Most parts of Alberta’s Human Rights Act are intended – just as you would expect – to protect human dignity which is the root goal of human rights law. The main purpose of the Human Rights Act is to make discrimination illegal in access to public goods and services, rental accommodation and employment. These are prohibitions on discrimination that most Albertans embrace as essential in a decent, modern society.
But there is a glaring exception to the goal of protecting dignity in section 11.1 of the Human Rights Act which makes it illegal for a teacher to address “religion, human sexuality or sexual orientation” in the classroom. This provision is a vicious slap-in-the-face to gays, an insult to teachers and flat-out unnecessary. It has to go.
Vicious to gays
Imagine that provincial law made it illegal for a teacher to hold a discussion in class about Chinese immigration to Canada because some influential law-makers think people of Chinese ancestry are somehow undesirable. Imagine how diminished and disrespected you’d feel if you were of Chinese ethnicity.
By making it illegal for a teacher to raise religion, human sexuality or sexual orientation as subjects in class, Alberta law singles out gays and attacks their right to dignity as well as their constitutional right to the equal benefit and protection of the law. Section 11.1 says that gays are a class of people so undesirable that students need to be protected from any discussion of sexual orientation whether it arises in literature, in current events, in history, or wherever else.
The addition of religion and human sexuality as prohibited subjects is meant to buttress the ban on discussion of homosexuality but also creates other problems. My favourite (nerdy) examples concern the history of mathematics, for example, the medieval Christian fear of the concepts of zero and infinity was one reason why mathematics was more advanced in Islamic countries where there were no such beliefs. By virtue of s. 11.1 teachers are legally prohibited from addressing such historical topics without advance notification to parents and guardians. Seriously? Seriously. Seriously nuts.
It has been illegal in Alberta to discriminate against gay Albertans since the Supreme Court of Canada ruled as such 16 years ago. The Alberta government resisted amending the Human Rights Act to make this protection explicit until 2009 when it added the words “sexual orientation” to the list of illegally prohibited types of discrimination. But in some kind of twisted, last-ditch effort to salvage its homophobic agenda, the government added s. 11.1 at the same time.
Insulting to teachers
Section 11.1 is also insulting to teachers whom the government obviously does not trust to do their jobs properly. When section 11.1 was introduced some clever Alberta College of Art and Design students made a video mocking the proposal by showing fictional teachers explaining the solution of distance and time problems using assumptions such as “if the lesbian couple leave Lethbridge for Edmonton at 10 am travelling at 100 kph and the gay couple from Calgary leave …” The point is that no such classes have ever taken place because there is usually no reason to bring sexuality or sexual orientation into the classroom. And when there is, then teachers should be discussing it. Not to let them without getting parents’ permission is an insult to their professionalism.
(There is a requirement under the Education Act that schools ask parents’ permission for their children to participate in sex education. Repeal of s. 11.1 would leave that rule unchanged.)
One of the most appalling aspects of s. 11.1 is that it was totally unnecessary. If it were not for the government’s determination to continue to oppress gays, the section would never have been added. It was a purported “solution” to a non-existent problem and, as such, is an example of the worst kind of law-making.
There is nothing good about section 11.1. It was added only because a few members of the government wanted to “get even” with the gay community for its success in the courts. Albertans should demand of all candidates – both in the coming by-elections and in the next general election – where they stand on this issue for no one of good conscience can defend section 11.1. Candidates who have not bothered to get up to speed on this issue should also be rejected by voters for failing to be aware of such an outrageous abuse of power.
The Alberta government’s legislative war against gays has to end and it will not be over until s. 11.1 is repealed.
Janet Keeping is a lawyer and leader of the Green Party of Alberta.
An edited version of this blog appeared earlier on Troy Media’s website at http://www.troymedia.com/2014/09/03/alberta-government-determined-to-continue-to-oppress-gays/