Opinion
6 min

Students address bullying on Day of Pink, but what about legislators?

Manitoba’s push for anti-bullying legislation highlights need for stronger laws across Canada

The story of how Manitoba implemented anti-bullying legislation highlights the need for stronger laws across the country. Credit: ThinkStock

It started back in 2007 with two high-school students from Nova Scotia who saw a gay student being bullied because he was wearing pink clothing. They didn’t just intervene; they bought pink T-shirts and got other students to show up to school wearing them in solidarity, in the end inspiring an international anti-bullying day of action.

Because of this, the Ottawa organization Jer’s Vision founded the International Day of Pink, which now includes participants from across the country and around the world. On the second Wednesday of each April — this year April 9 — the organization encourages people to wear pink and take part in efforts to stop bullying, discrimination, homophobia and transphobia.

At the legislative level, the issue of bullying has been much debated since the high-profile deaths of Amanda Todd, Rehtaeh Parsons, Jamie Hubley and Todd Loik. But unlike the unity seen on Day of Pink, the responses from jurisdictions across Canada remain a patchwork of laws varying in details and sentencing. Many have yet to address the problem.

Federally, Justice Minister Peter MacKay introduced the proposed Bill C-13 in 2013. The Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act is meant to fight cyberbullying by giving authorities a greater ability to investigate incidents. But the Criminal Code, which covers aspects of bullying in other criminal offences, does not explicitly have provision for bullying on its own — so some provinces have taken their own approaches. Last year, Manitoba passed Bill 18, the Public Schools Amendment Act (Safe and Inclusive Schools), which aims to make all Manitoban schools safe and inclusive learning environments through anti-bullying policies.

Bill 18 mandates that schools report cyberbullying and accommodate those students who want to start gay-straight alliances (GSAs).

Former NDP education minister Nancy Allan tabled the bill in response to the suicide of British Columbia student Amanda Todd, who was allegedly a victim of cyberbullying.

“It rocked the whole nation, and so we started to take a look at what we could do at a provincial level in regards to responding to her death,” says Allan, who wanted to strengthen the definition of cyberbullying. “What’s happening on the internet is so incredibly complex, and we need to ensure that our laws keep up.”

The idea of focusing on GSAs stemmed from research produced by Egale Canada and the Manitoba Teachers’ Society on homophobia and transphobia. According to Egale, LGBT youth are more than four times more likely to commit suicide than non-LGBT youth.

“Some [students] are dealing with their sexual orientation; some of them are dealing with their identity. We also heard very clearly from teachers that GSAs save lives,” says Allan, who says she also studied what other provinces, including Nova Scotia and Ontario, had done to address the problem.

After Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons died by suicide, the province responded by passing the Cyber-Safety Act in 2013. It allows victims or third-party witnesses to request an investigative unit to help identify alleged cyber bullies. If the cyber bullies are minors, the act allows victims to bring a claim against the bully’s parents.

Changes to Nova Scotia’s Education Act define bullying as “typically repeated” behaviour that is intended or known to cause physical or emotional harm. Similarly, Ontario’s law, also passed last year, defines bullying as “the severe or repeated use by one or more pupils of a written, verbal, electronic or other form of expression, a physical act or gesture or any combination of them” that cause physical or emotional harm. Manitoba’s broad definition of bullying could include a single intent to cause hurt “feelings,” wording that Allan says was intentional. She believes Manitoba’s legislation is the strongest because it covers all grounds of bullying in all schools, including faith-based, funded, independent schools. It also mandates the right to GSAs in all schools.

Manitobans spent much of 2013 fighting over the legislation — which became one of the most publicly debated issues involving the LGBT community in the province since same-sex marriage.

While legislators first put forward Bill 18 on Dec 4, 2012, the most vocal opposition began after Feb 24, 2013. That’s when more than 1,000 people showed up to a prayer event for Bill 18 hosted by a Christian high school in Steinbach, a city southeast of Winnipeg. Religious members of the community argued that GSAs in their schools would infringe on their religious beliefs. Steinbach Christian High School principal Scott Wiebe urged attendees to write letters to politicians about their concerns with the bill. Ray Duerksen, the pastor of Southland Church, gave a speech in which he said God would judge those who didn’t oppose the legislation.

Southland Church staff posted its main concerns with the wording of Bill 18 on the church’s website. It stated “that religious beliefs are not specifically protected, and that bullying is defined so loosely as to include ‘hurt feelings,’ 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.”

Allan says overcoming resistance from Kelvin Goertzen, a member of the opposition Progressive Conservative Party and former education critic, was the most difficult. “He was the house leader at the time. He spoke against the legislation many times, calling it the weakest legislation in North America.”

Manitoba’s new education critic, Wayne Ewasko, shares Goertzen’s concerns over Bill 18. “I think there was quite a bit that was not necessarily properly written in Bill 18,” he says, noting that the Tories tabled some amendments to the bill, none of which passed.

“There was some good stuff in there,” Ewasko says. “Some of the tracking — I mean, asking specific questions on how many incidents. The government was not having any answers for us. So we thought, why would you not want the schools to track and then report to the government on how many incidents there are and whether the bill is actually going to be working?”  

The fight over Bill 18 reached a climax last September when the province scheduled public hearings.

“We believe it was one of the longest committee hearings of any committee hearing at the legislature,” Allan says. “This was 10 days of committee hearings, over 230 people . . . A lot of them were from Steinbach and the Morden area. It was interesting; a lot of them also felt that they were against bullying, but they didn’t like Bill 18.”

Allan believes the opposition Progressive Conservatives and their leader, Brian Pallister, a former Conservative MP at the federal level, put forward many speakers who opposed the bill. Pallister did not respond to Xtra’s request for comment.

One of the speakers in support of Bill 18 was Kristine Barr, an elected school trustee in the Winnipeg School Division. Barr is also a lawyer who has advocated for equality and human rights issues and is the Manitoba co-chair of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Conference of the Manitoba Bar Association.

“Here we go again,” Barr told the committee, referring to a similar experience 15 years ago. Back in 1999, she moved a recommendation to implement mandatory anti-homophobia and human-rights training for all school staff in the division’s 79 schools and to approve library resources with LGBT themes for each school library.

“At the time, this was groundbreaking, and many other divisions moved forward with similar initiatives, but not all schools did. Winnipeg School Division has always supported GSAs in our schools, but this was not the reality in all divisions across the province,” Barr tells Xtra.

Barr says Bill 18 needed to pass in order to show all students that their government is looking out for them. “I have had the opportunity to meet with students involved in GSAs over the years, and I can say without a doubt that gay-straight alliances save lives,” she says.

Shortly after the hearings, nine long months of controversy and constant media coverage came to an end when provincial legislators approved Bill 18 on Sept 13 with a vote of 36 to 16.

Staff in Allan’s department immediately set to work facilitating the first training workshops with representatives from every school division in the province. On Oct 10, the anniversary of Amanda Todd’s death and World Mental Health Day, Allan officially proclaimed Bill 18 into law at Winnipeg’s Kelvin High School.

More than 560 people, including 380 youth from more than 55 schools, attended Manitoba’s annual GSA conference, organized by the Rainbow Resource Centre (RRC), on Nov 25.

“We’re starting to get more questions from schools about GSAs, and there’s been more of an interest to acquire good training,” says Jared Star, youth program coordinator at RRC.

Meanwhile, Amanda Todd’s mother, Carol Todd, says every province should focus on educating youth about bullying and implementing stronger anti-bullying legislation. She believes it could have saved her daughter’s life.

“Laws are there just to hold us in place,” she says. “What needs to start is the other end, where in school we teach kids how to behave appropriately and how to respect each other, so it doesn’t get to that point where they are calling each other names and hurting each other. If they do, something needs to be in place to stop it.”