A controversial new bill does not give Alberta parents the right to pull their children out of science classes when evolution is discussed, according to Lindsay Blackett, the provincial minister responsible for human rights.
New rules buried in a proposed amendment to Alberta's human rights legislation that extends rights to homosexuals would require schools to notify parents in advance of "subject matter that deals explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation." Parents can then ask for their child to be excluded from the discussion.
Premier Ed Stelmach told reporters last week that the provision could be used to pull students out of classes dealing with evolution, if parents preferred their kids be taught what's in the Bible instead.
"The parents would have the opportunity to make that choice," he said.
But in an interview with CBC News Monday, Blackett said he has gone through the draft bill and talked to staff in the education and justice departments and concluded that religious beliefs aren't covered.
"This is opt-out on religious instruction not on grounds of religious beliefs. So the thought that somebody can get out of evolution using the fact that it's against their religious beliefs is not correct," he said. "Evolution is not a part of religious studies, it's part of science curriculum, and there is nothing that will change that going forward."
If a teacher follows the curriculum there "is no problem."
"We aren't talking about discussions that come up in class," he said. "We expect people to be reasonable. We expect that the teacher has to have the latitude. We are not the thought police, and we don't want to interfere with their ability to teach their classes."
The bill has raised the ire of opposition parties and the Alberta Teacher's Association, which argued that making evolution optional would be a mistake and teachers would have trouble avoiding the topic. Frank Bruseker, the head of the Alberta Teachers' Association, is meeting Monday with Education Minister Dave Hancock and Blackett, the minister of culture and community spirit, to raise his concerns.
'Stunningly unimpressive and a great disappointment'
Also Monday, the Calgary-based Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership held a press conference to call the bill, with its amendments to Alberta's human rights legislation, "stunningly unimpressive and a great disappointment."
Research associate Dan Sharpio said parents already have the right to exclude their children from sex education classes so there is no need to include it in this bill.
"I mean there's already a ministerial directive in the department of education for parents to opt their children out of stuff dealing with human sexuality, i.e., sex education classes, in which case this is redundant. Why add it into human rights legislation? And moreover it opens a huge can of worms, namely the possibility that we'll have human rights complaints against teachers, administrators and so on," he said.
'We have a lot of great people who do a lot of great work, but sometimes, we have gone off the rails a little bit because there wasn't that clear direction, and we are trying to give it that.' —Lindsay Blackett, minister of culture and community spirit
"The proposed parental opt-out is at best ill-considered and at worst an attack on the very idea of educating young Albertans to be critical thinkers capable of examining multiple points of view."
President Janet Keeping said that while extending human right to homosexuals is an important step for Alberta, she had expected an overhaul.
"Bill 44 does not represent a serious effort to come to grips with the pressing problems that are faced by the human rights commission," she said. "These are vital meat and potatoes issues. People refused work or promotions because of their skin colour or religion. Women demoted when they come back from maternity leave, disabled people turned away from employment or not able to access public services. Aboriginal people treated repeatedly and often like dirt."
In the interview with CBC News earlier in the day, Blackett defended the province's vision for its human rights commission.
"The majority of what we are doing is dealing with the administrative needs that have to be addressed," he said. "We want to make sure that we have a human rights commission that is effective, efficient and transparent. We have a lot of great people who do a lot of great work, but sometimes, we have gone off the rails a little bit because there wasn't that clear direction, and we are trying to give it that."
Unique to Alberta, says researcher
No other provincial human rights legislation touches on parental rights in education, said Linda McKay-Panos, a human rights law expert and head of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre at the University of Calgary.
Human rights law is in place to protect against discrimination on the basis of a number of factors, such as race and gender. It's hard to figure out what type of discrimination is being targeted with the proposed change, McKay-Panos said, suggesting the issue instead falls under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"It's kind of an odd place to put all this," she said. "They could have interpreted the Charter already to include that protection if they want to exempt their children by freedom of religion."
The issue was front and centre in question period in the Alberta legislature on Monday as NDP Leader Brian Mason questioned why the premier and Blackett were contradicting each other. Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann attacked the government for not doing adequate consultation in the drafting of what he called a "bad bill."
Dan Moulton, a recently retired elementary school teacher in Calgary who calls the proposal "folly," said topics like religious studies and sexuality come up in the classrooms and can't always be planned.
"For instance, looking at the year and the festivals and things that people celebrate in French culture, you can't avoid talking about the Catholic church because, particularly in Canada, it had such a strong influence on the development of culture," he said.
"You can't talk about Shakespeare or Molière or any of the theatre drama from that period of time without talking about sexuality because it is so bawdy."