A Discussion of Bill 202
I have had many discussions with constituents and politicians of late in regards to Laurie Blakeman’s proposed Bill 202 and so wish to share with you some of my thoughts around this issue.
Prior to the introduction of this bill, the Board of Trustees and administration were working on updating our administrative policy on our commitment to inclusive communities in ECSD. In our Superintendent’s words expressed in a recent communique to all schools, this policy which was developed “in consultation with high school principals, students, representatives from ECSD Human Resource Services, Edmonton Catholic Teachers Local #54- Alberta Teachers’ Association, religious education /theological consultants and an Elder Council member” will be in place in January 2015. At the core of this administrative policy is that each person is made in the image and likeness of God, making us inherently sacred and thus we must treat one another with dignity and respect. Because of this belief, we are compelled to provide schools which are in the words of the Policy “inclusive, welcoming, caring, respectful, [and]safe” and which promote “the well-being of all”. The Policy emphasizes that this will be done in accordance with the teaching of the Catholic Church and “shall be grounded in the understanding of the person as a whole”. The Policy then will provide a safe and inclusive community for all, not distinguishing between LGBTQ youth, youth who are depressed, overweight, etc. There will be diversity and sensitivity training for staff and support for “the establishment of school clubs/groups/committees that focus on social justice and human rights concerns from a holistic approach”. The ECSD Inclusive Communities Policy is very much in accordance with the Alberta Catholic Schools Trustee Association recommendations made in their document “Safe and Caring Learning Environments for Students” which again, suggests that groups be established but for no one particular group of students. One social justice group headed up by a staff member is offered to assist all our students regardless of their particular issues.
Bill 202 states that all provincially funded schools must establish Gay Straight Alliance clubs with the name “Gay Straight Alliance” if the students wish to have these groups. It also directs that Section 11.1 from the Alberta Human Rights Act be removed. Section 11.1 makes it imperative that schools contact parents if there will be any discussion of religion, human sexuality or sexual orientation. The Liberal bill suggests that the onus should be on parents to request removal of their children from classes dealing with the above listed issues. The Bill goes on to amend Section 58 of the Education Act to include “sexual health” along with “religious and patriotic instruction” as subjects from which parents may request removal of their children without academic penalty.
It was providential that Bill 202 happened to come into the public forum at the time the Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association was holding their Fall AGM. I had an opportunity to ask our lawyer who was in attendance, a very important question: regardless of whether Bill 202 should succeed or fail, don’t our students already have the legal right to establish GSAs in our schools due to freedom of speech entrenched in our Canadian constitution? His answer was “yes”. So if any students in Catholic schools wish to establish a GSA in their school, they would have every right to do so. We as a district could fight this in court, but we would lose. So Bill 202 simply makes the ability for students to establish GSAs in our schools that much easier.
Premier Prentice has recently suggested that the PCs will put forward their own bill on the matter (Bill 10) which would essential change nothing. It basically reiterates the status quo which is that if students wish to start a GSA, and the school refuses, then they have legal recourse through the courts to pursue establishing one. So even if Bill 202 does not succeed and Bill 10 passes, the results will essentially be the same. Students have the right through freedom of speech to establish GSAs in our schools and if they were to take the school district to court for refusal to allow them, they would win.
A few weekends ago I was preparing a speech for Catholic Education Sunday for St. Charles parish and did a little extra reading about Archbishop Michael Miller of Vancouver. I came across an interview he did with the Catholic World Report (I have underlined the quote of most importance to my discussion here):
CWR: The number of children attending Catholic schools has declined tremendously in the United States over the past 50 years. Has Canada seen similar declines?
Archbishop Miller: In most provinces, no, because the way we fund schools is different in Canada. The government pays all or part of the tuition, including for Catholics attending a Catholic school. In British Columbia, where Vancouver is located, the government has been funding schools for 30 years. There’s a greater risk that they might try to influence what is taught, so we only accept 50 percent of our funding from the government, to prevent them from interfering more.
So the Archdiocese of Vancouver purposely chooses not to be funded more than 50% by the government so that they can have more say over what they teach in their schools. Father Stefano Penna stated something very similar to this at the recent Catholic Education Forum held November 20th at St. John Evangelist Parish. When you receive money from the Queen, he said, you are beholden to her. Our Catholic schools are 100% funded by the Government of Alberta — the same is true for Catholic schools in Ontario and Manitoba where GSAs are legislated for Catholic as well as public schools. The more we depend upon the government to fund our schools, the more we give away our right to freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is also entrenched in our Canadian constitution but when we are beholden to our government to fund our Catholic schools, we are more at their beck and call. I would suggest that this is the crux of the matter surrounding GSAs in our publicly funded Catholic schools. If we were less beholden to the government for funding, we would not be having this discussion.