Non-Catholic Alberta school districts consider queer policy

Move contrasts Alberta School Boards Association's recent refusal

Nathaniel Christopher Xtra [Vancouver, B.C.]
“It’s not as much a rural-urban as a public-Catholic divide on this issue,” says Kris Wells, from the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services.
Photo: Courtesy of Kris Wells

Despite the Alberta School Boards Association’s (ASBA) recent refusal to support anti-homophobia policy, some school districts are moving forward with plans to protect their queer students.

A majority of school boards rejected a proposal at the Nov 19 ASBA meeting to encourage all districts to support safe and supportive environments for queer students. The meeting made headlines when Pembina Hills Regional School Division trustee Dale Schaffrick suggested that if “children with a gay tendency” could just hide their gayness it would be “for their own benefit.” Schaffrick later publicly apologized for his comments.

The trustees instead passed a policy titled “Optimal Learning Environments,” which states that “each student has the right to learn in inclusive environments where equality of opportunity, dignity, and respect are promoted.”

“The focus we would rather have is on an overarching policy of bullying,” ASBA president Jacquie Hansen tells Xtra.

“We hope to create a culture that respects diversity of all forms,” Hansen says. “This doesn’t mean that a stand-alone policy is dead. Some other boards wanted to pursue a local policy like that as well. Many people felt that’s the way they wanted to go. The key message I want to send here is that it’s not about anti-anything. It’s about keeping kids safe, and it’s really about the approach they take.”

Kris Wells, a researcher at the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services, says Canadian research and past experiences in other school districts show that specific anti-homophobia policies — rather than overarching bullying policies — are necessary to address the unique challenges of queer students.

“That’s the traditional argument: why single out one group or another?” he says. “We always single out groups. How much money do we put into special-needs populations or strategies and outcomes related to aboriginal issues in this province? These are old, tired arguments that aren’t based in any research to support it. In fact, research is contrary to that. For LGBT youth, catchall policies don’t work. Policy is protection, and that’s also what leads to change.”

Wells believes that Alberta is a decade behind British Columbia with respect to queer-inclusive education and points out that the BC School Trustees Association passed a similar policy in 2005.

While disappointed with the ASBA outcome, Edmonton Public Schools board chair Sarah Hoffman, who proposed the motion, is hopeful the meeting will spur other school districts to adopt their own stand-alone policies.

“It would be interesting to see how those boards choose to proceed knowing they are not alone,” she explains. “Ultimately, we are here to support and work with our colleagues who want to work with us. We are proud of the fact that debate happened at the provincial level and think that it’s serving our students well and it won’t stop us from doing the work in our own jurisdiction.”

At least two other boards are considering the possibility of adopting a stand-alone policy.

Wild Rose Public Schools board chair Nancy McClure, who seconded Hoffman’s motion, hopes that her school division will be the first in rural Alberta to implement a stand-alone queer policy.

“I’m the chair of a rural, small-town division in the Bible Belt of Alberta,” she says. “My motivation is truly 100 percent what’s best for everybody, and I believe that if a situation necessitates that a group of youth are more protected and safe, I will do what it takes. If it takes a stand-alone policy, like our First Nations policy, in order to jumpstart it, maybe that’s what we need.”

McClure says her interest was sparked a couple of years ago when a group of queer students approached her with their concerns. “A group of youth who trust me came in and told me how isolated they felt,” she recalls. “They told me what they felt like, and I knew at that time I couldn’t make inroads on a board basis. But as a human being I could help these kids, so I introduced them to youth in Edmonton.”

McClure drove the students two hours to gay-straight alliance events in Edmonton until she could make something happen in her district. She says Wells has been a huge asset to her district and has ensured that even without a policy her students felt heard.

“I think a stand-alone policy would allow the schools to do things they might not be prepared to do if they made the decisions themselves. Some things have to be top down. Even if a teacher wants to support this, they will hesitate to do these things. They are concerned about their peers and community. But if we have a stand-alone policy, we then say from the top we support this. We want you to do whatever’s necessary.”

A stand-alone policy, similar to Edmonton’s, is also being considered by Canadian Rockies Public Schools.

“This is definitely something we want to look at,” says board chair Kim Bater, who attended a session hosted by Wells in June. “We don’t have a clear issue that we’re having bullying of sexual minorities that we are aware of, but sometimes things aren’t out in the open. That’s what we heard from the youth at Edmonton public schools. There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes, so you need to look at it, and that’s what [Edmonton] decided to do.”

Bater says a subcommittee is currently exploring the issues and will return to the board with a proposal sometime this school year.

Alberta’s publicly funded school system is made up of public, francophone and separate Catholic school districts. A majority of public and francophone districts voted in favour of the Nov 19 resolution, but every separate Catholic school district in attendance voted against it.

“It’s not as much a rural-urban as a public-Catholic divide on this issue,” Wells says.

“This is what happens when you have unelected bishops making policy,” he continues. “If Newfoundland can institute one public system when it had several different denominational school boards, it can be done anywhere in Canada. And the way it’s done is when people get fed up with this kind of discriminatory behaviour.”

Mary Martin, chair of the Calgary Catholic School District, says she’s not aware of any bloc voting among separate school boards. She says her board came to its own decision based on what it feels is best for its students.

“When we look at the policy, although it’s very well intended, we were troubled with the fact that it addressed bullying needs of just one group of a number of groups who could be identified as vulnerable populations. To separate one group from the other was not where we wanted to go.”

Martin says her school district, the largest separate district in the province, already prohibits homophobic harassment and bullying in its student conduct guidelines, which also cover sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination.

Calgary Catholic School District’s curriculum also includes a document titled “A Resource for an Inclusive Community — A Teacher’s Guide for and About Persons with Same Sex Attractions.” The document, which Martin says was developed by the bishops as an aid to teaching part of the curriculum, describes “homosexual orientation” as “intrinsically disordered” and same-sex genital acts as “immoral.”

“Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder,” reads the document, which is cited as a resource in the parent handbook for a human sexuality course for Grades 7 to 9.

Martin insists that all students are made to feel welcome and important and that anything else would be unacceptable to her board.

“In the classroom we have participated in professional development sessions that surrounded this and took great pains to familiarize with this and other curriculum taught in the lens of our faith,” she says. “We are confident that teachers are teaching students with love and are committed to making sure students feel valued within the class.”

I am a resident of Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, who has been blogging here for nearly 25 years. I enjoy sharing my thoughts and feelings on my own online platform. From 1998 until 2017, I worked as a journalist, and I have posted most of my articles in the 'News' section of this website.