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Manitoba passes groundbreaking law to address homophobia

Education Minister Nancy Allan says other provinces should follow

"LGBTQ people got their rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms 30 years ago. Let's get going here," says Manitoba NDP Education Minister Nancy Allan. Credit: Government of Manitoba

After Manitoba's Public Schools Amendment Act (Safe and Inclusive Schools), providing for gay-straight alliances in all schools, passed in a legislature vote Sept 13, Education Minister Nancy Allan, her staff and local Pride officials celebrated by dancing the night away at Winnipeg's Fame bar until their feet hurt.

"We knew how important this legislation was," Allan says. "We know the research."

Allan tells Xtra that during Bill 18's committee stage in the legislature, a young man told a story of being gay and religious and carrying his own suicide note in his Bible.

She says he was in class when someone made a homophobic comment, one the teacher immediately called unacceptable.

The teacher’s response made the class safe for gay kids and highlighted the need for gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in schools, Allan says. It also heightened her understanding of the need for the legislation's passage.

"It was important for gay-straight alliances. If young people feel threatened at school, how can they learn?" she asks. "It's our responsibility."

Introduced in early 2013, the act amends Manitoba’s Schools Act to foster a more inclusive school environment that respects "human diversity"; to require each school board to establish a respect for human diversity policy; to support students who want to form GSAs and other equity-encouraging groups; and to address cyber- and other forms of bullying.

"The policy is to promote the acceptance of and respect for others in a safe, caring and inclusive school environment," the bill's explanatory note says. "The policy must accommodate student activity that promotes the school environment as being inclusive of all pupils, including student activities and organizations that use the name 'gay-straight alliance.'"

The proposed language is specific in saying the 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."

Allan tells Xtra the road to the bill's approval was a long one fraught with challenges from religious groups and the opposition, which presented myriad amendments to the bill as it came to the vote Sept 13.

None passed, to the disappointment of opposition legislators.

Progressive Conservative MLA Cameron Friesen told the House many things make people different.

"Bullying zeroes in on those differences," he said. "Our efforts to counter bullying should attempt to reach across differences, emphasize common ground, emphasize empathy and compassion. And the legislation that we put forward with regard to this very, very serious matter should also attempt to reach across differences and emphasize common ground, empathy and compassion. And, on this, the minister of education has clearly failed. As one presenter clearly said, antibullying legislation should at least acknowledge at the outset that all forms of bullying are equally heinous."

He said the legislation "stopped short of even basic things, like including social disadvantage or religion and creed and ethnicity." That, he said, indicated Allan did "not understand the patterns of immigration in this province."

Chad Smith, executive director of Winnipeg's Rainbow Resource Centre, tells Xtra the gay community is "extremely happy" the bill passed into law.

"We think it will make schools safer for all students," he says, noting GSAs don't just work on queer issues. He says the rocky road of opposition the bill travelled is no surprise.

"I think here in the Bible belt, homophobia is alive and well," he says.

Much of the opposition came from the Steinbach area. Southlands Church opposed the bill, saying it infringes on freedom of religion and protects some groups over others.

Pastor Ray Duerksen preached Feb 24 to about 3,500 people that if Steinbach's Christian High School is forced to allow a GSA, "that is an attack on our religious freedom."

"If it 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."

Smith says other small religious communities supported the bill. Steinbach is hardly representative of those towns, or indeed Manitoba as a whole, he says.

He says loud opposition to same-sex marriage came from the same area.

"A lot of the rhetoric we heard now, we heard back then," he says.

The province is also working on a code of conduct for schools that will build on what is in the now-passed law.

That code is planned to provide guidance to educators on responding to inappropriate conduct, including bullying or cyberbullying, both in and outside of school hours.

Among other things, the code would confirm principals’ disciplinary authority over pupils in terms of their conduct toward one another on their way to and from school, and on school buses; confirm the principals' disciplinary authority to address unacceptable student conduct including bullying, cyberbullying and abuse of a student by another; define a school’s discipline and behaviour management policies, including consequences for unacceptable conduct as set out in the code of conduct; and confirm that interventions and disciplinary consequences must be appropriate given the severity of the conduct and must take into account the pupil's state of development.

Smith says not much has been heard about the code yet.

"We imagine we'll be involved in some way, shape or form," he says.

Now, Allan says, the challenge is for other provinces to pass legislation to ensure queer kids are protected in schools.

"I think they'd better get on board," she says. "LGBTQ people got their rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms 30 years ago. Let's get going here."

BC activists have lauded the Manitoba experience, saying it highlights that BC is behind in having codes of conduct that include homophobic behaviour.