THE BLOG

Alberta Continues to Erect Human Rights Fences

12/03/2014 03:10 EST | Updated 02/02/2015 05:59 EST

The struggle to extend fundamental human rights to all people in Alberta continues, and it isn't going well. Bill 10, "An Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect our Children," has little to do with protecting children. It is a response to Bill 202 which would have allowed LGBTQ youth to easily establish gay-straight alliance clubs (GSAs) in their schools. Bill 202 is now dead. Its replacement, Bill 10, removes any guarantee of GSAs and the governments suggests doing so respects the balance of rights for LGBTQ people, parents, and school boards. It is not that simple.

The bill is cunningly crafted by appearing to advance human rights but upon closer examination, the bill appears to be designed to ensure LGBTQ people are reigned in.

Bill 10 as a response to Bill 202 makes it clear that students can have any range of clubs they wish, except if it applies to homosexuals, then restrictions apply. Such clubs require school board approval and there is no guarantee that approvals will occur. If a school board or its parents are intolerant in anyway, a board can easily disapprove any homosexual tolerating clubs.

Although the bill recognizes sexual orientation as prohibited grounds for discrimination, the bill retains the idea that LGBTQ people's enjoyment of rights is deemed incremental, not assumed. Conservative MLA Sandra Jansen who sponsored the bill confirmed this approach in her media interviews.

The move of section 11.1 (the section requiring teachers to inform parents of any discussion regarding sexual orientation in the curriculum and allows parents to opt their children out of such discussion) from the Alberta Human Rights Act to the Education Act changes little. Yes, human rights complaints can no longer be lodged if teachers do not comply with the section, but teacher disciplinary processes may still have the same effect. The section may continue to bury deep any mention of sexual orientation in schools.

The additional requirement of requiring children, with no means or resources, to possibly go as far as needing to hire a lawyer to spark judicial reviews to uphold their rights seems consistent with placing barriers in front of gay-straight alliances in schools before they get a start.

The bill solidifies the misguided notion that courts advance human rights, not governments. It appears the courts will have to again be used to help point the Alberta government toward reluctantly trudge forward on extending equal rights to everyone. It is a shifty strategy that, after a future Alberta government ultimately loses a case to restrict rights, will allow the government to point toward courts as forcing unwanted "gay rights," while the government abdicates its responsibility to uphold fundamental liberties.

Perhaps a better approach would have been to accept sexual orientation as a prohibited ground for discrimination in Alberta, eliminate section 11.1 altogether, including in the Education Act, allow GSAs by not legislating anything about clubs, but then to enhance everyone's right to express themselves in the debate about issues. Eliminating Section 3 of the Alberta Human Rights Act would have been a way to address all sides. Its repeal would foster free expression about issues, and encourage debate, without fear of someone lodging human rights complaints for expressing one's beliefs and perhaps offending someone.

Without the rights to freely associate with one another, assemble together, and express oneself, any organization can be easily squashed, clubs included. These fundamental rights allow people to come together and jointly encourage all of us to live well together. Most Canadians assume without question we can enjoy these rights, but that assumption is simply not true for everyone. Sometimes the most vulnerable need help and facilitation to use enjoy rights, especially to express themselves safely and with respectful environments.

Responding to anything "gay" by setting limits is not new in Alberta. In 1999, after Alberta lost its fight in the Supreme Court to block sexual orientation to be a prohibited grounds for discrimination, Alberta's Premier Ralph Klein established the fences committee. This ministerial committee was tasked to find ways to ensure LGBTQ people in Alberta were limited in how many rights they enjoyed. This tradition of building fences around human rights rather than opening up liberties continues with Bill 10.

It doesn't have to be this way. Good governance would focus on enhancing everyone's fundamental liberties, not restricting one group's liberties and then calling these restrictions the rights of another group.

Debate often points toward good solutions, but Bill 10 isn't it. The Alberta Government's response to debate - evoke closure. Putting barriers in front of anyone's rights or the process of letting all people enjoy their liberties does not make us freer or our society more respectful.