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Alberta Tops Itself (and North America) Again With Bill 44

On the heels of delisting Health Care funding for Gender Reassignment Surgery without consultation with the medical community, the Government has taken further ridiculous steps to alienate the closeted moderates in the Province.  A small concession is being made in Human Rights legislation to finally include Sexual Orientation in the list of protected classes (which was ordered 11 years ago by the Supreme Court of Canada), but with regards to Gender Identity and Expression, we're being told, “hey, THIS took 11 years, so you'll just have to wait your turn” (in other words, under current direction, it won't happen in my lifetime).  Plus, the Province is proposing legislation to sue criminals for the Health Care costs that result from crime,  which violates the Canada Health Act, is probably unenforceable and is completely oblivious to the fact that poverty is what drives many people to crime in the first place.

And then, we have Bill 44.  A provision in Bill 44 would require teachers and schools to give out prior notice so that parents have the option to remove their children from class without penalty every time anything that might violate their religious beliefs or opinions on sexual orientation or sexuality is to be discussed.  And the entity that is being used to enforce this?  Alberta's Human Rights Commission.

I actually happen to love this Province.  Really.  Despite the reputation for being “redneck,” I've found Albertans to be fairly warm, engaging, mostly accepting, even somewhat socially progressive, but always governed by Conservatives because of support for their fiscal policies.

Of course, the Government doesn't seem to get this, and since the departure of King Ralph, it has been charting the same course that the former Social Credit party took in 1971 with the advent of the *ahem* Progressive Conservatives.  The less experienced Premier Ed Stelmach has confused the far right voice with the party base.  Counsel is being taken during secret meetings with religious leaders, and then we're being told to just be glad that the Government is not going as far as those leaders had wanted.  When the Provincial Government needs someone to adequately assess the environmental impact and affect on aboriginal communities caused by oil sands development, who you gonna' call?  Churchies.  Given the influence accorded to the far right, you'd never know that our Province has the highest number of GLBT-affirming churches in Canada, or that it was one of the first Provinces to see gay-straight alliances form in schools.

Alberta schools have had a policy of notifying parents when sex education is to take place for years, and allow them to opt their children out.  As much as the far right likes to paint diversity education as “indoctrination into gay lifestyles,” thinking people here tend to realize that tolerance education is really just tolerance education, and that a provision like that being proposed in Bill 44 really isn't necessary.

What is being proposed is an amendment to the Human Rights Charter to create parental rights, that require schools to notify parents “where courses of study, educational programs or instructional materials, or instruction or exercises, prescribed under [the School] Act include subject-matter that deals explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation.”

To the Minister of Culture and Community Spirit, Lindsay Blackett, who oversees the Human Rights Commission, the word “explicitly” clarifies everything, and therefore, the proposed legislation doesn't mean that things like classes on Evolution would require parental notification.  Meanwhile, the Premier himself has said that he understands Evolution to be subject matter that deals explicitly with religion.  It's as clear as mud, right?  Brian Rushfeldt, leader of the Canada Family Action Coalition is urging parents to use the provision with as wide an interpretation as possible and to take the lead in defining its reach.  And teachers, not having clarification on the matter, feel they'll be walking on eggshells, never knowing when a student might ask a question in class that would trigger the notification requirement.  Very likely, it's felt, they will be continually telling students that certain subject matter can't be discussed that day.

Bill 44 doesn't outright prevent schools from talking about GLBT issues or evolution or any number of other subjects that contravene the many religions out there, but what it does is make it the teachers' and schools' responsibility to always put out formal notice long enough beforehand that parents can opt their child out of learning about them.  The consequence of this is that if an out student starts talking about him or her self, it becomes the teacher's job to silence them until they can put out all the required notice and hold a discussion day — or if that's too disruptive to course schedule, then silence them entirely.  Otherwise, if a parent hears that GLBT issues were discussed in class and gets upset, the teacher and school become subject to punishment through the AHRC.  Which probably isn't the best use of a Human Rights Commission, and certainly isn't going to do much for the self-esteem of the kid who's regularly told that it's typically inappropriate to tell anyone about his two mommies and can be done only within certain protective measures.

The ATA has responded, having looked through everything in detail and having some very serious concerns about the vaguaries of the proposed amendment:

“In the early 1990s, local school boards across the province were faced with complaints by irate fundamentalist Christian parents who threatened to withdraw their children from school unless a particular set of English language arts readers—the Impressions series—was banned. The series, which included works by authors such as Lucy Maud Montgomery, Margaret Atwood,  Chief Dan George, Dr Seuss, A A Milne, C S Lewis and Rudyard Kipling, had been adopted in Alberta and in all but three Canadian provinces…. The claim made by these groups, including the Parents for Quality Education based in Calgary, was that the series promoted disrespect for parents and authority, as well as promoting witchcraft, necromancy and crystal ball gazing, all contrary to their religious beliefs. Among the evidence cited was satanic or occult imagery that apparently became visible in an illustration when viewed in a mirror.” [emphasis mine]

What's more is that the Bill couldn't be worded in such a way as to specify which religion(s) or sexual orientation they wanted to favour (that would be discrimination), so the wording is horribly open-ended. The provision is worded so vaguely that if a lesbian couple wanted the right to opt their child out of anything about heterosexuality, teachers would be obligated to send out prior warning nearly every day of class.  Certainly, Social Studies classes about the nuclear family would be out of the question.  And if a parent comes from an Islamic, Hebraic or agnostic background and doesn't wish their child to learn about Christianity, just about any history class about Europe during the Middle Ages (which is inseparably intertwined with the history of the Roman Catholic Church) becomes objectionable.  And should a Catholic parent not want their child to learn about the driving forces that led to the Protestant Reformation… well, you get the picture.

Of course, these are theoretical, but for teachers who face the penalties for not taking necessary precautions to protect children from unwanted learning, this generates a conundrum guaranteed to make every single one of them break out in hives the moment the school year begins.  What's the first thing that most fascist states tend to do to cement themselves in power, again?  Punish (or make to disappear) all the liberals, teachers and scientists?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think anything this wide-sweeping and clearly intended to stifle tolerance, diversity and, er, education exists in any other part of North America in this Century.  There could be a practical reason for that.  I wrote earlier about the criticisms of Human Rights Commissions in Canada — it's obvious now where Minister Blackett is taking his advice from.

Earlier this year, the Province launched a new campaign slogan, “Freedom to Create, Spirit to Achieve, Just Don't Expect Any Social Assistance.”  That's probably fitting, because with the attacks resuming on health and education systems, the “Alberta Advantage” is probably a thing of the past.

But there's always election time.  And at that point, Albertans can hopefully let their elected representatives know what they think about being dragged back into the 1950s.

(Crossposted to DentedBlueMercedes and The Bilerico Project)

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