In March 2015, after months of debate and a massive outpouring of public support, the Alberta Legislature passed Bill 10, An Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect Our Children. The bill received the support of all parties in the Legislature. In the end, only two MLAs — members of the PC party — voted against it.
This bill was specifically designed to ensure that no school or school board could refuse to support and include LGBTQ students. Its origin was a bill introduced by then Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, which was drafted in response to complaints that some schools were indeed creating barriers for these students.
Sadly, we know that LGBTQ students still face a difficult situation in schools and there’s ample evidence to back this up. Recent research shows that 64 per cent of LGBTQ students in Canada don’t feel safe at school and 70 per cent of all students say they hear anti-gay slurs and remarks EVERY SINGLE DAY. LGBTQ students are also far more likely to be physically assaulted and sexually harassed and, most troubling, to commit suicide.
Earlier this year, Education Minister David Eggen moved to fully implement Bill 10 with the introduction of a series of policy guidelines that provide school boards with the framework they need to comply with this new government legislation.
The guidelines received a warm response from the LGBTQ community and many other education experts and advocates. For many, these policies are the culmination of decades of progress toward full equality and inclusion for LGBTQ people in Alberta. Finally, LGBTQ children, the most vulnerable members of that community, will be protected and nurtured, regardless of what Alberta school their parents enroll them in.
Calgary Catholic Bishop Fred Henry, one of the most vocal opponents, responded to Minister Eggen’s guidelines with fierce rhetoric and a threat of possible legal action to try to stop the government from requiring Alberta’s Catholic schools to comply with the new human rights legislation.
Obviously, as a religious leader and as a citizen, Bishop Henry has a right to his opinions, regardless of whether the majority of the community disagree (in fact, a 2015 survey showed the majority of Catholics are supportive of the new policy guidelines), but he should not have the right to impose his views on students attending schools in Alberta, especially vulnerable LGBTQ children who are just starting to explore their identity. Without a doubt, it is the duty of educators to provide care and support here, and not to try to force dogmatic viewpoints on children that relate to their own personal identity.
Bishop Henry has no legal standing in Alberta’s separate Catholic school system. His influence only goes as far as his ability to persuade the elected trustees to take up his cause. Those trustees would do well to remember that Bishop Henry has a long history of vocally opposing LGBTQ rights in Alberta — he has made statements opposing every step in the fight for equality over the past two decades.
He and others who oppose various aspects of the guidelines have focused most of their arguments on the discomfort some parents have in dealing with issues of sexual orientation, gender and identity. That discomfort stems from taboos instilled in many current adults at a very young age. But this doesn’t mean that we should continue to enforce these taboos on our next generation of adults.
The concerns raised are similar to those raised around the effects of recognizing same sex relationships and providing other rights to LGBTQ people. Each time, after new rules were put in place, society moved forward without incident. LGBTQ people got the opportunity to live freely and openly, while the rest of the population continued forward without any impact whatsoever. This will be no different.
LGTBQ children deserve to be treated with dignity and respect no matter what school they go to. The recent guidelines from Alberta Education are just the next step in moving toward that objective. We can’t let the discomfort of a few overrule protections for vulnerable students. There simply can’t be an opt-out on basic human rights legislation, in any school, in any part of Alberta.❚
Richard Einarson is an advisory board member with Progress Alberta and a spokesperson for Safe Schools Alberta.
This opinion column represents the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.