Manitoba Human Rights Commission ordered to reconsider complaint by LGBTQ parents over curriculum

A trio of Manitoba parents are getting a second chance to prove the Manitoba government’s curriculum discriminates against LGBTQ families.

Parents allege Manitoba government discriminates against LGBTQ families

Michelle McHale was one of the parents who alleged that Manitoba's curriculum discriminates against LGBTQ families. (The Canadian Press)

A trio of Manitoba parents are getting a second chance to prove the provincial government's curriculum discriminates against LGBTQ families. 

This comes after a Court of Queen's Bench justice sided with the parents, who were seeking a judicial review of a decision by Manitoba's Human Rights Commission to dismiss their complaint about the curriculum. 

Justice David Kroft issued his written judgment on Aug. 17 after hearings were held last year, quashing the commission's decision to dismiss the complaint and ordering it to take a second look at it. 

LGBTQ parents Michelle McHale, Karen Phillips and Sonja Stone filed a complaint with the commission in 2017, alleging the Manitoba government discriminates against them and their children by not including gender identity or sexual orientation in their curriculum and learning materials.

A 40-page investigation report undertaken by the commission as part of the complaint sided with the parents and recommended the complaint go to a public hearing.

However, the Human Rights Commission's board of commissioners — who are appointed by the government — voted to dismiss the complaint in 2019. 

This prompted the trio to seek a judicial review of the dismissal, which was filed in November of that year. 

Parents still waiting for change

Kroft noted in his judgment that the commission's one-page written reasons for tossing the complaint were not "sufficiently justified by transparent reasons."

Stone, who identifies as queer, said she had to home-school her child after the bullying they received from their classmates. 

While she welcomed the court's ruling, she said the process has taken too long and in the meantime nothing has been done to alter the curriculum in a systemic way.

Manitoba Human Rights Commission director Karen Sharma said the commission is still reviewing the court decision. (Submitted by Karen Sharma)

"Four years later we're still at a place where the commission is being asked to decide whether this complaint can proceed to a hearing on its merits," she told CBC News.

"2SLGBTQ+ kids and their families continue to be selectively excluded from the curriculum and are told in some school divisions that our very existence is 'too sensitive' to be discussed or acknowledged in school."

Karen Sharma, the executive director of the commission, said the commission is still reviewing the decision to determine next steps and cannot comment any further. 

McHale and Phillips made headlines in 2016, when they spoke publicly against the Hanover School Division's policy not to discuss LGBTQ issues in full class settings, after they told staff their child was bullied for having two moms.

McHale told CBC News that she is grateful for the court judgment, but she still wants to know why the human rights complaint was dismissed in the first place.

Like Stone, she feels that four years is far too long to be waiting when LGBTQ families continue to feel discriminated against within Manitoba's school system.

"This is about making sure all people and families can see themselves positively reflected in their education," she said.

"This is about making sure divisions are doing the work to combat any hurtful beliefs about 2SLGBTQ+ people."

2nd review

The investigative report by the commission found Manitoba teachers were given little guidance on how to teach about gender diversity or sexual orientation, and there was no mandatory curriculum that addresses these questions.

It also found:

  • There is no clear definition of "diversity" in the school curriculum.
  • The lack of definition means teachers could still meet the curriculum requirements without providing content that includes diverse sexual orientations, gender identities or family structures.
  • LGBTQ individuals are further stigmatized because "conventional wisdom" is to avoid talking about sexuality or "queer sexuality" in schools.
  • Specific references to sexuality, gender and family diversity are limited to elective classes in the senior years.

The parents were represented by Allison Fenske of the Public Interest Law Centre. She said the ruling by Kroft sends a message to the commissioners. 

"This is an important reminder to the commission that they need to do a better job of explaining their reasons," she said.

"And making sure that their reasons for the decisions they make are grounded in the evidence before them."

Fenske said the next step will be for the commissioners to reconsider the parents' original complaint and the 40-page investigation report.

She said they can either uphold their original decision or send it to a public hearing. 

If the complaint goes to a public hearing, an adjudicator can either dismiss the complaint or order the offending party to apologize, give compensation, and implement special programs, among other orders.