It’s a sweeping new education law years in the making, an experiment meant to overhaul the rules governing Alberta’s schools and watched closely by other provinces.
Alberta’s proposed Education Act boosts efforts to combat bullying both at school and online and grants broad new powers to local school boards.
While it has won widespread acclaim, the act also drew controversy, with home-school advocates saying human-rights provisions unfairly trumped parental and religious freedoms.
The saga delayed the Alberta bill and eventually forced changes. It is now in its final reading in the Legislature and stands as a warning to other provinces looking to roll together and modernize pre-Internet-era education laws.
“We’ve been watching closely,” said Sandi Urban Hall, president of the Canadian School Boards Association.
The law’s supporters say ideology is just a small part of the changes that other jurisdictions are watching. “Right now, for the rest of Canada, it’s [a question of] will the process give Alberta what they were looking for? Will the exercise achieve the goals that were set out?” Ms. Urban Hall said, adding other provinces could follow suit if Alberta’s trial proves to be a success.
It certainly proved to be a political minefield, with debate swirling around one symbolic but ideologically charged clause: a decree that all coursework “promote understanding and respect for others and honour and respect the Canadian Charter or Rights and Freedoms and the Alberta Human Rights Act.”
Opponents argued it was a big-government intrusion on parental rights, one that could open the door to people – particularly home schoolers and religious educators – being hauled before Alberta’s Human Rights Commission for teaching their beliefs, particularly on subjects such as gay rights. Libertarians, including many in the opposition Wildrose Party, argue the commission limits free speech.
The government’s capitulation is either a victory for parents’ rights or a blow for broader human rights, depending on which side you ask.
"We were simply saying every parent in the province should have the right to have first say over what happens to their children," said Paul van den Bosch, a home-schooling advocate from Red Deer. Mr. van den Bosch helped organize large protests on the legislature steps this spring, saying parental rights trump everything when it comes to education. “We’re very concerned that the Alberta Human Rights Act undermines that,” he said.
There would have been little chance of a parent actually being prosecuted – Human Rights Commission cases are complaint-based, likely meaning a student or home-schooled child would have to actually come forward against a teacher or parent. Under the status quo, that’s never happened to teachers. And the new act still requires all school boards to pass codes of conduct that “address the prohibited grounds of discrimination set out” in the Human Rights Act.
Nonetheless, public school supporters say the about-face is a telling omission. “Any time something like that happens, my radar goes up – why would you remove basic human-rights legislation in a cornerstone Education Act?” NDP education critic David Eggen said. “It was there in the spring, and this government argued passionately for that, so what’s changed in the fall? It’s political pandering to a very small, very vocal minority to make this change. I don’t like that.”
The government has indeed reversed its position. In February, former education minister Thomas Lukaszuk defended the original wording by saying “all school programs must reflect the province’s diversity and – it cannot be said too often – promote understanding and respect of others.” Current Education Minister Jeff Johnson now says the reference was unnecessary and that anti-bullying rules and the Human Rights Act itself will do the job. “An inclusive system means every kid gets support, every student, every time, every kid celebrated, no bullying tolerated,” he told the legislature.
The governing Progressive Conservatives are, at heart, a party with a rural base. In this case, though home-schooled children make up just 1.3 per cent of the student body, their advocates were supported by the right-wing, upstart Wildrose Party, the PCs’ top challenger. By March, days before triggering the election campaign, the PCs took the unusual step of filibustering their own bill, ensuring the Education Act wouldn’t pass as it was written. The PCs won the election and, this fall, the Education Act was tabled again – without the controversial clause.
Caught in the political battle were educators who just wanted the new law to kick in. Jacquie Hansen, president of the Alberta School Boards Association, said she “can absolutely live with” the clause being removed, if only because it allows the law to pass, granting new, much-needed powers to school boards to deal with problems – including bullying and discrimination.
“At the end of the day, it’s not going to please every single person in this province, but what piece of legislation ever does?” Ms. Hansen said. “All in all we’re happy with it. Is it going to be great for every single person? Probably not, but it’s great for the greater good.”
An early version of this story incorrectly said the bill had passed third reading. It remains before the Alberta legislature.