Liberals, New Democrats pan public education exemptions in Bill 44

April 30, 2009

MEMBERS’ STATEMENTS

Paving Health Pathways Strategy

Jeff Johnson (PC—Athabasca–Redwater): “I rise today to speak about an exciting new initiative by the government of Alberta that I believe is one of the first of its kind in Canada. It’ll provide high school students in several communities the opportunity to sample health courses contained in Alberta Education’s revised career and technology studies program.

“This opportunity will be available in 10 communities, which will serve as pilot sites for Paving Health Pathways: A Health Services Strategy, which aligns with the government’s mandate to build Alberta’s skilled workforce and initiatives in the Minister of Education’s mandate letter. This strategy is backed by a three-year, $12 million funding commitment by the government. Under the revised program of studies the previous CTS strands have been replaced by a more deliberate and structured set of five clusters, including a health, recreation, and human resources cluster. Under the strategy students in these 10 pilot jurisdictions will have greater opportunity to explore the world of work, gain insight into possible health services careers, and work toward postsecondary education, all while still in high school.

“Each pilot jurisdiction has determined its own course options and site location. Options include child care worker, health care aide, sports medicine, emergency responder, and licensed practical nurse. The revised CTS program of studies will be phased in starting this fall, with the health, recreation, and human resources cluster set for implementation in the fall of 2010. This initiative is a win-win for everyone. It opens doors for students to new career possibilities and may potentially increase the pool of qualified workers in Alberta’s health services field. It also fosters collaboration between K to 12, postsecondary, industry, and other community partners and helps ease the transition into postsecondary education.

“I applaud the school jurisdictions that applied for these pilot projects, and I’d also like to congratulate the 10, including those in my constituency, for being selected to pilot this initiative. The Premier, the Minister of Education, and his department staff deserve our thanks for moving this important pilot project forward.

“Mr. Speaker, I look forward to seeing the results of this pilot project, and I hope that some day it will be available province-wide.”

Work Safe Alberta Student Video Contest

Doug Elniski
(PC—Edmonton-Calder): “Yesterday the first annual Work Safe Alberta Student Video Contest winners gathered at a ceremony in Edmonton to receive their awards from the Minister of Employment and Immigration. I would like to congratulate the winning students on their creativity and hard work in producing videos to bring the attention of their peers to the importance of working in a healthy and safe manner.

“First place was Brad Fleischer from Bert Church high school in Airdrie with his entry called Mistakes and Regrets. Second place went to Mr. Curtis Huisman and Mr. Jeff Oudman from W.R. Myers in Taber for their entry called Promote Safe Work. Third place went to Mr. Evyn Boudreau and Ms Jessie Seberg from The Third Academy in Lethbridge for their entry called Work Smart Be Safe.

“By putting this kind of effort into keeping other young Albertans safe, they have shown that they are truly winners. I encourage Albertans to see these award-winning calls for safety online at www.employment.alberta.ca.”

ORAL QUESTION PERIOD

H1N1 Influenza Pandemic Planning

Dave Quest (PC—Strathcona): “Yesterday the World Health Organization raised the level of the influenza pandemic alert from phase 4 to phase 5. This phase means a pandemic is likely imminent. Confirmed cases are now being reported world-wide, including six cases in Alberta. . . . Mr. Speaker, my final question is to the Minister of Education. We’re hearing of school boards in this province that are cancelling trips for students. Is it necessary for parents and/or school boards to cancel planned trips at this time?”

Minister of Education Dave Hancock: “Well, Mr. Speaker, first of all, from a public health perspective there’s no reason to cancel field trips within the province or within the country. Obviously, if school trips are planned to an area or a gathering where there are confirmed laboratory cases, that should be a consideration. The deputy minister advised school boards on Tuesday to consider rescheduling student trips to Mexico and the affected areas of the United States until additional information is issued in the days ahead. I believe that’s still good advice. There’s no need for people to do wholesale cancellation of trips, but that decision is in the school boards’ hands with respect to what’s most appropriate for trips that their schools and their students are planning. What we’ve advised is that they should look very closely at cancelling trips to Mexico and clearly affected areas.”

Parental Choice in Education

Harry Chase (LIB—Calgary-Varsity): “Enshrining parental rights in human rights legislation as Bill 44 proposes is either a deliberate attempt to undermine Alberta’s public education system or a thoughtless, unintended consequence of social conservatism. Not only does this legislation guarantee a get out of class free card, but there’s an expectation that the teachers stop, drop, and roll over the lesson to provide an immediate alternative learning experience for the objector. To the Premier: why has the majority of the Conservative caucus decreed that a minority tail wag its dogma at the expense of Alberta’s public education system? Does a religious right make an Alberta education wrong?”

Premier Ed Stelmach: “Mr. Speaker, the Minister of Education responded to the allegations yesterday, and I’ll ask him to respond in the House.”

Minister of Education Dave Hancock: “Mr. Speaker, what is being proposed in the human rights act merely puts into the human rights act something which is already in practice not only in Alberta but, I believe, in many places. Under the School Act a parent can exempt their children from religious study. Under the policies mandated by the Department of Education of the human sexuality education policy, schools are required to inform parents through letters or meetings when sensitive or human sexuality topics will be discussed in their child’s class. Parents must be given the opportunity to request . . .”

Speaker Ken Kowalski: “I appreciate that. This is the question period, not a time for debate.”

Mr Chase: “There are existing exemptions available to parents, including private schools, charter schools, home-schooling, and opt-out provisions currently within the School Act. What is the justification for allowing our universal public education system to be held hostage by the social conservatives in this Tory caucus?”

Mr Hancock: “Mr. Speaker, nothing of the sort is happening. Parents are always expected to have a strong role in the education of their children; in fact, parents are responsible for their children. At the beginning of every year schools have meet the teacher nights and open houses so that parents can be invited in and understand the curriculum that their children are being taught. There are specific areas where parents are required to be informed. One is with respect to teaching about human sexuality. Sex ed has always been the case; it’s been a very sensitive subject,. When it’s taught, it’s required that parents be informed, and they have the right to exempt their child. That happens now. Nothing will change.”

Mr Chase: “Again to the Premier, or he can pass it off to the Education minister at his will. Don’t students and teachers have the right to follow the publicly approved curriculum without the looming spectre of accusations of intolerance? Isn’t that what a public school system is meant to be?”

Mr Hancock: “Mr. Speaker, sex education has always been something that is a family value, and we expect those family values to be maintained. Schools have a role in making sure students have appropriate information in accordance with the curriculum, and the curriculum is a public health curriculum when it comes to CALM, when it comes it comes to, I think, the junior high health program. In those cases, because sexual education is a sensitive issue and a family issue, parents are informed. They’ve always had the right to request that their child be exempted from sex education in school.”

New Democrat Leader Brian Mason: “I was at the news conference yesterday when the Premier was asked if his new Bill 44 could be used to prevent children from learning about evolution in schools. The Premier told the media, and I quote: parents would have the opportunity to make that choice. Yesterday the Premier denied making that statement and accused me of using wrong information. He said it, and I can play the tape if members wish. My question is to the Premier: you said it to the media, so why not say it to the House? You’ve drafted a bill that means that children can be prohibited from learning about evolution. Admit it.”

Mr Stelmach: “Mr. Speaker, as I said yesterday, the bill is very explicit in what it says. The Minister of Education, again, referred to sections of the policy that’s in place. This is nothing new in the province of Alberta. It’s simply confirming the rights. Those rights will now be in our human rights legislation.”

Mr Mason: “It’s very different, and in this respect: not only does the government think it’s okay for children to be opted out of studying evolution in the classroom; it puts the onus on teachers to enforce it. If they don’t, they can be hauled in front of the Human Rights Commission. That is new. Why is this Premier planning to expose Alberta teachers to persecution for teaching evolution in schools?”

Mr Hancock: “Mr. Speaker, nothing could be further from reality. Under the School Act, section 50(2): ‘Where a teacher or other person providing religious or patriotic instruction receives a written request signed by a parent of a student that the student be excluded from religious or patriotic instruction.’ That’s in the School Act now. What Bill 44 basically says in section 11.1 is that when there’s a course, educational program, or instructional materials that deal explicitly with religion, a student can be exempted from study. The School Act provides it now. It’s now in the human rights act.

“It’s apparent that that’s a parental right, to guide the course of education of their child, as we all know is a responsibility of parents. We have a public responsibility for public education. We have a strong curriculum in this province. What the hon. member is talking about is absolutely ludicrous.”

Mr Mason: “Sure sounded like two completely different things to me, Mr. Speaker.

“This government’s so-called parents’ rights policy exposes teachers to prosecution before the Human Rights Commission if they teach something a parent doesn’t like. That’s new. Teachers will be looking over their shoulders and afraid of open discussions with their class. This Education minister knows it. I know he’s been put up to protect the Premier today, but I don’t think he believes it himself. Why won’t you admit that this policy will stifle education and end up hurting Alberta children?”

Mr Hancock: “Mr. Speaker, nothing in this policy or this act is going to stifle education in this province. We have a very strong curriculum in this province. We have a very strong curriculum in sexual education. We have a very strong curriculum in health. We’re constantly improving the education. What we’re saying is that under the act that exists and under the policies that exist, parents have a right to exclude their students from sexual education and from religious education. Under the human rights act they’ll have the same privilege.”

Mr Kowalski: “To the hon. Member for Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood. A lot of energy today; save it for the full debate on Bill 44, okay?”

Rachel Notley (NDP—Edmonton-Strathcona): “The Minister of Culture and Community Spirit has proposed a human rights policy that prevents teachers from discussing issues a parent might deem distasteful on religious grounds without first giving notice to the parent and censoring the discussion in the meantime. The minister’s defence was that the law isn’t meant to be taken literally. He said, and I quote: if you took the thing literally and ran it on its ear, we’d have anarchy. Well, I do agree with that. To the minister: if you never meant for this to be taken seriously, why are you trying to make it law and denying kids a balanced education?”

Mr Hancock: “Mr. Speaker, Alberta has one of the best educations in the world for our children, and no child is being denied a balanced education. What we have in this province is an opportunity for parents and the public to have a joint interest in making sure that every Albertan child is educated. Parents have a very strong responsibility for the education of their children.

“There are two areas in this province and in every other place that I know of that are particularly important to parents. Those have to do with their religious values and sexual education. It’s long been the practice in this province and, I believe, in most other places that parents have the right to exempt their children from religious instruction and from sexual education. They’re entitled to be advised when it’s in the curriculum, and they’re entitled to ask that their child be excluded.”

Mr Kowalski: “Hon. member, I’m going to recognize you. You are also the House leader of your caucus. Would you put some mufflers on the person sitting to your right? Now, proceed, please.”

Ms Notley: “Well, Mr. Speaker, I could have sworn that the Human Rights Commission was part of the Minister of Culture and Community Spirit’s area.

“As part of a class discussion on current events a young girl asked her teacher about the oppression of women in many parts of the world. This minister’s new policy means that the teacher would have to uncomfortably change the subject and refuse to answer the question until notice had been given to certain parents. In effect, this policy prohibits educators from using teachable moments to explain to students the values we hold dear. Why has the Minister of Culture and Community Spirit proposed policy that allows a parent who believes in the subordination of women on religious grounds to interfere with a young girl learning about her democratic rights?”

Mr Blackett: “Well, Mr. Speaker, again, we engage in flights of fancy. What is there is an entrenchment of what’s already in the School Act, the provisions that foster our curriculum. We are not telling teachers to do anything different than they’ve already done before. As the Minister of Education has eloquently stated, we are just putting into the human rights act something that is already there in the School Act. Teachers can respond to their students. They can have discussions. We are not creating the thought police. Please stop the misrepresentation of what we are actually doing. People are . . .”

Mr Kowalski
: “The hon. member. [interjection] It’s okay. I’ve already recognized – boy, we’re going to have an exciting debate if this bill ever gets to the House.

“The hon. member.”

Ms Notley: “The act is different from the policy.

“Now, a bunch of kids surround another in the schoolyard, calling him something derogatory based on his sexual orientation. The teacher intervenes, telling the kids why people are completely equal regardless of sexual orientation. Under your policy he’s just breached the human rights code. Why does your government want to prohibit this teacher from teaching human rights at the very time it’s most needed?”

Mr Blackett: “You know, again, we expect that Albertans will be reasonable. Parents are reasonable, and they have the ability to determine how their children are taught. We have protection. The Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act is to prevent discrimination. What you’re talking about: discussions, conversations . . . [interjection] We’re not turning anything back. I’ll have the Minister of Education respond.”

Mr Kowalski: “Okay. Okay. First of all, you’re going to debate this through the chair. Okay? Number one. Number two, we’re going to move on.”

GOVERNMENT BILLS

Bill 4Post-secondary Learning Amendment Act, 2009

Bill 4, Post-secondary Learning Amendment Act, 2009, received third reading. Sponsored by Manmeet Bhullar (PC—Calgary-Montrose), the bill allows public postsecondary institutions that offer baccalaureate and applied studies degrees to apply to use the word university in their names.

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