Pastor Brian Coldwell has ignited a firestorm of controversy regarding his apparent unwillingness to follow legislation that enforces the provision of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) onto every school in the province, including the two independent Christian schools he represents in the Edmonton area.
Why would Coldwell seem to defy the law and appear to risk endangering the safety of Alberta’s vulnerable youth by denying peer-support groups that are supposed to provide the assistance that students need – and legally deserve?
To answer this question we must understand more about GSAs and the legislation that governs their provision.
The purposes of GSAs
The website MyGSA.ca, which claims to be “Canada’s website for safer and inclusive schools for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) community,” includes the following information:
Some people find it offensive that opposition exists toward clubs designed to “offer support and resources for students in need” and “promote acceptance, respect, and tolerance of all individuals.”
However, the purposes of GSAs extend beyond only support, also including a strong emphasis on homophobia. Notice how the word “homophobia” is mentioned three times:
a) “…support each other while working together to end homophobia.”
b) “Form alliances and positive relationships between gay and straight students to fight homophobia”
c) Raise awareness and promote education about homophobia
Clearly, homophobia is something that must be taught through education, fought against and ended.
But what is “homophobia”?
On the Terms and Concepts page, “homophobia” is defined alongside “heterosexism”:
According to this definition, anyone who has an “irrational fear and hatred of homosexuals” (homophobia) or believes that heterosexuality is “superior and more desirable than homosexuality” (heterosexism) is considered “dangerous to individuals and communities”.
Not because of behaviour such as hurtful words, physical harm, or cyber-bullying, but simply because of their beliefs.
It is true that an “irrational fear and hatred” of anyone should be viewed as detrimental to society.
However, like it or not, our culture has manipulated and redefined what it means to be homophobic.
“Irrational fear and hatred” is now often popularly understood to mean “those who believe that marriage is sacred and exclusively between one man and one woman.”
Even the Alberta Teachers’ Association promoted this (mis)understanding of “homophobia” when it posted the controversial Alberta Dad rap video on Twitter and Facebook, with lyrics that include the following:
“Gay marriage is legal and that don’t bother me
Homophobia, biphobia, transphobia
An easy scapegoat for the scared and angry”
When it comes to our school system, there is a fine line between instruction about an ideology, and promotion of an ideology.
The use of language or clubs that explicitly or implicitly promote a hostile perception of others, simply on the basis of their personal beliefs, may create a safer climate for some – but only at the expense of potentially compromising a “safe, welcoming, caring, and respectful learning environment” for others.
Educators – as well as the organizations that are supposed to represent them – have an obligation to tread with care, compassion and sensitivity when these topics arise.
They have a responsibility to teach all children that the foundation of our free, democratic society relies on respecting the diverse perspectives represented in our multicultural, pluralistic society, even when we don’t necessarily agree.
Claiming these clubs will combat bullying, while also fostering perceptions of others as “dangerous” to society, is not only illogical; it is ineffective.
Disempowering Professional Authority in Schools
Often well-intentioned teachers, school district diversity consultants and principals may attempt to assure the public that they will ensure GSAs do not contribute to a hostile perception of anyone.
But unfortunately, these adults do not ultimately have the final authority on these decisions.
First, GSAs are distinctly defined as “student-led”.
Second, according to the legislation, the role of “staff liaison” is limited to only facilitating and assisting the “voluntary student organization.”
And, when in doubt, refer to the expert analysis of Dr. Kristopher Wells and his well-publicized “Making the Grade” report card criteria.
According to Dr. Wells, the very existence of any “constraints and limitations” that are “imposed” by school personnel onto the operation of GSAs contribute to a lower grade for school district policies (informing parents and putting age limit constraints on GSAs also lowered the score on some policies).
Curiously, all school board policies being awarded the lowest grades by Dr Wells, including the additional mention of Edmonton Catholic receiving a “D” in a CBC article, are Catholic school districts.
It seems that because Catholic boards have attempted to ensure the legislation is cohesively applied to their school culture and beliefs, they have been subjected to a public smear campaign which has unnecessarily damaged their reputations by falsely suggesting they are not safe places to learn.
While the Ministry of Education does not actually have the authority to “pass” or “fail” school board policies – except where they explicitly violate the law – Dr. Wells’ strategy of PR coercion is an effective warning to any other school boards or teachers who dare to impose limitations on these clubs.
At this point in the discussion, some raise the issue of religious clubs.
Aren’t religious clubs also ideological clubs that promote the superiority of a particular belief/value system? Could it not be argued that some religious holy books even ultimately have as their goal the eradication of one value system in favour of another?
If so, then why the big fuss over GSAs?
In a true display of respecting diversity in our province and making our schools “welcoming, safe, caring and respectful” of everyone, why doesn’t the government eliminate any perception of a double standard when it comes to enforcing ideological clubs in our schools and extend the same legislation and policy protection to the provision of religious student organizations?
a) Religious student organizations would be formed at the request of a single student, in any school. If the principal or teachers are unable or unwilling to facilitate the group, the Minister of Education will guarantee a person will be provided.
b) Religious student organizations would have the legal right to lead school activities, with no constraints or limitations. The principal and teachers “shall permit” the use of whatever materials the students find most appropriate. Examples may include school-wide worship songs at lunch hours, Sikh parades, Muslim prayer times, Mormon flag raising ceremonies, etc. Because students of religious faith are vulnerable to increasing levels of hostility, these steps would ensure they see themselves as fully valued and included.
c) Religious student organizations would provide “safe places” with adult contacts who could counsel children on their religious struggles.
d) Religious student organizations and school board policies would guarantee the privacy and confidentiality of vulnerable students, especially for those students who fear “coming out” as devoutly religious to parents who have clearly and publicly demonstrated hostility toward religious belief.
Many of us have seen memes circulating over social media in regard to this specific issue that say “You are not being silenced, bullied, oppressed when another group gains rights you’ve always had”.
But who else has these “rights” when it comes to student clubs, dictating school activities, ensuring confidentiality/privacy from parents in “safe spaces”, as well as assurances that government appointed club facilitators will be provided by the Ministry of Education?
No one does.
Which makes many wonder – in a true display of inclusion and respect for diversity, why is it that our government does not support extending these same “rights” to any other school group through the power of law?
Looming legal challenge?
Brian Coldwell also wants to ensure “safe, welcoming, caring, and respectful learning environment” for Alberta’s students, and wants to do so in a way that honours the role of parents in the care of their children and is cohesive to his faith-based school culture.
Coldwell is protesting legislation that he believes goes too far – legislation which fails to respectfully balance the needs and perspectives of our diverse province and which he believes threatens Charter protected freedoms.
And he does have a strong legal basis to his stance.
In April 2015, John Carpay, president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, wrote an extremely informative analysis of the legal implications of Bill 10 in light of the Supreme Court of Canada Loyola ruling, urging elected representatives to “review and amend Bill 10 to bring it into compliance with the Charter” with a warning that “costly, lengthy and unnecessary litigation could be required to enforce the constitutional rights which protect Alberta’s religious schools, and the right of parents who choose to have their children attend these institutions.
He also wrote a column in the National Post, which concluded:
“If the government fails to amend Bill 10 and thereby provokes a legal challenge, a court would follow the Loyola precedent and likely conclude that Bill 10 undermines the liberty of families which send their children to religious schools.”
As of this past Friday, the Minister of Education has demanded that Coldwell provide a letter by September 19th with an assurance of his “intent to comply with all legislation.”
These new demands by the government make it more important than ever that Albertans – including parents, educators and politicians – are properly informed on this issue so they can advocate for amendments to legislation that would reflect a more thoughtful, balanced approach to supporting at-risk students, while also demonstrating respect for the diverse values of Albertans.
Please consider signing the online petition to demonstrate support for authentic educational choice, including that faith based schools be permitted to operate according to their foundational beliefs without coercion from government or special interest groups. The “How to Respond” page of this site also includes suggestions of what you can do.
Let us not forget that the freedoms most of us take for granted today were hard won with the blood and sacrifice of those who understood firsthand what happens when legislation goes too far and does not properly respect and balance all perspectives.
Regardless of our personal opinions and values, we must not be so blinded by the idea of “progress” that we allow promotion of an ideology to trump respect for others, especially when it comes to legislation governing the teaching of all K-12 children through Alberta’s education system.
Otherwise we may realize too late that the foundation of our multicultural, pluralistic, free and democratic society was a lot more fragile than we could have ever suspected.