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Outgoing Letters and Public Statements

January 24, 2012 

See the EFC webpage on Bill 13: Accepting Schools Act.

An Open Letter to the Members of the Ontario Legislature on Bill 13, Accepting Schools Act

Studies bear out that most children will participate in some type of bullying as well as experience victimization themselves. Bullying happens not only in schools, but anywhere that children gather such as school buses, the playground, sports field, after school hangouts and online.

In November 2011, the Government of Ontario introduced Bill 13, the Accepting Schools Act, intended to “help make Ontario schools safe and more accepting places to learn.” The Bill addresses the issue of bullying and proposes several amendments to the Education Act.

Since that time, Bill 13 has been criticized by many Ontarians, including members of the Jewish, Muslim, Evangelical Christian and Catholic communities.  This should give reason to pause. Ontario is a diverse province, and each citizen – and identifiable minorities that have suffered discrimination and bullying themselves – deserves to have their concerns heard and addressed by their elected officials.

Many families feel as though the interests of some groups are being privileged at the expense of others. Families of public, private and religious school students feel as though the proposed policies are being legislated and implemented in a public relations campaign that leaves no room for their input or consideration for their constitutional rights to individual and corporate religious belief.

The purpose of the bill is laudable. Attempting to address an issue as complex as bullying by legislative force is debatable. And the approach adopted by Bill 13 lacks sensitivity, flexibility, and a full consideration of  proper application of the Constitution Act, 1867, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Mandatory Gay-Straight Alliance Clubs

The Government of Ontario has proposed that all schools must implement additional anti-bullying initiatives, including the mandatory establishment of gay-straight alliance clubs for students, with the only option being to give the clubs a different name in certain circumstances.

Bill 13 states that “all students should feel safe at school and deserve a positive school climate that is inclusive and accepting, regardless of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status or disability.” This is true. However, it then proceeds to identify four groups that will receive special status: clubs that promote gender equity; anti-racism; raise awareness for people with disabilities and gay-straight alliances.

While the Bill permits the gay-straight alliance club to adopt any name, the Minister of Education, Laurel Broten, insists that, in accordance with the Bill, broader equity groups cannot be formed and that clubs like gay-straight alliances must be issue specific. Rather than permitting students to learn about their differences and recognize their commonalities in equity clubs, this Bill specifically sets out to isolate students into issue-specific groups.

Students, teachers, principals, students and families do not have the ability to form groups based on their intimate knowledge of their communities’ demographics, history and challenges. Bill 13 sets out a rigid and inflexible model that must be applied in every school. The lack of trust that the Government of Ontario is displaying in regard to schools and communities to establish or customize groups and activities according to their contexts may in fact increase the frequency of bullying in Ontario by isolating and segregating students – sending them to separate corners, as it were.

Further, Canadian and international law recognize that it is the right of parents to determine the education of their children. Before overriding the choices parents make in education, legislators are cautioned that this is not a right to be overridden casually. There is an obvious constitutional violation in forcing religiously based schools to establish clubs not endorsed by the faith community, parents or students, or to implement a curriculum that disrespects their beliefs.

It is not just respect for LGBT students that needs to be part of a character education in Ontario schools. Instruction and modelling of respect for all students is required of the curriculum and the classroom environment. This does not mean all students must be forced to be friends, or agree with one another on all points. And, it does not mean that there can’t be debate or constructive disagreement. It does mean that bullying students on the basis of sexual orientation, race, religious beliefs, national or cultural origin or the several other prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Charter or the Human Rights Code  should not be permitted, either by other students, teachers, administrators or those developing the curricula.

The remedy for bullying in schools is not gay-straight alliance clubs, but rather proper character formation. Educators can’t do it alone, and their role is necessarily limited, and secondary. Parents, churches and others need to be engaged. The foundation of our free and democratic society includes respect for all persons. This foundation needs also to be present in our education system.

Legacy of Religiously-Based Schools in Canada

Bill 13 and its policies in regard to mandatory clubs should not be imposed on religious schools which deem the policies inconsistent with their religious beliefs. Schools, boards, and parent groups should be able to determine for themselves which groups and policies should be in place to meet the needs of their students and in compliance with existing law.

Canada has developed with a unique cultural and constitutional context. A Protestant dominant nation accommodated Catholic separate schools in its constitution when what are now public schools were Protestant schools. Those Protestant schools were made available for attendance by any student. Our strong heritage as a pluralist democracy, grounded in Christian principles and practices, has created a society of acceptance – and tolerance in disagreement – that is the envy of much of the world and has made a home for people with a variety of religious beliefs and expressions. Canada’s longstanding tradition of education from a Judaeo-Christian foundation has bred a vibrant, multicultural nation known for its acceptance of others and tolerance for differing opinions and religious beliefs. Religious schools can be trusted to put the best interest of their students first, in the context of a plural society of individuals who live peaceably and espouse a variety of beliefs.

Use of School Space for Sunday Services

Each weekend, countless Ontarians meet together for prayer, worship and community service in rented school facilities. These groups often do not have the funds necessary to purchase their own property, in which they can practice their Charter-protected right to religious worship and expression, and schools are convenient place to meet (or the property is not available under municipal zoning provisions). 

One of the proposed amendments to the Education Act risks restricting a number of these religious groups from meeting in the facilities they currently use. The amendment to section 301 of the Act  which would preclude groups from using school space unless they are “consistent with the Code of Conduct” appears benign, but within the scope of Bill 13, the aggressive way in which it is being imposed on all schools, without accommodation or exception, gives cause for great concern. Will church, synagogue, mandir and sangat groups be expelled from school classrooms and auditoriums because of sacred text passages on a wide variety of issues, such as love, marriage, sin and sexuality? Will we witness groups that cannot afford to purchase their own facilities being pushed out of Ontario’s public spaces?

Incendiary Language Used by Government Officials

Children often learn life’s most important lessons from the modelling of adults around them. We should hold adults to a high standard, and that includes Ontario’s Cabinet Ministers. Last year, when asked about the withdrawn sexual education curriculum, Minister Glen Murray (then Research and Innovation Minister, now Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities), attributed the need for a rethink of the curriculum to “right-wing reactionary homophobes [who] just love these issues.”

 If Ontario parents requesting an open and clear assessment of a policy which directly impacts their children are called such denigrating names, what can children from various cultural or religious backgrounds expect in school, when they disagree with a position, opinion or behaviour? Certainly, they will not be granted board-approved clubs under Bill 13. Name calling is the most simplistic form of bullying and it should not be acceptable for Cabinet Ministers to use such language when speaking of members of the Ontario electorate who are seeking to participate in the democratic process.

Recommendations

We therefore urge you to make necessary amendments to the Bill immediately, rather than spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars over the next several years on litigation that will likely ensue if the existing bill is passed. As noted above, there are Constitutional and Human Rights issues apparent on a surface reading of the Bill. In addition, there is a case awaiting decision by the Supreme Court of Canada that may well address the very points of parental rights and limitations on initiatives of provincial governments in regard to education.

A more democratic and inclusive solution, one that invites conversation with representatives from a number of cultural, religious and other identifiable groups, should be pursued.

Ontario children, parents and teachers expect to live in a peaceful, tolerant province that respects their sincerely held beliefs, their inclusion in a plural, multicultural society and to have hard-earned tax dollars spent in the most appropriate and considerate fashion possible.

They deserve nothing less.

 

Sincerely,

Faye Sonier, LL.B.
Legal Counsel
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada

Don Hutchinson, B.A., J.D.
Vice-President, General Legal Counsel
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada

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EFC President Bruce J. Clemenger writes regular commentaries about public policy issues. The EFC magazine Faith Today often publishes articles and essays that examine such issues.

   
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