Monday, May 18, 2009

Does Bill 44 Opting Out Provisions Make You Proud to be an Albertan?

Are you still proud to be an Albertan? For me that is the core values question coming out of Bill 44 - Alberta's Human Rights Act and section 11.1 parental opting out amendments. Parents are given a legal rights and remedies to have advanced notice so they can exempt their children if topics of religion, sexuality and sexual orientation happen in the classroom. It is impossible to tell when and how such topics may come up in a classroom discussion - especially if you what to foster curious and thinking students.

Aiding and abetting such institutionalized ignorance and encouraging it to be embedded in our pluralistic public education system is bad politics and is even worse governance. It begs the question: "Are you still proud to be an Albertan?"

These proposed parental exemptions are too broad and extremely offensive to Albertan core values of equality, fairness, inclusiveness and respect. It has been over a decade since the Alberta government took the decision on discrimination based on sexual orientation to the Supreme Court of Canada - and lost. It was the nationally embarrassing Vriend case.

Bill 44 takes the bold step of making a virtue out of the necessity that requires Alberta to finally follow the law of the land and incorporate protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation in our provincial human rights legislation. It is the right thing to do but it is not something to be proud about given it took us over 10 years to do the right thing. Does that long a delay in doing the right thing make you proud to be an Albertan?

Next thing we do is undermine our good intentions of being accepting, inclusive and respectful of different sexual orientations. We do this by passing another amendment in the very same Bill 44 saying that if there are educational materials and classroom discussions about sexual orientation, the public education system has to give notice to parents so they can exempt their child. Beyond being impossible to enforce it will allow reactionaries to victimize teachers and perhaps school trustees and administrators. Why on earth would we want such a law in our public education system in the first place? Does that possibility make you proud to be an Albertan?

The government's political talking points we are supposed to swallow is that section 11.1 says it only applies when subject matter is "explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation." Black's Law Dictionary defines explicit as "Not obscure or ambiguous, having no disguised meaning or reservation." The Oxford Canadian Dictionary defines explicit to include being "definite, clear, expressing views unreservedly; outspoken." So how do you define and determine explicit when as the amendment says in" of study...include subject-matter that deals explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation"? Is the innuendo, metaphor and inference in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, or in Pope's "The Rape of the Lock"explicit enough to offend the proposed law? I'm betting we are going to find out if this law is passed.

Will teachers feel a chill, avoid subject content and stifle classroom discussions that could provide teachable moments and serve to overcome ignorance and intolerance for fear of being a test case? You bet they will, and who can blame them. How does this deplorable proposal improve public education and better prepare our youth for the interdependent globalized complex world they are inheriting? Does that consequent decline in the quality of public education make you proud to be an Albertan?

Every incident that turns into a complaint to the Human Rights Commission will turn on its own facts on a case by case basis. The government may think their new law is very clear but facts will not be clear. They never are. Nor will the matter be settled easily. The evidence surrounding an alleged breach of the law will undoubtedly have to come from other students in the class who will most likely be the only other witnesses to the alleged breach. How inappropriate is that? Having children testify in a legal process against their teacher, now that has to make you proud to be an Albertan.

You can rest assured that an aggrieved and offended parent who takes offence at some alleged explicit and offensive event in a classroom, somewhere sometime soon in Alberta, can find the ways and means to file and push a human rights complaint against a teacher If they are pursuing a complaint as a matter of "principle" it will not likely settle in advance through mediation and it will then go to a Human Rights Tribunal. If the principled parent is unsatisfied at the Tribunal stage, they can go on to appeal the Tribunal decision to the Courts. Why can this happen, because that is the law already extant in Alberta. What Bill 44 is doing is providing this kind of legal process to parents who wish to pursue it for political purposes as much as anything else. That is a new power afforded to them by the proposed opting out amendment in Bill 44.

This amendment serves no necessary educational purpose nor does it enhance any enlightened greater public good. The School Act and current government policy already allows for notice and exemption from "religious instruction and patriotic instruction" and matters of teaching sexuality. It has worked well for over 20 years and does not need fixing. Does the fact that we are ignoring that success and allowing teachers and trustees to be victimized make you proud to be an Albertan?

What is our government thinking? They are not only allowing this to happen but actively promoting it politically! Is this willful blindness to the consequences of normalizing and institutionalizing ignorance that is inherent in the proposed law? How can such a maladaptive view of progress be promulgated by our government? How can Albertans accept it when it demonstrates such an obvious indifference to social justice and Charter Rights that are at the core of our citizenship?

Why do our legislators have such a naive and misplaced trust that there will be no consequences in passing such a law? Are they that gullible to think human rights legislation is merely "symbolic"? If they are right that it is only "symbolic," then why pass it as a law at all. Leave it the realm of personal conviction and preference. Leave it alone and stay with current government policy. Why create new legal remedies for those who may take offense and invoke these new legal remedies and rights for no other reason than to test their legal limits. This attitude has already been expressed by the Calgary-based Canada Family Action Coalition who are quoted to believe the new parental rights being granted in Bill 44 "can be more widely interpreted" and "'s up to the parent to make (the legislation) as broad or as narrow and they want." Does that possibility of Bill 44 being a test case over legalizing institutionalized ignorance in our public education system make you proud to be an Albertan?

Institutionalizing such ignorance and intolerance in our public education system is reprehensible. Ignorance is the adversary here, not people of faith. I define ignorance as the absence of that which if learned that would be helpful to know. It is mostly by a default to ignorance that leads me to believe that certain of our democratically elected representatives in our government are obviously fearing change and diversity. They appear to be looking for a quick internal partisan and parochial political fix that is a solution looking for a problem by allowing these opting out provisions. In the process they are sacrificing teachers, school trustees, children and obviously scapegoating gays and lesbians. Are you still proud to be an Albertan?

I have to weep at the political posturing that is going on and trying to reassure us that all of this is merely "symbolic" and changes nothing. If that were true then why change it in the first place. Human Rights laws are not symbolic. They create, clarify and assert rights and protections as a matter of law. Passing a law that makes the Bull Trout the "Official Fish" of Alberta is symbolic. Bill 44 is amending the Alberta Human Rights Act. That is not even close to being classified as "symbolic." To hear that our Human Rights laws in Alberta are being reduced to mere symbolism must make you proud to be an Albertan.

Invoking such an intolerable and invidious amendment into Alberta's Human Rights Act exposes an underdeveloped understanding and appreciation for Albertan and Canadian values. Persisting in being tone deaf to the dissonance it is causing is pure authoritarianism. It is disrespectful of Albertans intelligence and also disrespects other social virtues like compassion, empathy, inclusion, diversity and justice. Considering how this is being handled politically, doesn't that make you proud to be an Albertan?

It was Edmund Burke who said "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." And for my fellow like-minded Albertans, Burke also said, "Never despair; but if you do, work on in despair." I post this and past blogs about the shortcomings of Bill 44 in the spirit of Edmund Burke's advice.

I encourage you to resist and protest this proposed opting out provisions in the "new" Alberta Human Rights Act. This is the week to email and call your MLA and tell them to pull section 11.1 out of Bill 44. Your MLA is home in the constituency this week so take the time to find them and tell them to stop this unnecessary and destructive amendment. Restore your pride in being Albertan and stop this unnecessary and divisive opting out amendment from becoming law.