by Bobbie Saga
Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith refused to say Wednesday whether she personally believes in the concept of "conscience rights."
It’s a concept whereby commissioners can opt-out of marrying same-sex couples, or doctors can opt-out from prescribing birth control pills to a patient, or family planning counselors can opt-out of referring women for appropriate family planning – all in the guise of freedom of conscience and guided by a person’s values or beliefs.
It seems an unbelievable concept, this twist of Canadian Charter rights that cloaks discrimination. Yet the specter of religious fanatics and their nefarious influence are pushing for such policies, most notably within Alberta’s far right of the political spectrum. And it’s become a familiar aspect of Alberta’s provincial election with home-schooling parents pushing for their "god given right" to pick and choose what’s taught to their children in a publicly funded education system, or the chant to limit access to justice by way of abolishing the Human Rights Commission (HRC).
These intolerant polices should scare anyone who believes in a respectful society whereby everyone's rights are taken seriously and are balanced with competing views and guided by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and not by one's personal values and beliefs. The whole concept smacks of state-sanctioned bigotry and justification for zealots imposing their views and values on the rest of society. Plus, it does so in tandem with another Wildrose policy that taints the purpose and value of HRCs and would limit access to justice for only those well-heeled enough to afford it. Indeed, in the November/December 2010 issue of Canadian Human Rights Reporter, it was noted that, "none of the last five full external reviews of human rights processes in Canada have seen any merit in abandoning human rights tribunal systems in favour of high courts!"
How is this "conscience rights" policy any different from the Jim Crow laws in the US that allowed systemic discrimination and widespread de jure racial segregation in all public facilities with a supposedly "separate but equal" status for black Americans? This separation led to unequal economic treatment in bank lending practices, in employment, in education, in housing with all leading to social disadvantages for one segment of the population.
It seems, however, Ms. Smith does not wish to publicly acknowledge the toned-down word -- that is, the government "should" implement conscience rights. The party's 2010 policy handbook says a Wildrose government "will implement legislation protecting the conscience rights of health care professionals." But the 2012 Wildrose platform has that one different word on the subject, which hopefully should put tarnish on a carefully polished campaign.
Conscience rights are hotly disputed in other jurisdictions, as they tend to involve medical professionals refusing to perform or counsel for procedures they have moral objections to. These procedures include abortion, sterilization or other forms of birth control. There have also been civil commissioners opting out of marrying same-sex couples. Just last year, Saskatchewan’s Court of Appeal upheld the principle that those sworn to carry out public duties cannot unilaterally pick and choose parts of their job they will perform. That case involved a marriage commissioner refusing to perform same-sex marriages because of his religious beliefs.
What’s disturbing is that since this story broke in the mainstream press, there are comments popping up on media boards and blogs suggesting those who question or oppose such policies should have more respect for politicians holding religious values. Ignorance is bliss, I gather.
Most reasonable people, I suggest, don’t have a problem with politicians of faith. Rather, they have a problem with those seeming to believe that their religion gives them greater moral authority than those who don’t share their particular set of values and beliefs. It should not – and does not – under Canada’s Charter. I would further suggest that most reasonable people would draw the line at politicians using their belief system to justify casting out those who don’t share their bigoted beliefs. Democratic policies are supposed to be inclusive and government is supposed to govern for all people.
Are we now so far distanced from the past that we have forgotten the mistakes of the past? I would hope not. But asked repeatedly about her stance, Ms. Smith dodged reporters' questions, stating only, "I'll tell you where I stand… I am fundamentally a populist… I fundamentally believe that Albertans should decide the direction of the province."
That is not good enough, Ms. Smith. It is blatant deflection on an exceedingly important question, a question of state-sanctioned discriminatory policy you have previously gone on record endorsing. It’s a simple question, so answer it and allow the people to decide if this is what is truly wanted for the future of Alberta.