society…while we may not see eye to eye on how to get there I’d like thank you for engaging in this discussion. It demonstrates that thoughtful people can discuss difficult issues without flying off into hyperbole. I do hope to see you on the Soapbox in future posts…we have a lot to talk about!

  10. Margie says:

    Have you ever thought about how a political party (and those followers who faithfully fall in line with it’s ideals and principals) is very much like a religion? Have you ever thought about whether verbal bullying really achieves anything? Let’s pretend that Rob Ford and Naheed Nenshi were both running for the same office in your community. Let’s pretend that Rob was a Liberal and Naheed was a Conservative. Would you have to think twice about who you would vote for?

    I wish there were no political parties. Then you wouldn’t have to call me a Redneck Conservative…

  11. Carlos Beca says:

    Well Susan has given me permision for once in a while suggest some good reading so here it is one that I think is very worth it. This is causing a political tsunami in Europe and it has reached the North American continent very recently.

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