Come Watson, the game is afoot!
When I wrote my previous article about Prentice dabbling with his own "Lake of Fire", I had naively assumed that the game of Alberta politics was still being played with the same old bush league, bumbling rules of Klein, Stelmach, and Redford.
Was I ever wrong!
Bill 10, the Alberta Progressive Conservative government's new anti-bullying legislation, is ingenious not only in how it achieves its policy intent but also in how it elegantly repositions the major education stakeholders on the Alberta political chessboard.
Take note schoolboards and the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton: you are in a new game, a new league, and up against a Grand Master.
I'm not sure that gay rights, anti-bullying, or gay-straight peer support groups in schools were right at the top of Prentice's legislative agenda. He was backed into it by Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman's introduction of Bill 202. Through his response legislation, Bill 10, we get a first glance of how Prentice stickhandles rapidly moving files while simultaneously pushing forward his own policy agenda.
The topic has generated ill-informed heat, hyperbole, and histrionics on the left and right of the political spectrum. Even though the right rear rump of the party fled to the Wildrose, there remains concern that the PC government still feels obligated to play to conservative religious voters.
Not surprisingly, without the text of his anti-bullying legislation yet available, Prentice generated concern within the LGBTQ community when he said at a press conference last week that if students wanted to create gay-straight alliance (GSA) clubs in their schools, that they "will have clear legal recourse if a school attempts to stand in their way." It was hardly comforting that an at-risk group of children was being given the onus to go to court to create peer support groups.
When I watched Sandra Jansen (PC MLA, Calgary-North West) give her impassioned presentation of Bill 10 in the legislature, I agreed with everything she said.
But, she being a politician -- and history being history -- I was skeptical. I was certain that somewhere deep in the text of the bill there was an "out" for religious groups to continue telling LGBTQ youth that they are to feel shame for being themselves.
I found the "out" but it is so small nobody can squeeze through it.
What is so clever about Bill 10?
In what is emerging as Prentice's signature "systematic style", he did the following:
- He added sexual orientation to race, national origin, colour, religion and sex in the Alberta Bill of Rights as prohibited grounds for discrimination. All Alberta legislation must comply with this. (In 2014, this is less controversial than it is overdue. But then again, bills of rights always play catch-up.)
- He requires school boards to draft anti-bullying policies that must include explicit reference to these grounds of discrimination. (Note the linkage between discrimination and bullying. This also means that Catholic School boards can no longer get away with anti-bullying policies that cop out by only implicitly protecting LGBTQ youth.)
- He moved the parental notification requirements regarding topics dealing with religion and human sexuality out of the Alberta Human Rights Act and into the School Act and the Education Act, where they belong. (And, in doing so, also removed the requirement to provide notification when discussing "homosexuality", which now makes sense because its inclusion in the the Alberta Bill of Rights makes acceptance of homosexuality a common societal value.)
- He supports activities and organizations in schools that promote equality and non-discrimination with respect to race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, physical disability, mental disability, family status, sexual orientation and gender identity. (Did you see it? If you compare this list to the Alberta Bill of Rights discrimination list, you'll notice it is longer. The children are, indeed, our future and he's laying a foundation for a positive cultural change that will be felt for decades to come. The Alberta Bill of Rights will catch up in due course.)
- Here is the "out": he gives students the ability to appeal a decision by school staff who don't support students wanting to engage in activities or organizations that promote a "welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment that respects diversity and fosters a sense of belonging". The appeal goes to the board, whose decision can be appealed further to the courts on the grounds of "jurisdictional error or unreasonableness". (Of course, there is nothing unreasonable about such a request. Religious boards can argue infringement of religious freedom in court but to do so would seriously risk raising the ire of the parents they serve, who are increasingly adopting a secular value set.)
While I was concerned about protracted appeals processes, I doubt we will ever see a single case. In fact, I suspect the Catholic school boards are tired of fighting a battle against homosexuality that most of its elected trustees, staff, parents, and apparently even the Pope, don't seem to truly believe in any more.
Prentice has given the boards the "out" they wanted and is daring them to walk through it. If you can see it, you can recognize it as pure political genius.
Furthermore, Prentice has subtly reminded everyone that the religious institution of the Catholic Church was invited into the public education institution to provide educational services, not to provide indoctrination. He is reenforcing clear separation of church and state.
I think the big win is that Prentice has shifted everyone's focus away from an unproductive and damaging debate to something far more important: creating an education system that is a genuinely "welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment".
He doesn't want the hostility of the gay/anti-gay debate the adults are having to filter down to the children, where it has already caused real and tragic harm.
Good public policy is about shaping our culture. He has taken a firm stand in favour of pluralism, which -- whether you like it or not -- long-term demographic trends indicate is also our future.
Well played, Sherlock Prentice, well played.