Imagine an Alberta where school children of any age have rights to legally overrule their teachers and principals. Sound enticing?
Prior to March 2015 such a world did not exist. It used to be that all educational rights were held exclusively by adults or jointly between adults and students.
But with the enactment of section 16.1 of the School Act (Bill 10), the professional judgement and expertise of school staff officially became subordinated to the will of K-12 children by providing exclusive legal rights to some students.
When a K-12 student requests a Gay/Queer Straight Alliance (GSA/QSA) – or to lead any associated school-wide activity – principals are provided with one legal option: they “shall permit the establishment of the student organization or the holding of the activity.”
While it is not necessarily harmful to provide students with more control, this legislation has demoted teachers and principals from positions of professional authority and now the void is conveniently being filled with a new source of expertise.
A new source of expertise for kids
This past fall the provincial NDP government began providing taxpayer funding to launch a new source of “expert authority” for K-12 students – the provincial GSA coordinator and GSA Network website. What is concerning about this new authority is that they have gained a massive amount of influence to directly promote their ideology to K-12 students in our schools, while legally ensuring zero interference from any other adults, including principals, teachers and parents. What a fantastic deal for anyone: all the perks of influence to Alberta’s schoolchildren, but without any of the oversight and public accountability.
The ideological intentions of the GSA Network are obvious. The only perspective promoted to K-12 students is that gender and sexuality are fluid, subjective and on a spectrum of limitless possibilities. The website even includes a definitions page from Trans Student Educational Resources that deems the terms “biological male/female” as “defamatory and inaccurate.” Is this the new standard of support that K-12 children are expected to receive while at school – the “reassurance” that biology is some sort of huge, offensive lie?
Who is really in control?
What is remarkable is that the legislation conveniently guarantees the free reign of this ideology throughout every school in Alberta according to any manner chosen by K-12 students, including assembly presentations, guest speakers or the school-wide distribution of materials. If school staff impose any limitations on these student-led organizations and their activities they could face legal repercussions. Notably, this legal authority is not extended to any other student group or circumstance beyond this specific context.
Faith-based schools who think that they can appoint a faith leader – for example, an elder or priest – to ensure the student group holds to their foundational sacred teachings of sexuality must be honest with parents and admit that faith leaders are not granted this authority in their legally defined role to merely “facilitate” and “assist” these student-led groups. For example, if a Grade 4 student in any Alberta school – public, Christian, Catholic, Muslim, etc. – insists on a school wide pride parade, drag queen assembly performance and rainbow flag raising ceremony as a GSA sponsored activity then the principal and staff liaison have a choice: comply with the student’s demand or break the law by imposing a limitation on the student’s choice of activities.
It hardly seems coincidental that Dr. Kristopher Wells, who is personally credited with promoting this legislation (see Hansard for March 10, 2015, pages 541, 545 and 548), happens to work in the same department which now operates the GSA Network and which has gained impressively influential direct access to K-12 schoolchildren and a significant amount of taxpayer dollars. Dr. Wells has spoken often of his goal for culture change and it seems that legally demoting all other traditional forms of adult authority in schools and replacing them with the “expert” authority of his own department seems like a winning strategy to achieve his goal. Those who are familiar with Dr. Wells’ unapologetic and offensive depiction of religious groups and parent concerns are especially concerned about the level of authority and financial support which has been provided to him and his department by our Alberta government as a direct result of the legislation he personally promoted.
“It’s the law” is not an excuse
It is time that Albertans demand some answers from our elected officials:
1. Why would MLAs of every political stripe rather put children legally in charge and guide them with a government funded ideologically based website and publicly unaccountable provincial coordinator instead of allowing teachers and principals to exercise their professional judgement to thoughtfully balance the countless variables of each unique school context?
2. Why do Alberta politicians who continue to support this legislation have so little trust in the expertise of teachers and principals?
3. Why is Alberta the “only province whose law imposes no grade restrictions” on the operation of these student organizations (Dec. 6th ATA News), meaning this legal authority extends to children as young as kindergarten?
Contact the offices of Education Minister David Eggen (780 427 5010, firstname.lastname@example.org) and the Education Critic of the Official Opposition Leela Aheer (403.207.9889, email@example.com) to share your concerns. If you attend one of the many events currently being hosted by PC Leadership Candidates or Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, ask your questions in person. And please add your name to the “Parental Consent is Key” campaign by Parents for Choice in Education to help strengthen our voice to pressure for legislative amendments.
It is time for our legislators to understand that the absence of reasonable limits to this historic provision of legal rights to K-12 children has undermined public trust in our education system. Parents and professionals across the province continue to voice concerns over the growing influence of ideologically based authorities within our schools who are not subject to any public accountability and professional oversight. Yet these concerns still seem to be falling on deaf ears.
The stated intention of section 16.1 of the School Act – to support sexual and gender minority students – is laudable and important. But intentions are not the measure of effective legislation. Poor legislation can – and should – be amended by our MLAs now that the full scope of its effects are plainly exposed in the light of hindsight.
“It’s the law” is not an excuse for inaction. Our MLAs need to understand that progress is not digging in your heels and claiming that what’s done cannot be changed. Progress sometimes means admitting a mistake was made – and taking steps to make it right.
About this series
Just over one year ago, on January 17, 2016, an unexpected moment in my life began a journey that has brought me through countless new experiences and challenges that I never planned or anticipated. In the course of the past year I have met with several political leaders, been quoted in dozens of articles, participated in numerous live television and radio interviews, helped lead simultaneous rallies of over 4,300 people and communicated with thousands of people across the province, including parents, teachers, administrators, lawyers, politicians and members of various faith communities.
This exclusive series is a retrospective overview of significant recent changes that have happened to our education system, along with insights I have gained from the many experiences of the past year. If you want to receive future articles in this series, delivered directly to your inbox, feel free to subscribe with your email address.
I have titled this series “Education in Alberta & The Tsunami of Change” because it is important to understand the difference between an initial event and the full experience of its effects.
When people say an earthquake has happened a thousand kilometres away and warn a tsunami is on its way, it may be all too tempting to point to the blue sky and sunshine while blissfully sunbathing on the beach and dismiss their warnings as misinformed fearmongering. “I’ll wait until I can see it for myself” we assure ourselves.
Unfortunately, by the time the tsunami hits then it is too little too late to respond.
As the adage says “Knowledge is power” – and it is only when we are fully informed that we can respond appropriately and make the most effective decisions. Right now in Alberta tremendous changes are happening in the architecture of our education system and this series is one way to help people learn about those changes and how they will inevitably impact the day-to-day lives of students, parents and staff within our schools.
Previous articles in this series:
PART 1: You’re testing my child on… what??