Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) would have to be allowed in Manitoba public and independent schools if legislation currently before the province’s legislature becomes law.
Bill 18, The Public Schools Amendment Act (Safe and Inclusive Schools) would amend the province’s Schools Act to include definitions of bullying, appropriate use of social media and a requirement for each school board to establish a respect for human diversity policy.
“The policy is to promote the acceptance of and respect for others in a safe, caring and inclusive school environment,” a note on the bill explains. The proposed language is specific in saying “a respect for human diversity policy must accommodate pupils who want to establish and lead activities and organizations that promote gender equity, antiracism, the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people who are disabled by barriers, or the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people of all sexual orientations and gender identities; and use the name “gay-straight alliance” or any other name that is consistent with the promotion of a positive school environment that is inclusive and accepting of all pupils.”
Education Minister Nancy Allan, the bill’s sponsor, introduced the measure for first reading in the legislature in December. She says it’s important to name GSAs in the legislation because the “sad reality” is that gay youth are among the most vulnerable populations in schools.
“It was very clear to me that kids wanted a GSA in their school and it needed to be accommodated,” Allan adds, noting that she consulted with educators and other stakeholders in preparing the bill.
“Kids don’t get to choose the schools they go to; parents do,” says Winnipeg Rainbow Resource Centre executive director Chad Smith, adding that youth who want to start a GSA, and feel threatened as a result, will have the centre’s backing.
Smith says the definition of bullying is looser than other legislation, but he feels it’s open-ended and allows for school officials to fully investigate cases. Such investigations should not just look at single instances of behaviour, but rather at patterns of behaviour to determine if that behaviour is egregious, he says.
The bill is the subject of two online petitions started by the Rainbow Resource Centre, calling on government to support the bill.
Countering the resource centre’s website is protectourschools.ca, which encourages opponents to contact the government to express opposition to Bill 18.
“Bill 18 erodes choice by requiring these schools to accommodate and promote groups whose beliefs are in direct contradiction to the teachings of many independent faith-based schools,” the site says. “The Manitoba government should look for democratic and inclusive ways to combat bullying. Forcing public and faith-based independent schools to act against their beliefs and their community values is not the way to combat bullying.”
Smith says he finds it curious that the site is called Protect Our Schools and not Protect Our Students. “It’s not about students,” he says. “It’s about making sure institutions don’t have to change.”
The NDP has a majority government in Manitoba and the bill is likely to pass.
While the bill is a provincial initiative, that hasn’t stopped local federal Conservative MP Vic Toews from weighing in on the debate.
“As far as I understand, the SCOC [Supreme Court of Canada] made it very clear that there are certain faith-based arguments, religious arguments, that would restrict the ability of government to interfere in held religious beliefs,” CTV reported Toews as saying at a March 8 news conference. “So what I would advise for the provincial government is that they may want to take a very close look at that decision, because in my opinion it would restrict what Bill 18 is attempting to do.”
He said the bill could be open to a Charter challenge on religious grounds.
Allan says Manitoba’s government will cross that bridge when it comes to it. “We think they’re out of touch with what’s going on in classrooms in Manitoba,” she says.
Steinbach, Manitoba’s Southlands Church is opposed to the bill, saying it infringes on freedom of religion and protects some groups over others.
In a February sermon, pastor Ray Duerksen said it would be “an attack on our religious freedom” if Steinbach’s Christian High School is forced to allow a gay-straight alliance.
“If [the bill] passes, we’re going to lose our religious freedom,” he said. “It’s going to be the beginning of an incremental attempt to destroy the Christian church . . . that’s the agenda behind the scene.”
He said the church and the community are in “mortal danger.”
“We lost the abortion debate in the ’70s,” he said. “We lost the same-sex marriage debate.”
A statement from the church cites a 2006 Toronto school district survey that looked at bullying, which found that five percent of subjects were bullied based on gender and sexual orientation issues and five percent on religious grounds.
But, the church statement says, there is no protection of religious beliefs in the bill. “There is the real possibility that children could be accused of bullying merely for talking about their religious beliefs, or for engaging in religious activity at school.”
“We believe that if the teachers and principals and parents of our province are empowered to creatively tackle bullying in our schools, that there are many solutions to be found on this issue which don’t need to infringe on the Freedom of Religion in the public and faith-based schools of our province, whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu or whatever world view,” it says.
Nowhere in the statement does it say the church is opposed to GSAs.
However, in order to be church members, the congregation’s website lists a number of things people must believe. Among them is that one need “refrain from practices, and from promoting practices, which are contrary to Biblical teaching. Specifically listed are homosexual behaviour and polygamy. The church also preaches that marriage is between one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others.