Saturday, 24 March 2012

The religious right hijacks Alberta’s education and human rights policy

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Bill 2, intended to get tough on bullying, pulls together outdated and pre-Internet legislation.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.

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.
With respect to the arguments put forward to the court, the judgement stated (highlights):

The principal argument that emerges from the reasons given by the appellants in their requests for an exemption is that the obligation they believe they have, namely to pass on their faith to their children, has been interfered with. In this regard, the freedom of religion asserted by the appellants is their own freedom, not that of the children. The common theme that runs through the appellants’ objections is that the ERC Program is not in fact neutral. According to the appellants, students following the ERC course would be exposed to a form of relativism, which would interfere with the appellants’ ability to pass their faith on to their children. Insofar as certain of the appellants’ complaints focus on the children’s freedom of religion by referring to the "disruption" that would result from exposing them to different religious facts, I will discuss this in my analysis of the alleged infringement of the appellants’ freedom of religion [Ref. 29].

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), [1999] 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), [1990] 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].


  1. I must apologize to all the good folks who took time to read this story just after I posted it. The first paragraph of the second section, it seems, disappeared into cyberspace. I had some difficulty in posting for reasons that are beyond my technical abilities and didn’t catch it prior to posting. Again, I apologize.

  2. Good summary and analysis.

    1. Thank you. And you may be interested in a related issue.

      The abortion war is on

      Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth (Kitchener Centre) began a media campaign in December 2011 to promote his view that the definition of “human being” in Section 223(1) is 400 years old and should therefore be reviewed in light of modern medical knowledge to determine if fetuses should now be legally defined as “human beings.” His motion to that effect, M-312,[2] was accepted on March 12 for consideration by Parliament, with one hour of debate scheduled for April 26, and a vote in late spring or early fall.

      Counter Arguments Against Motion M-312:
      "Wombs for Woodworth"

  3. Correction: In the reference to the SCC case, it was reported the “court documents refer to L and J.” This should be "the court reference to the case is S.L. The first reference to the case, however, was correctly cited as S.L. v. Commission scolaire des Chênes.

  4. A few hundred homeschoolers "forced" the delay of a bill when the PCs have a huge majority in government and still have time before they must call an election?

    Please. Does that sound at all realistic?

    It would be far more accurate, I think, to say that the government instead chose to *not* pass this bill.

    With respect, you seem to be missing some key aspects of this controversy.

    First, it's not just homeschooling parents who are concerned. There is also the Alberta Catholic School Trustees' Association ( that shares the same concerns with Bill 2 that AHEA does (in addition to two Catholic school-specific concerns). In addition, Citizens for Diversity in Education (, a coalition of various schools, associations, organizations and churches, have also expressed the same grave reservations about parental rights and the enshrining of the AHRA within Section 16 of Bill 2. Then there are parents with children in Catholic, private, charter and public schools who are equally concerned. And finally we even have Albertans who don’t have any children in the school system (although they may have grandchildren attending) but who are deeply apprehensive at the idea of unelected human rights tribunals being given responsibility for approving all instructional materials used in Alberta’s schools.

    Secondly, my thought is that the Charter is really not an issue because Charter issues are decided in an actual court of law. Human rights tribunals, on the other hand, are quasi-judicial and have been misused rather significantly for frivolous or malicious purposes, with the overall result of diminishing freedom of expression and religion. Perhaps you think this is a good thing, but many Albertans do not.

    Third, in terms of this being a “back door attack against Charter rights”, much less a “Christian fundamentalist war”, I think that's over-the-top paranoid. Every person whom I personally know who shares these concerns about Bill 2, no matter what their religious or cultural background, has only the utmost respect for human rights. As expressed in a letter to the Edmonton Journal yesterday:

    “The vast majority of home educators – religious or not - simply want the government to leave them alone so they can teach what is right and wrong to their children.

    For example, I know same-sex couples who want the same right: to teach their children according to what they believe is right and wrong.

    They have said to me,‘You’re a Catholic and we think your church is dead wrong.’

    They have the right to think that, but I would go farther: I would strongly and clearly support their right to say what they believe and to teach their children what they believe; they are the parents.”

    1. Oh my goodness!

      I didn’t write the word “forced.” The post begins with the words “What appears to be.” These are words that directly relate to the word “optics” that I explain later in the piece. I’m also well aware of the political posturing, which is a deflection. I know what the Catholic Church and other organizations are saying on Bill 2. Moreover, I know how our HRCs actually work and their purpose, as well as some statistical information and positive examples of their work, unlike the spin you’ve just parroted that proves the point of the entire article.

      I prefer to stick to facts and will defer to experts on the subject, allowing those facts and experts to counter the spin. So stay tuned for my next posts where I will further explain the echo chamber and give even more clarity to the issues at hand. Evidence, and not merely personal opinion, supports true analysis.

    2. Thank you for publishing my comments; I appreciate that. Is there some reason you haven't published the CDE speech given at the rally at the Legislature on March 19, by chance?

      And I apologize. You're quite right - you did not use the word "force"...although you *do* use the word "hijack", which certainly has the connotation of "seize, take control, or take over." I think my mistake is understandable in light of your use of that word. I still maintian, however, that the idea that a few hundred people could "hijack" a Bill that the (majority) government *could* have easily passed is rather far-fetched.

      I would also emphasize that this is not "a small group of people" when it includes not only AHEA, but also the ACSTA and the members of CDE. That represents a significant portion of the population...even without taking into consideration the Albertans who are concerned and do not belong to any of those groups.

      I can assure you that Albertans who are concerned with Bill 2 - and yes, even home educators - hold the Charter in great esteem, even if they don't all agree with every interpretation of it.

      Can I ask why you think that Albertans who are concerned about Bill 2 are arguing for "absolute" rights to freedom of expression and religion? I do not recall hearing anyone do so throughout the course of this debate.

      Finally, are you aware that the vast majority of communications with the Education Minister have been, according to his office, considerate and respectful? I am growing weary of the one-sided generalizations and ad hominen attacks against all who express these concerns.

    3. When I’m addressed in a curious manner and someone respectfully sticks to the issues, it’s not a problem for me to respond in kind, but that is usually determined by constraints on my time.

      I have assessed, by way of research, that a relatively small number of people (and not necessarily parents) who are (a) religious (b) far right leaning in their politics and (c) because of Bill 44, have hijacked both education and human rights policies within Alberta. The article is not restricted to just Bill 2. Hence, my headline.

      And I assessed, by way of research, the issues in Alberta are part of a broader debate. I was also quite clear there is more information to come about the issues and the organizations.

      Also, as of April 1, 2009, (the latest available statistics) Alberta’s population was estimated at 3,653,840. Thus, a couple of hundred protestors at the first rally or a couple of thousand at the second rally is a fraction of the total population. As well, there are conflicting reports with respect to how many protestors attended the rallies. Further, one does not know who contacted the government, other than what’s on record, or in my case, information provided to me from a variety of sources with differing views on the subjects. I can also draw certain conclusions about the organizations associated with the rallies, comments being made by spokespeople and who is writing what and for what purpose.

      As a journalist, it’s important to question agendas, attempt to balance out stories with other coverage, give context to issues and expose facts, falsehoods, and details omitted from the general discourse. It’s called informing the public.

      I take great pride in my work and do my very best to look at all sides of an issue. I will not, however, shy from calling a spade a spade when writing analysis on a given topic.

      The larger issue of human rights pits a relatively small number of people associated with an inter-connected web of organizations – with ties to the US, with certain religious orientations, all chanting the same messages but without sticking to a Canadian context – against all those who may not agree with those organizations, orientations or messages. There are many people of faith who believe in values taught in the Bible, but who do not necessarily agree with the positions taken by some people and certain organizations. There are also many people of faith who do not push their beliefs and values onto others for two very good reasons: tolerance and respect.

      It’s not enough to reject an argument because we don’t like the conclusion or for that matter, accept an argument simply because with agree with a conclusion. To reject an argument we must find something wrong with the reasons or a faulty link between what's put forward as reasons and the conclusion, or both. An opinion is simply a conclusion without support.

      Canadians need clarity on these extremely important issues, so they may may assess the validity of the arguments presented and gain understanding of the issues.