The controversial anti-bullying legislation enacted through Bill 13 is now officially part of Ontario’s Education Act, but some Christian and Muslim parents continue to mistakenly use the law as a rallying point to raise wider objections about their children’s schooling.
Reading the “family values” letter being distributed as part of their campaign, you would think a lot has changed in today’s schools. Signatories want to be notified whenever there are plans to teach black magic, environmental worship, bondage and a plethora of other topics.
The bill seems to have been folded into deeper concerns – real or unfounded – about school curriculum. Understanding why requires some historical context so that a clear distinction can be made between the objections raised by these parents and the actual purpose and contents of Bill 13. This is important because as traditions and values change and diversify, conflicts will continue to arise. Knowing how to deal with these tensions will be crucial in maintaining cohesive school communities.
What spurred some faith groups to action is legislation that aims simply to create safe spaces for students of all backgrounds, beliefs and lifestyles. Considering how compassion and mercy are central to all faiths, it’s puzzling that any believer would criticize legislation aimed at preventing the kind of isolation and fear that could lead a young person to feelings of inadequacy, rejection, even suicide.
The necessary context is that a few years ago, Ontario’s Liberal government quietly introduced changes to the curriculum that would have third-graders learning about heterosexual and same-sex relationships. In sixth and seventh grades, students were to be introduced to the terms “anal intercourse” and “vaginal lubrication.”
Parents weren’t notified of the planned changes, nor was their input sought by the government. That mistake set the tone that remains in evidence today. After all, these changes touch on fundamental beliefs that resonate deeply with most Canadians.
To his credit, Premier Dalton McGuinty responded to the outcry by cancelling the controversial changes.
Fast-forward to Bill 13, which requires schools to allow gay-straight alliances. It isn’t surprising that some parents feel the province is still bullying them into accepting values they don’t share and don’t want their children exposed to.
Conversely, when school boards receive aggressive letters – the “family values” letter is condescending and insulting – it also isn’t surprising that some administrators refuse to notify anyone about curriculum they already have the go-ahead to deliver. They don’t like being bullied either, and they don’t want to reverse efforts to create inclusive spaces.
The province is left to mediate these competing interests in a society where values and expectations differ.
Some commentators have suggested that concerned parents should open their own schools, or home-school their children. But most concerned constituents have only one viable option – the public one. That should compel parents, schools and governments to engage in dialogue and balance these competing rights. The Ontario Human Rights Commission’s recently released policy on this balancing act offers sound advice.
This balancing of competing rights is crucial as we face a future that is increasingly multifaith, multilingual, multisexual, multicultural, multi-everything. It’s a future where one person’s belief or practice may completely offend another, but in which everyone should be expected to negotiate ways to make communities safe, respectful and inclusive.
Amira Elghawaby is the human-rights officer with the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations.