09/03/2013 07:28 EDT | Updated 11/03/2013 05:12 EST

Manitoba's Anti-Bully Bill Slammed For Defining Bullying As Hurting Feelings


WINNIPEG - A proposed Manitoba law aimed at cracking down on school bullying came under fire Tuesday night, as the first of hundreds of presenters said the bill is so vague, it could make anyone a bully.

"What if my child, who is of one cultural background, happens to have two friends of the same cultural background and invites only those two children to her birthday party?" Sandra Trinkies, a mother from Niverville, Man, told a legislature committee.

"Could that alone be construed as racism to a child of another cultural background? The possibilities of accusations about hurt feelings are endless."

Bill 18 contains a broader definition of bullying than most other provinces. It includes any behaviour that causes, or would be known to cause, fear or harm to someone's "body, feelings, self-esteem, reputation or property." It includes one-time incidents, whereas many other provinces require repeated behaviour to qualify as bullying.

The Opposition Progressive Conservatives spent much of the spring and summer stalling the bill in the legislature, saying it could see teachers or coaches facing accusations of bullying simply for telling a student they were not performing well.

Even some supporters of the NDP government's bill say the definition is too vague. The Manitoba School Boards Association likes the idea behind the bill, but said the definition of bullying needs to be narrowed.

"Zero-tolerance policies are rarely the most effective way of responding to serious situations, yet the definition contained in Bill 18 seems to be advocating for that approach," said Robert Rivard, the association's part-president.

The bill has also come under fire for requiring schools to accommodate gay-straight alliances if a student wants to establish one. Some independent religious schools, and some parents, say it would violate their freedom of religion.

"This is no different than the government going into Jewish or Muslim communities and forcing them to no longer eat kosher or halal," said Robert Hiebert, a parent of a teenaged boy.

But the proposed legislation also has many supporters. Peter Wohlgemut, a Grade 5 teacher in Altona, Man., was forced last year to take down a gay-friendly sign in his classroom. He told the committee the bullying of gay students is harsher than that aimed at other students.

"There are other groups that certainly need protection ... but the issue here is dealing with a group that is particularly vulnerable and at this point is in particular need of this kind of protection."

Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, also urged the legislature to pass the bill as is.

Manitoba is one of the few provinces that have mandatory public hearings for all legislation. More than 300 people have registered to speak to Bill 18 over the next 10 days. Education Minister Nancy Allan has vowed to press ahead with the bill regardless of the public input.

The NDP and Tories recently reached an agreement to end the opposition stalling of Bill 18 and dozens of other bills which had been stuck in limbo since May. The deal will see Bill 18 and nine other proposed laws go to a final vote by Sept. 17. In exchange, the government has agreed to put off other bills, including a hike in the provincial sales tax, until November.

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