The Separate-and-Unequal Schools of Alberta
A couple of months ago I picked up Reza Aslan’s book ‘Zealot,’ curious to read it after some of the nonsensical controversy generated in the American media.
It was an enjoyable read but as I read it I kept hearing the voice of one of the most influential teachers I’ve had in my life.
Call him “Mr. D”: he was my High School teacher for Religion 20.
There were no new revelations in Zealot for me, almost all of it was material that had been covered at some point during Mr. D’s class.
I would have the same teacher for my Religion 30 class as well. The classes that I took were (at that time in the mid ‘90s) labeled Religion 10 (for Grade 10, Religion 20 (Grade 11) and Religion 30 (Grade 12).
I am very grateful that I had him as teacher all those years ago.
Completion of the three Religion classes were a mandatory component of my education, and passing the courses a graduation requirement.
Of course, the classes were called “Religion” classes but although we would touch on other religions around the world from time to time, the classes were almost exclusively dedicated to Catholicism.
When I’ve lived abroad or during my time in Vancouver, most people assumed that I had a Catholic education at private schools.
From Kindergarten to Grade 12 I attended publicly funded Catholic schools.
Approximately 1 out of every 4 students in the province of Alberta attend public schools through a Separate School Board.
Separate Schools Boards are public entities created by the provincial government and they operate in parallel to and in more or less the same manner as the Public Boards. They are funded through taxation.
The question of education was a key matter during the negotiations that led to the unification of four British Colonies into the Dominion of Canada in 1867. Quebec, with it’s French culture and language was predominantly Catholic while the other colonies were British and Protestant.
Although a colony of the British Crown, under the Quebec Act (considered one of the Intolerable Acts by American Revolutionaries) the province had retained it’s distinct French language, culture and the right to the free practice of the Catholic faith. The guaranteed continuation of those rights was a key demand of French Canadians if they were to join the other colonies.
At the time education was bound completely with religion and publicly funded schools invariably reflected the dominant religion in the area. The idea of non-religious, secular education simply did not exist.
A majority of the people in the four colonies identified as British and Protestant, but within Quebec, the majority of people spoke French and were Catholic. After Confederation, Canada would still be a part of the British Empire and the Crown was the formal head of Church of England, an officially established state religion.
In this context, the provision of tax supported Separate Schools provided guaranteed protection for minority Catholics in English Canada and minority Protestants in French Canada.
It was one of the key compromises that made Canada, as a single united country, possible.
In Alberta the vast majority of Separate Schools are Catholic, although two small Protestant boards linger on. Separate Catholic school boards also continue to function in Saskatchewan and Ontario.
Over time Public School Boards have become totally secular. Quebec and Newfoundland have abolished their religion-based school boards entirely.
The Separate Boards are an institutional relic from those early days.
I am gay. I have known I was gay since I was 13 years old.
If I had grown-up with todays attitudes towards sexual orientation I am quite certain I would have identified as gay even younger than that.
However it was 1993 when I was 13 years old and attitudes in Alberta were drastically different then. Being gay in Alberta at that time was not a pleasant experience.
I was fortunate however. Although I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools, my parents (only one of whom was Catholic) are liberally minded, tolerant people. I never heard a negative word about gay people from my parents, although the subject almost never came up.
I did hear a great deal more about gay people and what they were like during my years at Catholic schools. None of what I heard could be considered positive, or even charitable or compassionate.
Attitudes amongst Catholics though, were not markedly different from the attitudes of the broader general public. However, those attitudes had the imprimatur of both the Church and State in the Separate School system. In the public system some faculty would occasionally speak up to defend gay people. During my time, there was nothing but condemnation.
I was in a very unique position for most young gay people: I came out to my family in February of 1996, in the middle of Grade 11. While it was a sometimes difficult process, my family was ultimately completely accepting.
Unlike most gay teenagers, even to this day, I was largely free to be myself at home, but was closeted amongst my peers at school or elsewhere.
I didn’t come out to my friends until after my high school graduation.
Laurie Blakemen, a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta and a part of the opposition Liberal Party, has introduced a private member’s bill (Bill 202) this year to allow the formation of Gay-straight Alliances at all Alberta schools.
Currently, Gay-Straight Alliances are found in many of the public schools in the two major urban centres in the province, but are much rarer in rural Alberta. None currently exist in the province’s taxpayer supported Separate School Boards. At the moment, each board can decide whether to allow the Gay-Straight Alliances at the schools they operate.
Bill 202, if passed, mandates that school boards allow Gay-Straight Alliances to be formed whenever requested by students. It would also remove language from Alberta’s Human Rights Act that allows parents to remove students from classes that might discuss sexual orientation.
In response to this legislation, Premier Jim Prentice of the 43-year-old Progressive Conservative government, introduced his own Bill 10 on November 27, 2014. Instead of mandating that GSAs be permitted at all schools in Alberta, his legislation would simply enshrine the right of students to request the clubs, however, the final say would remain with the school board. A theoretical path by which students could sue the school boards that rejected their requests would be available.
Following the immediate uproar on social media against Bill 10, a hasty revision was made allowing the Minister of Education to make a final decision for each school board. However, those groups, lacking the consent of School Board, would not be able to meet at their schools.
The current Minister, Gordon Dirks, was hand-picked by Premier Prentice and was elected as to the Legislative Assembly in one of four by-elections held this past fall. During the by-elections many raised concerns that Minister Dirks was a former evangelical pastor at a church known for its anti-gay views.
Minister Dirks insisted that he would be willing and able to protect the rights of all students in Alberta. He did not renounce the views of his Church, nor has he spoken in support of Bill 10.
Alberta’s Catholic School Boards have specifically stated that they will not permit Gay-Straight Alliances at their schools.
Like many ordinary Catholics, my family’s social views are decidedly liberal and we don’t agree with many of the Church’s official doctrines.
In school, I couldn’t be open about who I was, but I could ask questions.
My poor Religion 10 teacher (who mainly taught Math otherwise) was one of the subjects of my incessant questioning.
He indulged me quite a bit (not without the occasional sigh and request that I not do that right that moment) and through his class I learned whom I should avoid as a teacher for my next two mandatory Catholicism classes.
I made a fuss in Grade 11 to ensure that I wasn’t scheduled with Teacher X, who’s ardently backwards social views were well known.
Ultimately, I ended up taking Religion 20 while I was actually in my first semester of Grade 12 and then the following semester taking the Religion 30, with the same Mr. D. This arrangement was not generally allowed by the school but I made it quite clear I was going to be a problem if I was forced to attend a religion class taught by Teacher X.
I couldn’t even be specific about my objections to attending Teacher X’s Religion 20 while I was in Grade 11 other than stating (repeatedly) that I would not perform as well in that class.
Fortunately the school’s counsellors and schedulers acquiesced after I repeatedly made my objections (read: nagged) known.
The message was quite emphatically made by the school system that as a gay person, I was not welcome. I did not want to sit through two more classes of explanation about how my existence was intrinsically disordered.
In an ironic coincidence, Laurie Blakemen’s private member’s bill in support of Gay-Straight Alliances bears the same legislative number as one of the more odious pieces of anti-gay legislation in Alberta’s history.
Bill 202 (2000), passed on March 16, 2000 by Premier Ralph Klein and the PC government attempted to enshrine a heterosexual only definition of marriage and use the Notwithstanding Clause of the Constitution to attempt to enforce it. The legislation was passed purely as a political stunt (the Justice Minister at the time didn’t believe it had any legal effect) to shore up anti-gay support for the PCs.
While provinces in Canada are responsible for solemnization and registration of marriages, the definition of marriage and the capacity to marry is the purview of the Federal Parliament.
When the Civil Marriage Act was passed by Parliament 5 years later, despite the presence of this legislation, same sex marriage came to Alberta.
Intrinsically disordered is the Vatican’s official view on any sexual identity that does not conform to the Church’s official heterosexual norm.
While many Catholic commentators are quick to remind anyone that the Church’s official policy is that homosexuality itself is not a sin per se, any homosexual act is a sin and the orientation is a disorder.
The only acceptable way for gay people to live, according to the Church, is in complete and permanent lifelong celibacy.
The Catholic Church also teaches that sexuality is a gift from God.
These distinctions may serve to salve the consciences of many Catholics that the Church does not condemn gay people, the effect is the same.
Long before I knew I was gay, I knew gay people could never be fully a part of the community, and could never lead full and open lives, if the Catholic Church’s views ruled the day.
Perhaps that will change in time. Pope Francis’ change in tone may be that first tiny opening that will ultimately bring about that change.
For now though, the Catholic Church’s official policy is effectively one of: ‘We’ll try to talk politely to the perverts’ faces while we continue to make their lives miserable.’
This message is currently being sent vulnerable gay teenagers all across the province, funded by the taxpayers of Alberta.
Canada is a very different country from the one that was envisioned by the fathers of Confederation in 1867. We are no longer a mere hodgepodge collection of British colonies divided by the minor differences between two branches of Christianity.
Canada, if it is not already, is on its way to becoming the most diverse country in the world, with representatives from myriad of cultures.
The education compromise was one of several that enabled Canadians to build a country that would ultimately become so diverse. Yet the reasons for the Separate School Boards simply no longer exist and discrimination against Catholics is non-existent in our society.
Most Canadians who live in jurisdictions with Separate School Boards hardly give it a second thought, they are simply part of the landscape, a curious quirk of our history.
Separate School Boards generally provide a good quality education in academics and perform almost identically to the public systems.
However, they entail a massive a duplication of bureaucracy, each one having it’s own set of elected trustees to manage it and its own support system and administration.
The placement of schools is also inefficient as not every community can be provided with both a Public and Catholic school. Students at Catholic students frequently have to travel further to access them and non-Catholic students are only admitted if there is available space.
I personally know several students whose parents formally converted to Catholicism in order to allow them to access a local community school, as the only one in a particular neighbourhood was a Separate School.
Trustee Elections, held at the same time as municipal elections, have the worst rates of participation of any type of election held in Canada. Only a small dedicated, often conservative, cadre of voters reliably participates. Catholic Trustees are rarely representative of Canadian Catholics.
Indeed, most Canadian Catholics do not support the official Church views on homosexuality, the role of women, reproductive freedom and a host of other issues.
And yet Catholic School Board Trustees continually take instructions from the local Bishops rather than the voters they claim to represent.
Within a week of introducing Bill 10, Premier Jim Prentice placed it on hold. The hastily and poorly constructed legislation will not go forward for now while the Government ‘consults’ with Albertans.
The massive and overwhelmingly negative response on social media to Bill 10 completely caught the Government off guard and flatfooted.
In Calgary, local blogger Mike Morrison, arranged a highly successful impromptu protest against Bill 10 on December 3, while also spreading much of the word across social media about this legislation.
Another protest was also held in Edmonton and messages from dismayed Albertans have been streaming into MLA offices.
Rumours of a caucus rift over the matter and a raft of resignations from party members and constituency officials have further highlighted the divisions within the Progressive Conservatives.
In the 2012 election, the Wildrose Party led by Danielle Smith, came very close to defeating the longstanding PC dynasty. The Wildrose Party is an offshoot of the PCs themselves, largely made up of disgruntled hard right conservatives dissatisfied with the moderate leanings of the current PCs.
At the last minute though a number of Albertans had second thoughts about electing the Wildrose Party, particularly after some of its candidates expressed discriminatory and anti-gay views.
Danielle Smith’s relatively weak response refusal to disavow some of the candidates, despite claiming to be in favour of gay rights, is now widely believed to have been responsible for the last minute return of voters to the Progressive Conservatives.
Then-Premier Allison Redford successfully courted progressive minded voters to support her bid to lead the party and was able to convince them to again support her, even if it meant returning the PCs to power yet again.
It was a massive change for Alberta and for the Progressive Conservatives. Under former Premier Ralph Klein, the Progressive Conservatives had made opposing the advance of gay rights a key part of their platform, with the acquiescence of the public.
Yet barely five years after Klein stepped down as Premier, the PCs won an election on the basis of protecting gay rights in Alberta and by proclaiming they were the more open minded and tolerant political party.
I take no personal pleasure in calling for the abolition of the school system that provided my education. While I had my own (relatively minor) difficulties, to this day there continue to be gay teenagers who experience significant struggles, with long lasting impacts.
Nonetheless, I also had many good experiences in the Calgary Catholic School Board. Many of closest friends are from my school years.
Yet suicide among gay teens remains an ongoing problem, one that is a direct result of the ongoing prejudice that, while fading away, still exists in many parts of Canada with the tacit support of Catholic Church.
There is also broader issues and questions about Canadian society and the lingering relic of Separate school boards that must be addressed.
While Separate Schools are not underfunded or otherwise used to abuse Catholic students specifically, they nonetheless represent a form of ongoing segregation that denies Catholic students the right to experience the full diversity of our society.
The Separate School system requires a Pastoral reference from a Catholic Priest and that applicant teachers must ‘live in harmony’ with Catholic teaching, resulting in religious discrimination in public employment.
Separating Catholics from the general school system obviously reduces the religious diversity experienced by students in both systems.
Segregating Catholics into separate school systems ensures that publicly funded schools, regardless of which school board they are a part of, are not exposing their students to an accurate cross-sample of their communities. In an era when children don’t play outside with other neighbourhood children, Catholic students have fewer opportunities to interact with non-Catholics.
The significant and ongoing administrative, maintenance, and infrastructure costs from duplication of services cannot be insignificant. As well additional time spent on transportation is another cost borne by students and families.
All of Alberta’s students are losing out by continuing to maintain the status quo of two separate school systems.
It may be harsh and unfair to compare the Canadian Separate School boards to the supposedly separate-but-equal policies of the United States’ Jim Crow south, but the experience there provides compelling evidence of how unequal separate-but-equal can be.
The final perversity of maintaining this separate-and-unequal status-quo is that the inequality in question is directed inward, towards sexual minorities attending Catholic schools.
Discrimination against gay youth is most likely to come from their own families and religious communities.
Alberta’s Separate Schools enable bigotry against gay students.
Gay students do not need worse-than-useless ‘pastoral care’ that tells them, funded by public money, that they are ‘intrinsically disordered.’
They do not need to be treated differently, based entirely upon their parents belonging to a particular denomination, by the public institution that they are attending.
Gay students are not the problem. The bigotry that they continue to face, with it’s corresponding mental health issues, is the problem.
It’s time they had a refuge from bigotry at all of Alberta’s public schools.
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