Open Letter regarding Alberta Education’s Guidelines to Respect Diverse Sexual Orientations

Today I read with great interest Bishop Henry’s letter concerning the Minister of Education, Hon. David Eggen’s, requirement that Board Chairs of Public, Separate, Francophone and Charter School Boards respect diversity and foster a sense of belonging across Alberta such that their board policies reflect Alberta’s regulations by March 31, 2016.

As the Chairperson of hearings regarding Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in Alberta schools that heard from people of all ages, faiths, genders, and political stripes across Alberta, I feel compelled to correct statements made by Bishop Henry.

He stated that, “GSAs and QSAs are highly politicized ideological clubs which seek to cure society of ”homophobia” and “heterosexism,” and which accept the idea that all forms of consensual sexual expression are legitimate…” – See more at: http://www.calgarydiocese.ca/messages-from-the-bishop/1367-pastoral-letter.html

This statement is quite contrary from the finding of our hearings and final report that were reflected in the legislation passed in the spring of last year. It is a clear misunderstanding of what the mandate of a GSA actually entails and the essence of respecting diverse sexual orientations in Alberta schools.

I feel it is quite important to address this misinformation and correct Bishop Henry by repeating a few key pieces of information contained in our report. For the entire report, see: http://www.rmcla.ca/GayStraightAllianceFinalReportRMCLA2015.pdf

It should be noted that Bishop Henry or a representative of his office was invited on multiple occasions to participate in our hearing process. Our invitations were declined at each attempt. It is also important to note that our hearing process did include input from many Catholics, including Catholic school children who were some of the most compelling speakers at our hearings.

As we concluded from our hearings, “GSAs are voluntary student-centered school clubs open to all students. As with chess, math and knitting clubs, forming, attending, and participating in GSAs is entirely voluntary: There is no mandatory attendance required of any student; it is a club open to all students.” The legislation and subsequent Alberta Education guidelines on the matter did not change this core component of a GSA.

Our process noted eight common hallmarks articulated by people associated with these clubs:

  1. “A school club. A GSA is an assembly of students as a school club; and
  2. Open to all. Membership in the club is open to all students within a school; and
  3. Voluntary participation. Members of the club all participate voluntarily: no one is compelled to attend, and all students have the option not to attend; and
  4. Free association. The club allows free association among students for friendship, camaraderie and/or support; and
  5. Free expression. Within the clubs, the students may freely and safely express themselves. GSA participants are not limited or required to discuss issues relating to any particular topic, including sexuality and gender identity; they may discuss (or not discuss) any topic they choose; and
  6. A safe place. The club is intended to be a safe and secure place for students to meet within schools; and
  7. Avoidance of harm. GSA clubs allow students to have a place to avoid interpersonal harms, such as harassment, bullying, or other forms of abusive behaviour that occur within schools; and
  8. Oriented for LGBTQ students and their allies/friends. GSA clubs are particularly oriented to assist students who perceive themselves to be disenfranchised in some manner, or who identify with some sort of diverse sexual orientation or gender identity, and their allies within schools to receive support and promote a feeling of equality with one another.”

Our public consultation process also revealed themes concerning the mandate of GSAs. These included:

  • “To encourage safety within schools. Central to the mandate of a GSA is the focus on creating, holding and maintaining a safe place within a school for gay and lesbian students, students who self-identify as a having a diverse gender identity or sexual orientation, and others who might wish to demonstrate support or friendship toward these students.
  • To encourage dignity for all within schools. GSAs are places where the value, dignity and worth of all individuals is respected and all students are welcome, and where this can be encouraged in a variety of ways that fit the composition of the group (i.e. education, advocacy, and support).
  • To provide social support relevant to LGBTQ students. GSAs are places for students to provide peer support to help students understand and cope with the complexities of being part of a minority group. For others who join GSAs, it can be a place to gain a better and more compassionate understanding of their fellow students.”

Indeed, people repeatedly noted that a GSA is often the only safe place in a student’s life, free from bullying, abuse, humiliation and intolerance they commonly experience in their daily life outside the club.

We also noted what GSAs are not. “GSAs did not resemble the misinformed and often misleading characterization of GSA clubs as dating clubs, sexual education classes, or places to recruit or inculcate people to become “gay” or “lesbian”. In fact, no evidence was presented or available from any source to indicate that GSA clubs engage in any such activities.” Further we noted that, “GSAs are not — nor are they designed or intended to be — exclusive to LGBTQ students and, rather than diminish it, in fact GSAs promote and increase inclusion at school.”

One of the key principles that is often overlooked when discussing the inclusion of all children in schools is the idea that “…ongoing abuse exists within Alberta schools, particularly directed toward LGBTQ students, and there appears to be a real, active, and proximal duty to protect students from this harm. The panellists were persuaded that LGBTQ minors are a particularly vulnerable group.” RMCLA therefore suggested that the government has a duty to act in the best interests of protecting the well-being of minors as a paramount principle to go forward in the coming months and years. The Hon. Mr. Eggen’s attempts to implement policies in schools related to LGBTQ students seem consistent in this regard.

Other points that underline the misinformation that Bishop Henry has forward are also included in our report. For these I take directly out of our report, as these excerpt speak for themselves.

There is considerable legal precedent to suggest that when “… the protection of minors is concerned, the minors’ interests must prevail over the wishes or interests of adults. While parents are free to engage in various practices, including religious practices, in certain cases the best interests of the child may be invoked to protect a child from those very practices. Even in such cases, however, the parent is still free to exercise their own religious rights or freedoms.”

“While religious and other parental rights are recognized, the courts and legislatures can and have imposed conditions on the exercise of those rights where warranted by the interests of the child. In Young v Young[1] the Supreme Court of Canada stated:

The power of the custodial parent is not a “right” with independent value granted by courts for the benefit of the parent. Rather, the child has a right to a parent who will look after his or her best interests and the custodial parent have a duty to ensure, protect and promote the child’s best interests.

The legislative provision for the “best interests of the child” does not limit and therefore does not violate the Charter right to religious and expressive freedom. Religious expression not in the best interests of the child is not protected by the Charter because the guarantee of freedom of religion is not absolute and does not extend to religious activity which harms or interferes with the parallel rights of other people. Conduct not in the best interests of the child, even absent the risk of harm, amounts to an “injury” or intrusion on the rights of others and is clearly not protected by this Charter guarantee. “Injure” in this context is a broad concept. To deprive a child of what a court has found to be in his or her best interests is to “injure”, in the sense of not doing what is best for the child. A child’s vulnerability heightens the need for protection and any error should be made in favour of the child’s best interests and not in favour of the exercise of the alleged parental right. An additional factor which may come into play in the case of older children is the “parallel right” of others to hold and manifest beliefs and opinions of their own.”

We also noted that as children age and become more mature greater autonomy is given to children.

“The mature minor doctrine underscores the importance of self-determination and choice in a young person’s life. The Supreme Court of Canada has determined that, as children mature, their capacity for making decisions on their own increase, and the influence of their parents decrease.[2] The Court noted that,

The purpose of the Child and Family Services Act is to defend the “best interest” of children who are “in need of protection” — this means, in this context, children who do not have the capacity to make their own decisions about medical treatment. When applied to young persons who possess the requisite capacity, the presumption has “no real relation” to the legislative goal of protecting children who do not possess such capacity. The deprivation in the case of mature minors is thus arbitrary and violates section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The ‘mature minors doctrine’ enables and affords legal protection for the rights of persons under the age of majority to make (sometimes significant) medical and life choices, including the undertaking of practices and behaviours — such as pre-marital sex and the use of contraception — that are contrary to some religious teachings and can have serious and life—altering consequences.”

Finally, with respect to religion, “The Supreme Court of Canada has also noted that, even then, religious belief is not absolute. The Court has discussed the intersection of conflicting or differing religious views:

The purpose of freedom of conscience and religion becomes clear. The values that underlie our political and philosophic traditions demand that every individual be free to hold and to manifest whatever beliefs and opinions his or her conscience dictates, provided inter alia only that such manifestations do not injure his or her neighbours or their parallel rights to hold and manifest beliefs and opinions of their own.[3]

Statements made by the Pope, Alberta’s Catholic Bishops, as well as opinions expressed by religious leaders and followers of other faiths are all strong evidence that a debate is alive and well in religion regarding the issues of our inquiry.

Not every effect of legislation on religious beliefs or practices is offensive to the constitutional guarantee under s.2(a). The section does not, therefore, require a legislature to refrain from imposing burdens regarding the standards of education, even in the context where religion is practiced in schooling.[4]

Nor was it established that the presence of GSAs in schools has any deleterious effects on the central tenets of any religion. Given its voluntary nature a GSA in a school also does not diminish or interfere with other people’s choice to practice (or not to practice) any particular religion, even within the school.

Consequently, we do not find that there is any conflict between mandating GSAs in schools and freedom of religion.”

In this same vein of argument, we do not see that the Minister of Education is acting beyond his powers by requesting all boards have respectful policies and follow Alberta Education’s rules and regulations.

We respect Bishop Henry’s right to his own personal free expression, but that does not mean only his opinion prevails in Alberta, or elsewhere, as the definitive truth on every subject, especially when some of his opinions may indeed be incorrect.

Kelly Ernst

President, Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association


[1] [1993] 4 SCR 3, 1993 CanLII 34 (SCC)

[2] A.C. v. Manitoba (Director of Child and Family Services),  2009 SCC 30, [2009] 2 S.C.R. 181 http://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/7795/index.do

[4] (Jones v R [1986] 2 S.C.R. 284

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