The fantastic folly of Bill 44

By Doug Horner

We revered our grade four teacher. He was an ex-prison guard with a serene and sturdy character. He easily commanded the respect of a room full of 10-year olds. There were, however, a few days when his no nonsense demeanor evaporated and strange overheads provoked our classroom into uncomfortable silences. This awkwardness was always preceded by permission slips, sent home and brought back with our parents’ signatures. With forms in hand, our teacher could begin his bumbling exposition on certain aspects of human physiology, the kind not uniformly shared by every wide-eyed and somewhat beguiled kid in the classroom. The permission slips were one of many interactions between our parents and those entrusted with our education. Their existence makes Bill 44 all the more confounding.

Bill 44 is currently being debated in Alberta’s legislature. It proposes amendments to the Alberta Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act (AHRCM). This act exists to protect Albertans from discrimination and is upheld by the Human Rights Commission. The Act has not been revised since its inception 13 years ago and has been criticized for not reflecting the values of Albertans.

In September 2008, the Sheldon Chumir Foundation submitted a report to the province with 21 recommendations for re-establishing the viability of the Act and repairing the reputation of the Commission. Last year, Minister of Culture and Community Spirit Lindsay Blackett announced he was going to examine and update the Act. Unfortunately, Bill 44 was the result.

There are basically two changes being proposed. One is laudable but completely cosmetic and the other is downright Draconian. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has been illegal since 1995, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled it fit under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 1998, the Supreme Court further held that the Alberta Individual Rights Protection Act’s omission of
sexual orientation was unconstitutional under the Charter. Bill 44 proposes to officially write sexual orientation into the Act and, if it succeeds, Alberta will be the last jurisdiction in Canada to do so.

The other proposed amendment gives parents the right to withdraw their kids from classes dealing with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation. The school board would be responsible for informing parents when this type of material would be taught. If parents felt they were not properly notified, they could make an official complaint about the teacher or principal to the Human Rights Commission. The bizarre aspect of Bill 44 is that parents in effect already have this right. We can all remember being stubby-legged messengers couriering permission slips from teachers to parents and then back again. The Alberta School Act explicitly states, “parents have a right and a responsibility to make decisions respecting the education of their children.” All Bill 44 does is introduce an ominous undercurrent to a relationship built on mutual respect. It is important to trust teachers to do their job and empower them to do it well. Introducing an element of fear into the classroom and forcing teachers to second-guess themselves will pollute the learning environment.

On the back of our classroom wall our venerable teacher had pasted various aphorisms. One read, “Your future lies before you like freshly fallen snow. Be careful how you tread on it, for every step will show.” The AHRCM Act is clearly out of step with Albertans. If Bill 44 becomes law it will create a mess of the province’s classrooms and further tarnish the Human Rights Commission’s already murky reputation.

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