EDMONTON – Alberta is pushing ahead with Canada’s first legislation to give parents the power under its human rights code to pull their children from lessons on sex, religion or sexual orientation.
In response to widespread criticism from school boards and human rights groups, Premier Ed Stelmach’s government has made only minor wording changes to the bill.
The amendments state that parents will not have the option to pull their children if the topics come up in an incidental or indirect way during classroom discussions.
Liberal Laurie Blakeman called it a minor tweaking of Bill 44, which she predicts will have a profound impact once it passes final reading in the assembly later this month.
“Imagine the resources that will have to be used in every school to notify this parent, but not that parent,” said Blakeman. “This is going to change our school system.
“This should not exist and it should not be in the Human Rights Act.”
The Alberta School Boards Association has also been highly critical of the legislation and said the amendments will not satisfy the group’s concerns.
“They didn’t go as far as we thought they would be going,” said association president Heather Welwood.
“Parents should still be dealing with their concerns through the School Act. Do not do this under the human rights code.”
Welwood was also hoping to see details in the amendments to show how schools will be required to contact parents about lessons on sex, religion or gay issues.
“It still did not outline when a parent has to be informed, who they have to be informed by and what the notice has to look like,” she said.
“So the regulations and the bylaws (yet to come) are going to be extremely important.”
This action has been criticized as a trade-off for right-wing caucus members who are upset that the legislation also enshrines gay rights.
Stelmach said there’s always going to be controversy when human rights legislation comes before the legislature. But he’s promising that government members will have a “free vote” on this bill, which he says was given a thorough vetting by his caucus.
“But I believe all Albertans believe that the family unit is basic to our society,” Stelmach told the assembly during an exchange with the Liberal opposition.
“Why should we give this up to the sort of nanny state that the Liberals want to see in this province?”
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has raised objections, saying there’s a danger that Bill 44 will “help to promote a regime of religious ignorance.”
Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett had several telephone meetings with the civil rights group, but conceded he couldn’t get the 72-member government caucus to make all the changes the association was seeking.
“It’s not going to come out exactly the way they wanted,” said Blackett. “We may agree to disagree.”
But Blackett also said he’s not looking to cause problems for schools or teachers.
“For myself and for most everybody it’s a simple thing about being a parent and being involved,” he said.
“More parents should be involved in their school, but try to do it in such a way as you don’t interfere with what the school boards and the teachers do.”
But the finer details on how the changes will be implemented will be worked out in the coming months by cabinet and the Alberta Human Rights Commission.
The Liberals introduced their own amendment late Tuesday night to have the entire parental rights section removed from the legislation and the matter was still being debated after midnight.
Blackett said earlier in the day that legislation would be put to a final vote sometime over the next 10 days before the legislature breaks for the summer.