Part One (more postings to follow)
by Bobbie Saga
What appears to be a small group of several hundred homeschooling parents framing the debate on Alberta’s education policy succeeded in delaying a key bill Thursday. And the group, which is embedded with the religious right and backed by the Wildrose Party, vow to make it an election issue.
The Alberta Education Act (Bill 2) went into limbo March 22, leading some media pundits to speculate opposition to it may cost Alberta Premier Alison Redford an important platform piece as the provincial election looms.
Ms. Redford, who casts herself as a health-and-education premier, inherited the bill from the previous provincial Tory government. Now, however, she could go into the campaign without the law that was years in the making, and one supported by major stakeholders like teachers and school boards.
Bill 2, intended to get tough on bullying, pulls together outdated and pre-Internet legislation. It also aims to improve graduation rates by raising the dropout age to 17 from 16, plus allows students to stay in school for free until age 21, up from age 19. And if passed, the act would allow for local decision making by granting broader powers to school boards, including the power to direct how education is provided, close schools, set the school calendar and dismiss trustees who breach codes of conduct.
But Section 16 of the bill ties the legislation to Canadian human rights laws, a move that riled a small number of people engaging in vitriolic discourse, including death threats against Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, which promptly pushed the issue into the pre-election spotlight.
Ms. Redford’s Progressive Conservatives, who hold a majority, didn’t invoke closure on the bill but criticized chief rival, the Wildrose Party, for tabling amendments that delayed its passage. The PCs, under political pressure, then delayed it further by canceling a legislative session Wednesday evening, returning Thursday afternoon with four amendments. Wildrose, with four MLAs, to the PCs’ 66, balked at the move, equating it to a filibuster and an attempt to "railroad four last-minute omnibus amendments through the Legislature." As such, they refused unanimous consent to extend the session past a 4:30 p.m. deadline. Time ran out, with the Legislature adjourning until April 2.
Meanwhile, and according to comments published in the National Post, the Wildrose Party will take the issue to Alberta voters.
"This is definitely going to be an election issue," said Wildrose House leader and education critic Rob Anderson. "The PCs have failed to listen to Albertans on this issue," he continued, adding the party supports passage of the act, but if elected, Wildrose would restore its original language. "There are conflicts between people’s personal beliefs and the interpretation of the Charter of Rights," he said. "What we’re saying is, let’s let those parents teach their children according to their personal beliefs."
Optics v. Reality
But in the midst of political posturing and finger pointing, scratch the surface of the debate and something more insidious emerges. Indeed, the brouhaha over the proposed education act – and Alberta’s education policy – is a lesson in hypocrisy. Moreover, the optics and the arguments being put forward by spokespeople for some parents – and carefully crafted remarks by the Wildrose – are deceitful.
The optics shows a vocal group of homeschooling parents taking issue with a section of the proposed Alberta Education Act (The actual head count is subject to dispute). Paul van den Bosch, a spokesperson for the protesting parents and treasurer of a group calling itself the Alberta Home Education Association (AHEA – an innocuous sounding name) says the proposed legislation amounts to "social engineering." That sounds rather nasty, at least if the term is used in a negative context!
Peeling back layers of the protest, however, one finds an echo chamber with deep theo-conservative roots and fundamentalist Christian social values. All are sporting the same talking points in various incantations and for similar reasons. Most notably, they take exception to the secularization of Canadian society. It’s the latest fiasco playing out over human rights in Canada and in a chain of events dating back a few years (more on that in my next post).
Not by coincidence, the AHEA limits itself to only taking issue with the Alberta Human Rights Act. Conveniently, they leave out details that can put a negative twist on their spin.
In a statement posted on the AHEA’s site, for example, "The focal point of the peaceful rally was the last six words of Section 16 of Bill 2 – ‘and the Alberta Human Rights Act’ – which need to be removed in order to protect the rights and freedoms of all parents, all home educators, and indeed all Albertans."
It went further by advising members, "There is a provincial election coming soon. While AHEA and HSLDA won’t tell you how to vote in that election, we would ask that you carefully consider who to vote for. If your elected representative – or a candidate for that position – won’t stand up for parental freedoms and your human rights, then [sic] why would you vote for them?"
To put this in perspective, spokespeople for the AHEA say parents worry they’ll face complaints that they’re not necessarily teaching their children according to what’s in the human rights code. More specifically, this group is concerned with Section 16 of the education act (under the heading ‘Diversity’), which says all academic materials must respect the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Alberta Human Rights Act.
But Alberta’s Human Rights Act was amended in 2009 via the highly controversial and arguably unconstitutional Bill 44, enshrining parental rights into that legislation. It gives all parents a right to exempt their children from any instruction relating to sexuality, sexual orientation or religion. This is what the PCs want to change. Last summer Ms. Redford committed to repealing Section 3 but the issue was stalled pending a review.
For opponents, however, they now worry that due to Section 16 of the proposed education bill, decisions and interpretations of Alberta Human Rights Commission might become a mandatory part of the provincial curriculum, including for students educated in Catholic schools, faith-based private schools and for those students who are homeschooled. They, therefore, centre concern on the controversial Section 3 of human rights legislation, which has gained oxymoronic notoriety. They say it’s a clause used by the Alberta Human Rights Commission to "attack the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religion."
Of course the AHEA does not want to openly discuss the Charter, and with very good reason. On one hand, they don’t want to be restricted by human rights legislation promoting diversity and tolerance within acceptable norms of a civil society, while on other hand, they take a very libertarian approach, wanting absolute rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion and their ‘God given’ parental rights. And they refer to them as if they are absolute rights, which they are not.
It can be a little confusing, but that’s exactly the point. Neither the AHEA, nor the Wildrose bring up pesky little facts like Section 1 of the Charter, or a recent Supreme Court challenge that failed. One can’t allow facts to get in the way of ideology!
Rather, they stick to provisions of the Alberta Human Rights Act (AHRA) that was subject to much scorn and negative media attention over the past few years. Incidentally, but not in any small way and in a legal sense, the AHRA – other than amendments made by Bill 44 – mirrors Section 1 and Section 2 of the Charter.
They don’t want clarity because, in essence, the protest is, in fact, part of a larger and complicated issue: a back-door attack against Canadian Charter rights and, in particular, a Christian fundamentalist war being waged on the secularization of our society.
Indeed, one omitted fact is a February 17th ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada, (SCC) that was very specific on the issues being twisted in the Alberta debate (S.L. v. Commission scolaire des Chênes).
The case began when in 2008 the Ethics and Religious Culture ("ERC") Program became mandatory in Quebec schools, replacing Catholic and Protestant programs of religious and moral instruction. The parents, (court documents refer to S.L.), requested the school board exempt their children from the ERC course putting forward the argument there was an existence of serious harm to the children. S.L. sought a declaration the ERC Program infringed on their and their children’s right to freedom of conscience and religion, claiming that decisions were made at the dictate of the Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport ("Ministère"). The case was appealed up to the SCC, which dismissed the parents’ case.
The SCC held that although the parents sincerely believe they have an obligation to pass on the precepts of the Catholic religion to their children (A.F., at para. 66), the sincerity of their belief in this practice is not challenged.[Ref 26]. The parents had alleged the ERC course was liable to cause the following harm [Ref 28]:
1. Losing the right to choose an education consistent with one’s own moral and religious principles; interfering with the fundamental freedom of religion, conscience, opinion and expression of children and their parents by forcing children to take a course that does not reflect the religious and philosophical beliefs with which their parents have the right and duty to bring them up.
2. Being put in the situation of learning from a teacher who is not adequately trained in the subject matter and who has been deprived of freedom of conscience by being forced to perform this task.
3. Upsetting children by exposing them at too young an age to convictions and beliefs that differ from the ones favoured by their parents.
4. Dealing with the phenomenon of religion in a course that claims to be "neutral".
5. Being exposed, through this mandatory course, to the philosophical trend advocated by the state, namely relativism.
6. Interfering with children’s faith.
We must also accept that, from a philosophical standpoint, absolute neutrality does not exist. Be that as it may, absolutes hardly have any place in the law. In administrative law, for example, the concept of impartiality calls for an assessment that takes account of the context and the intervention of human actors (Baker v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration),  2 S.C.R. 817, at para. 47). Moreover, in analysing infringements of rights protected by the Charters, this Court has often repeated that no right is absolute (Thomson Newspapers Ltd. v. Canada (Director of Investigation and Research, Restrictive Trade Practices Commission),  1 S.C.R. 425, at p. 596). "This is so because we live in a society of individuals in which we must always take the rights of others into account" (Amselem, at para. 61) [Ref. 31].
Therefore, following a realistic and non-absolutist approach, state neutrality is assured when the state neither favours nor hinders any particular religious belief, that is, when it shows respect for all postures towards religion, including that of having no religious beliefs whatsoever, while taking into account the competing constitutional rights of the affected individuals affected [Ref. 32].
Parents are free to pass their personal beliefs on to their children if they so wish. However, the early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society. The suggestion that exposing children to a variety of religious facts in itself infringes their religious freedom or that of their parents amounts to a rejection of the multicultural reality of Canadian society and ignores the Quebec government’s obligations with regard to public education. Although such exposure can be a source of friction, it does not in itself constitute an infringement of s. 2(a) of the Canadian Charter and of s. 3 of the Quebec Charter [Ref. 40].