Liberals, New Democrats continue to hammer government over Bill 44

May 4, 2009

INTRODUCTION OF GUESTS

Kyle Fawcett (PC—Calgary-North Hill): “It’s a pleasure for me today to rise and introduce to you and through you eight members of the Youth Advisory Panel and their chaperone. These eight youths are from all across the province, as far north as Gift Lake and as far south as Claresholm. The Youth Advisory Panel plays a critical role in providing the Youth Secretariat, of which I’m proud to be the chair, with a youth perspective in helping identify important issues for youth in Alberta. They’re all in Edmonton volunteering for the Speak Out conference, which is an opportunity for Alberta’s youth to share their experiences and ideas about education. The individuals are Brittany Ashley, Zaheed Damani, Cassie Flett, John Hampson, Fardoussa Omar, Brandon Stewart, Amy Yaremcio, Jesse Peever, and Jena Bober. They are seated in the members’ gallery. I’d ask them to please rise and receive the traditional warm welcome of the Assembly.”

MEMBERS’ STATEMENTS

Public Education Parable

Harry Chase (LIB—Calgary-Varsity): “The class of ’44, a public education parable. Welcome back, grade 6ers, to day two of your graduating class of ’44. We had a very eventful first day back at school yesterday. As you recall, we had just begun the genesis of our discussion of ancient civilizations when the fire bell rang, causing our mass exodus from the school. Once outside, Caretaker Leviticus called out the names and numbers until Principal Deuteronomy and Vice-principal Joshua judged that it was safe for us to return. Ruth led the way back into the school while twins First and Second Samuel held the outside doors, and the First and Second members of the Kings family monitored the inside doors.

“Once back in the classroom we reviewed the drill carefully, chronicling what had gone right and wrong. Ezra and Nehemiah remarked how calmly, regally Esther had led the way while Job patiently followed behind. David, the proverbial optimist, noted that he wasn’t afraid because he knew the drill. His ecclesiastical enthusiasm prompted Solomon to wisely remark that, in his opinion, our first fire drill was a real success. Isaiah and Jeremiah lamented that they thought it was their turn to hold the doors. Ezekiel and Daniel praised Hosea for his quick response in alerting the fire department. Amos and Obadiah had very little to add to the discussion. Jonah wailed that Micah, Nahum, and Zechariah had been talking instead of exiting the school quickly and quietly. However, none of his classmates swallowed his story. In conclusion, Malachi prophesied that tomorrow would be a new day and that if we didn’t do better in the future, we might suffer the consequences.

“Students, please now open your history books to chapter 1, ancient Greek gods and goddesses.”

ORAL QUESTION PERIOD

Education Public Satisfaction Survey

Teresa Woo-Paw (PC—Calgary-Mackay): “For Alberta to remain on the leading edge, we need to be constantly evaluating how our education system is performing. I understand that Alberta Education conducts surveys with random samples of students, parents, teachers, and school board members as well as the public to measure our overall satisfaction with the quality of the education system. This is important data as it complements the hard data we have such as test results, dropout and completion rates, and postsecondary transition rates. My questions are all for the Minister of Education. The surveys have shown that public satisfaction with Alberta’s education system has been consistently lower than that of students, parents, teachers, and school board members. Can the minister explain why that is?”

Minister of Education Dave Hancock: “The hon. member is correct. The public’s satisfaction is lower than that of those who are directly involved in the school system, and I think that, in fact, is the answer, that people who are directly involved with the school system get their information through the school system, either from school newsletters or from the schools directly, so they have a higher degree of association with the system, and it’s encouraging to know that they have a higher degree of faith in the system. The public – and our surveys show this because we ask the questions – tends to get their information from the media; therefore, they have less satisfaction with the system.”

Ms Woo-Paw: “Does the ministry make adjustments or modifications to survey methodologies, questions, and respondent groups to address ongoing changes to the content of K to 12?”

Mr Hancock: “Yes, Mr. Speaker, we do review the questions annually and make changes as appropriate. We want to make sure that the measures fit the goals of our business plan, that we’re addressing the relevant needs of our stakeholder groups. For example, self-identified aboriginal high school students and their parents were added as respondent groups. Parents of students with severe special needs are surveyed as well. We break down the results for respondent groups by geographic region, for example, and in other areas. In addition, jurisdiction surveys are now available in 10 different languages to make sure that we can get a full response from all parents in the system.”

Ms Woo-Paw: “Does the ministry work with stakeholders in developing and updating the methodologies, contents, and scope of the provincial jurisdiction surveys?”

Mr Hancock: “Yes, in fact, we do. We worked with stakeholders in developing the surveys in the first place back in 1995, and now we have an advisory group made up of school boards that work with us on the design implementation of the accountability pillar surveys to assess school jurisdiction performance. We receive advice and feedback on the choice and composition of groups to be surveyed, the general survey content such as the linkage between measures and survey questions, processes for survey administration, timelines, and feature enhancements. Yes, we have an advisory committee. We do take advice on what should be in the surveys and how they should support the accountability pillars.”

Parental Choice in Education

Liberal Leader David Swann: “The proposed changes to the human rights act are an embarrassment. They show this government to be out of touch with Albertans and the modern world. The Alberta Teachers’ Association has clearly stated that they do not support the move. The Sheldon Chumir foundation similarly has stated that it’s against this bill. To the Minister of Culture and Community Spirit: why did the minister not listen to these groups in drafting the legislation?”

Minister of Culture and Community Spirit Lindsay Blackett: “Well, Mr. Speaker, sometimes you have to make tough choices. There were lots of recommendations that were made to our department on this proposed legislation: some that we agreed with, some that we didn’t agree with, some that I brought to our caucus and we supported, and some that we decided we would not.

“I remember the day the Sheldon Chumir foundation released their report, and I spoke in response to it. The Leader of the Opposition at that time said that he would work with us to make this bill a successful one. There were things that we all agreed on that we should have. The inclusion of sexual orientation into this particular legislation was one that we agreed on and others.”

Dr Swann: “Why did the minister let the right wing of his caucus prevail over his own knowledge and experience and the understanding of experts in this area?”

Mr Blackett: “Well, Mr. Speaker, it’s funny enough: the right wing of this caucus. Our caucus has had full, vigorous debate on this particular issue. The Sheldon Chumir foundation wanted us to take out publications and statements, and that, you know, from an organization I wouldn’t deem to be right wing. But our caucus thought we wanted to make sure that we protected the rights and responsibilities of those visible minorities and those people that are new immigrants to this province. We can’t agree with everything, and we shouldn’t expect that the opposition would understand that.”

Dr Swann: “Well, does this minister understand that the lack of consultation and thought on this policy has resulted in a bad bill that will lead to children being excluded from public schools on important issues like evolution, women’s rights as well as trivial issues like what the Flat Earth Society might be promoting, compromising our public education system?”

Mr Blackett: “Well, Mr. Speaker, I love to read fiction. I like to engage in it. But I would expect the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition would be able to read the bill, which clearly states: ‘subject-matter that deals explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation.’ Evolution is not explicitly religious. We’re talking about the actual religion if you’re talking about Catholicism, for instance, or Muslim. We’re not talking about religious beliefs. We are not talking about religious content. In our school system in our curriculum as it stands today, there is very little in the way of a religious nature with respect to the subject matter.”

Laurie Blakeman (LIB—Edmonton-Centre): “According to the Sheldon Chumir foundation the parental opt-out clause in the proposed human rights legislation is a ‘slippery slope to administrative and legal chaos.’ Teachers must have the freedom to teach our children how to think critically and with an open mind without fear of the consequences of archaic laws being forced upon them by the government. To the Minister of Culture and Community Spirit: will the minister confirm that section 11.1 of the proposed human rights legislation can be used to launch a human rights complaint against a teacher, principal, or school board?”

Mr Blackett: “Well, Mr. Speaker, what is clear is that if a teacher follows the curriculum, which has very little that is of a contentious nature, and if the school board, as they have to do now under the School Act, notifies a parent of those contentious issues with respect to religion, sexuality, or sexual orientation, they have nothing to worry about.”

Ms Blakeman: “To the same minister: what consequences has the minister identified regarding a chill effect for teachers who will now avoid spontaneous discussion or teaching opportunities for fear they might run afoul of various student opt-out instructions?”

Mr Blackett: “Well, thankfully, most of our teachers, Mr. Speaker, in this province are reasonable people. Parents are reasonable people. We do not determine what the discussion in a classroom is. The Minister of Education and the school board determine what the curriculum is. We cannot control nor is our intent to control any discussion that arises in a classroom. That is for the teacher to lead, and there is nothing here in this legislation that deters them from doing their job.”

Ms Blakeman: “To the same minister: how do those outside of Alberta determine a standard of education to assess Alberta students when a student can opt out of any class or teaching module in math, biology, history, social studies, or whatever when their parents object on religious grounds? [interjections] It’s factual.”

Mr Blackett: “Well, Mr. Speaker, hopefully those people outside of the province won’t be listening to the Member for Edmonton-Centre. I’ll tell you this: if they read the legislation, ‘subject-matter that deals explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation,’ I don’t know where math fits into that. I don’t know where English fits into that. I don’t know where social studies fits into most of that. I don’t know what school you went to, but the one I went to never had to deal with that subject matter.”

Harry Chase (LIB—Calgary-Varsity): “While Bill 44 fails to differentiate between faith-based objections of conscience and opportunistic avoidance convenience, it expects classroom teachers to be able to do so. Parental rights devoid of parental responsibility are not simply unsound but unjust. If a parent considers a portion of Alberta’s approved public curriculum objectionable, then the onus should be placed on the parent to seek out the publicly subsidized alternatives currently available, whether through home-, charter, or private schooling. To the minister: given that hours of instruction and preparation are contractually predetermined, where and how are objecting students going to be accommodated?”

Minister of Education Dave Hancock: “Well, Mr. Speaker, in the same way that they’re accommodated now. Under our current School Act and our mandated policies if parents object to religious instruction or instruction with respect to human sexuality, they are entitled to ask that their child be opted out of the class, either within the class or in another setting in the school, to take an alternate program at that time. It’s the policy now. It’s the policy that will continue.”

Mr Chase: “How many additional teachers are you planning to hire to educate faith-based objectors within the universally acceptable public system? How will their deployment be determined and their nonoffending curriculum developed?”

Mr Hancock: “Mr. Speaker, the hon. member is taking things to a ludicrous extreme. We currently have in this province an opportunity for parents who object to their child being included in instruction with respect to human sexuality to have those children opt out of that. We also have in the School Act, under section 50, an opportunity for parents to ask that their child be excluded from religious instruction. That’s exactly the same process that will be continued. Parents will continue to be notified when those topics are up for discussion, and if they wish, they can exclude their children. It’s not a problem now. It won’t be a problem in the future.”

Mr Chase: “Given that the mandate of public schools is to provide a first-rate education rather than a publicly subsidized sitting service, under what circumstances would a teacher or principal be empowered to call an objectionable parent to come pick up their child? In other words, how far backward are public schools under Bill 44 expected to bend over at the expense of all other children, their parents, and teachers to accommodate the wishes of faith-based objectors, whose rights to legitimate dissent are already covered under our existing School Act?”

Mr Hancock: “The only thing objectionable that I found was in the way that question was formulated.

“Mr. Speaker, as I’ve said, in Alberta we have a very strong curriculum. We expect teachers to teach that curriculum. In that curriculum from time to time – for example, in the junior high health program or in the CALM program in high school – there are topics of human sexuality, which have always been issues of concern to parents about how their children are instructed in those areas. Many parents want to know when that instruction happens, and they want to be able to know either that their child could be excluded from that or included. They’re also allowed to talk to their child about values, about caring and loving relationships, and about the things around that. We would encourage parents to be involved in their children’s education, to understand what’s in the curriculum, and to have the opportunity, where they object, to have their child opt out.”

New Democrat Leader Brian Mason: “Over the weekend the Minister of Culture and Community Spirit admitted that evolution was science, and he said that his government isn’t arguing science. But, you know, despite all of the protestations from the other side about what they’re not doing, we need to remember that it was the Premier himself who said that evolution would be optional if parents objected on religious grounds. This isn’t a fantasy of the opposition; this comes from the Premier. So I want to ask the Minister of Culture and Community Spirit: have you and the Premier figured out why you’re contradicting each other and why the message . . .”

Speaker Ken Kowalski: “The hon. minister.”

Mr Blackett: “Well, Mr. Speaker, I know one thing: I don’t pretend to speak for the Premier.

“What we have here is the legislation. It’s clearly stated, and I refer to that. In the legislation that I brought forward: ‘subject-matter that deals explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation.’ If you have a question about what the Premier said, I suggest that you ask the Premier that question.”

Mr Mason: “Well, I keep trying, Mr. Speaker.

“The minister knows that those things are subject to interpretation. It is the interpretation of what is religion that is at stake here. Will he stand up here and settle this matter once and for all and say that evolution is not considered religious grounds and will not be enforced by this government and make sure that the act is amended to say that?”

Mr Blackett: “Well, Mr. Speaker, I know my English is pretty good, and I did say: ‘subject-matter that deals . . . with religion.’ Evolution is not religion. Neither is math. Neither is English. I can’t be more clear than that. Ask a court, ask anyone to determine where evolution becomes religion.”

Mr Mason: “Well, Mr. Speaker, the Premier’s interpretation and his minister’s interpretation are clearly very different things. The question is: will you change this act, will you amend it to ensure that there can be no misinterpretation such as we’ve seen from your Premier, your leader?”

Mr Blackett: “Mr. Speaker, as he alluded to last week, we haven’t even had debate in second reading on this particular motion. We’ll have a lot of chances to discuss it, and we’ll see what comes out of that. I tell you what. Speaking of misinformation, I’d love for the opposition members to actually stick to the facts, to what’s actually written here, not their flights of fancy and their ideas of fiction.”

Mr Kowalski: “Of course, the question period is not the place to debate bills – we have ample opportunity for that – nor is it a place to seek legal interpretations, but we all know that, too.”

Rachel Notley (NDP—Edmonton-Strathcona): “This government’s attempt to water down human rights under the guise of curriculum control has created a firestorm of controversy. Once again a lack of foresight has embarrassed our province. It’s ridiculous to think that the teaching of evolution would ever be considered a violation of human rights, yet that’s exactly what your plan will likely be interpreted to say. My question is to the Minister of Culture and Community Spirit. Why won’t you clarify the issue right now and commit to removing any threat to teachers from your proposed changes to our human rights scheme?”

Mr Blackett: “Well, Mr. Speaker, I have to agree with the hon. member that it’s ridiculous to believe that evolution as part of our curriculum would be something that would be challenged.”

Ms Notley: “Well, Mr. Speaker, the School Act does not say that people can remove children from instruction on the equality of people from different races or genders. The minister is finally adding sexual orientation to the code, but, at the same time, he’s allowing people to remove children from instruction on the equality of people with different sexual orientation. Does the minister think that parents should have the right to remove children from instruction about the equality of people from different races or genders? If not, why is he treating the GBLT community differently and creating a second tier of human rights in our province?”

Mr Blackett: “Mr. Speaker, the opposition is all over the map, like, you know, the subject matter that deals explicitly with religion. I don’t know what half of what she says has to do with this particular piece. We as a caucus, as a government strongly believe in human rights. We believe in family. We believe in a lot of things. We believe that Bill 44, when we get to actually debate it, will show exactly how we have looked at the best interests of Albertans and each and every group and will represent them to the best of our ability.”

Ms Notley: “Well, I suspect that the minister had trouble understanding the question because he doesn’t understand the issue. Your proposed policy will clearly allow children to be removed from classes which discuss sexual orientation. Presumably, that includes where a teacher instructs that sexual orientation is a protected equality right under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Why is the minister supporting a plan to limit the ability of teachers to talk about our human rights code to our Alberta children?”

Mr Blackett: “Mr. Speaker, what we are doing is saying that, you know, the provisions are already given to our parents in the School Act. We will continue to do that. With respect to sexual orientation, they have that provision to opt out now. They will have that provision going forward.”

To review the status of legislation of interest to the Association, please consult Bills and Motions 2009.