Edmonton

Edmonton Catholic board's transgender policy debate centres on single word

Catholic school trustees continued to grapple with a draft policy to protect transgender students from discrimination on Tuesday, and spent much of their discussion focused on a single word.

Transgender woman who attending meeting asks who gets to decide if discrimination is 'just' or 'unjust'

Trustee Cindy Olsen argued that some forms of discrimination are just while others are not. (CBC)

Catholic school trustees continued to grapple with a draft policy to protect transgender students from discrimination on Tuesday, and spent much of their discussion focused on a single word.

On first reading, the draft policy included the sentence: "All members of the school community have the right to an environment free of discrimination, prejudice and harassment."

But on second reading Tuesday evening, that sentence was altered to add the word "unjust" before the word "discrimination."

Trustee Cindy Olsen read the new draft of the policy and argued in favour of adding the word "unjust" to that section.

"That recognizes that there is just and unjust discrimination," she said.

She then gave an example, citing the requirement for older drivers to take tests before their licences are renewed.

"If somebody is blind they are not able to drive a car," she said. "So to discriminate against them, it's not unjust. But they can't drive a car."

Olsen offered a second example.

"If we had a teacher who was teaching religion and wasn't Catholic in a Catholic school, is that discrimination? Or is that unjust discrimination? Because how can a non-Catholic teacher teach religion?"

Two trustees argued against adding the word "unjust" to the policy.

"I'm a little concerned about the word," said trustee Patricia Grell. "It's almost like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Is what is unjust sort in the eye of whoever is deciding what is unjust? It seems to be open to interpretation."

Marilyn Bergstra stepped aside as chair for the debate, saying she had strong feelings about the policy and wanted to speak freely.

She, too, argued against inserting the word "unjust," saying it will leave the policy open to a much broader interpretation.

"It needs to be black and white," Bergstra said. "The purpose of policy is to provide clarity so everyone knows what is expected.

In the end, the board voted to preserve the wording about "unjust discrimination."

Grell and Bergstra voted against that amendment word.

Marni Panas, a transgender woman who attended Tuesday's meeting, said by adding that one word the Catholic board has taken a step backwards.

"I can't imagine any child who is sitting out there listening to this feels any safer or welcome today. When we have an argument about what is 'just' discrimination and what is 'unjust' discrimination, who decides this? This is not a step forward."

The mother of the transgender student at the centre of the debate said she wasn't pleased by the tone or direction of the board's discussion.

"Religion does not trump human rights. Civil and human rights are a given, and the fact that we're discussing it in 2015 is beyond me."

After the meeting, Bergstra said before the policy goes to a third reading the board will wait for clear guidelines from Education Minister David Eggen about how to ensure such policies conform to the law.

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