Shelley Svidal, ATA News
A government bill introduced in the legislature April 28 defeats the purpose of public education, says Alberta Teachers’ Association President Frank Bruseker.
Sponsored by Minister of Culture and Community Spirit Lindsay Blackett, Bill 44, Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Amendment Act, 2009, allows parents or guardians to exclude their children from courses of study, educational programs, instructional materials, instruction or exercises that include subject-matter dealing explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation.
The government argues the bill simply confirms existing parental rights. Section 50.2 of the School Act gives parents the right to exclude their children from religious or patriotic instruction or exercises. The Human Sexuality Education Policy in the Guide to Education: ECS to Grade 12 requires principals to exempt students from school instruction in human sexuality education at parents’ written request. Sexual orientation is a subset of human sexuality.
But Bill 44 goes further than that. The word instruction encompasses situations in which a student asks a question dealing explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation. Were the teacher to answer the question, he or she would put the school board in violation of proposed section 11.1(1) of the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act, which requires boards to notify parents or guardians of the impending instruction. The board could discipline the teacher, and both the teacher and the board could be hauled before the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission.
Bruseker argues the bill will discourage teachers from talking about issues that could be considered religion. “If I talk about evolution in science class, is that religion? Some people would say, ‘Yes, it is,’” he observes. “If I talk about life on other planets, some people would say that’s religion. If I talk about geologic history and the age of the earth as 4.5 billion years . . . and you believe the earth is only 6,000 years old, that, too, is encroaching on religion.”
That many parts of the curriculum could be considered religion gives rise to logistical concerns, he says. First, teachers will have to track who is concerned about what issue for each class. Second, students who are excluded from a class will have nowhere to go. In an earlier era, they would have been able to go to the school library and be educated by the teacher–librarian, but most teacher–librarians have disappeared from Alberta schools.
Bruseker points out that the bill contradicts the Guide to Education’s description of controversial issues—“topics that are publicly sensitive and upon which there is no consensus of values or beliefs. They include topics on which reasonable people may sincerely disagree.” The guide encourages teachers to use controversial issues, including those that may arise incidentally during instruction, to promote critical inquiry and/or to teach thinking skills.
The bill essentially ensures that those issues are avoided, he says. “That’s not building a strong, healthy, vibrant society, which is what public education is all about. Part of the task of public schooling is to put these controversial issues in front of students, encourage the dialogue and allow students to draw their own conclusions.”
As far as teachable moments are concerned, Bruseker recalls sharing with his students a photograph that had appeared on the front page of the Calgary Herald. The photograph showed a patient on an operating table, surrounded by medical staff, with a tray in front of him containing two hearts. The first heart was diseased and had just been removed from the patient. The second heart was a Jarvic 7, a mechanical heart, which was about to be implanted in the patient. The patient was hooked up to a machine, which was oxygenating and purifying his blood.
“Now if you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, who doesn’t believe in medical interventions of that type, then that would be potentially an offensive kind of thing to do,” he says. “Yet it’s on the front page of the paper.”
The Klingon religion poses another dilemma. “Do we need to honour a religion that’s based upon fictitious people from a movie?” Bruseker asks. “Bill 44 has the potential to create all kinds of problems.”
New Democrat education critic Rachel Notley agrees. “[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?” she asked Blackett April 30.
“[W]e expect that Albertans will be reasonable,” Blackett replied. “Parents are reasonable, and they have the ability to determine how their children are taught.”
Second reading of the bill began April 29. Debate is scheduled to resume May 6. As of press time, Bruseker had scheduled a meeting with Blackett for May 4.
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