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Change to provincial human rights act stirs criticism

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While pushing through an amendment to the Alberta Human Rights Citizenship Act, the provincial legislature has faced harsh criticism from the Sheldon Chumir Foundation and the Alberta Teachers' Association, among others.

Bill 44, otherwise known as the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Amendment Act, revamps Alberta's human rights legislation, breaking a 13-year streak of non-modification.

The new bill arose from legislature's growing awareness of the need to add "sexual orientation" explicitly to the legislation, respond to general public debates clambering for change and address other problems surrounding the independence of the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

"Bill 44 enshrines sexual orientation, actually writing it into the act, which was previously 'read in' by legal precedent," said Sheldon Chumir Foundation research associate Dan Shapiro.

This brings Alberta's human rights law into conformity with the 1998 Supreme Court decision in Vriend v. Alberta.

At the same time, Bill 44 also provides an opt-out clause, which would allow parents to remove their children from a classroom discussing sexuality or religion.

The ATA opposes the opt-out clause, as it is concerned the bill could negatively impact children's education and may result in a myriad of unnecessary human rights complaints.

"We support a parent's right to determine what is best for the education of their child," said Alberta School Boards Association president Heather Welwood in a May 6 media release. "But Section 11.1 of Bill 44 is unnecessary. The Alberta School Act already protects a parent's rights with regard to what their children are taught."

Section 11.1 would require that a teacher give advance notice to parents of "how and when a controversial issue might be taught in the classroom."

Shapiro noted it is impossible to foresee all of the circumstances for which teachers could face human rights complaints. In the midst of teachers' attempts to share tidbits of knowledge, they could risk breaking the law.

"It would expose teachers and administrators to unnecessary human rights complaints and could have a chilling effect on classrooms, forcing teachers to worry about what they say," said Shapiro.

ATA president Frank Bruseker also expressed concern over this potential side-effect.

"A good teacher will take advantage of spontaneous teachable moments to engage students' interest and make learning relevant," said Bruseker. "This bill would essentially kill those moments for anything that might be interpreted as dealing with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation."

Despite this criticism, MLA for Calgary North West and Minister of Culture and Community Spirit Lindsay Blackett and his staff remain optimistic.

"The minister met with the Alberta Teachers Association this afternoon to discuss concerns in more detail," said Alberta Culture and Community Spirit communications director Shawna Cass. "We want to affirm the right of the parent in making choices with regard to educating their children."

Cass emphasized that religion and sexuality constitute only a small amount of the Alberta curriculum.

Cass further stated that the changes to the human rights commission, specifically the "judicial focus," seeks to make it more "effective, efficient and transparent" in Alberta, but also more accessible to Albertans by breaking down the length of time and language barriers currently hindering the commission.

Shapiro disagreed.

"Instead of improving the human rights commission's independence, procedure and fairness, this bill has done the reverse and has not dealt with free speech," said Shapiro.

The Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership released suggestions for improvements for Bill 44 on May 8. These suggestions were submitted to Blackett and all 83 MLAs.

The foundation further stated in an April letter that "Bill 44 should be withdrawn, its deficiencies remedied and a new amending statute introduced when the necessary groundwork has been done."

The bill has now passed through its second reading and is currently being debated in the Alberta legislature. Its implications could be felt as early as the end of May.

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