Education Minister David Eggen, Elk Island Catholic Superintendent Michael Hauptman, marking introduction of Bill 28, governing formation of school districts.

By Thandiwe Konguavi
Staff Writer

Alberta Catholic school administrators are hopeful that they will be able to make Bill 24 work, but are bracing for complications.

Among other things, the bill would prohibit school authorities from notifying parents of their child’s involvement in a gay-straight alliance (GSA) or related activities. It was passed in the Legislative Assembly on Nov. 15, despite objections raised by parents, superintendents, and trustees.

“Now that it’s passed, we will work to implement Bill 24 because it will be law in April,” said Karl Germann, president of the Council of Catholic School Superintendents of Alberta (CCSSA).

“It really places people in an awkward situation,” said Germann, who used the example of a GSA group field trip. “If you’re taking a basketball team for a weekend, you let the parents know and you get their permission. But with the way the bill is written, we wouldn’t be allowed to notify the parents, and so that’s not a theoretical issue; that’s a real practical issue at this point.”

Michael Hauptman, superintendent of the Elk Island Catholic school board, which serves over 5,800 students in the communities and surrounding areas of Camrose, Fort Saskatchewan, Sherwood Park, Strathcona County and Vegreville, said the bill limits the activities of students within the board’s inclusive clubs.

“If a student cannot be identified that they actually belong in one of our inclusive clubs, the activities that they do can never be in a public domain, so they can never have group activities or community activities where they’re actually exposed, because that would then go against the current legislation,” said Hauptman.

“Whether you’re a Catholic or public school, you’re going to have those issues. So at the end of the day I think it’s a question for all school divisions, school leaders, principals and teachers to ask: If I comply with this, am I putting myself into a situation where I’m going to be liable if something goes wrong? Or have I broken other legislation?”

The legislation is already facing a legal challenge on behalf of independent schools and parents who say it doesn’t respect their religious and constitutional rights. According to the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, Bill 24 would remove the ability of parents to inform the school that they do not want their children to participate in a GSA or GSA-related activity on the basis of sexual content.

Most Rev. Fred Henry, Bishop Emeritus of Calgary and a former education liaison for the Catholic Bishops of Alberta, did not mince words when he commented on Bill 24 at the weekend annual general meeting of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association in Edmonton.

"It’s taking away from the trustees their proper way of responsibility and decision-making, and I think that it’s over-government," said Henry. "The best people to make those decisions are the people on the front lines. This should not be by the Legislative Assembly at all."

Education Minister David Eggen has said the prohibition on parental notification is necessary to prevent “outing” of LGBTQ students who may want to join a GSA but would be afraid of their parents’ reaction.

“We had to make sure that we put in the provision that students would be in a safe space in a GSA because schools were sending out notifications,” said Eggen. “If they heard word that there was a GSA, they would send out letters to the whole school, saying: ‘Warning. Warning. There's a GSA in your neighbourhood.’

“That was hurtful, and it was against not just the spirit but the actual intention of a safe sanctuary of a GSA, so we had to make sure that that was a safe place,” said Eggen. “It's not an instructional place; it's a support place for students.”

Principal Laurie Kardynal-Bahri is on the same page as the provincial government about one aim: doing what’s best for the students.   

“I see that they want to do what’s best for kids; that’s their ultimate goal,” said Kardynal-Bahri, principal of St. John Paul II High School in Fort Saskatchewan.

“Keeping the student in mind and their dignity in mind is always the best practice, and loving the student for who they are and where they’re at. But there are going to be some complications around implementation.”

As a parent of two kids under 18, Kardynal-Bahri would want to know if her teens were struggling or feeling vulnerable in school so she could support them.

“But I know that I’m not every parent. Every child is different, every parental situation is different, every home situation is different, so it’s a tough one and I guess it’s one of those wait-and-sees about how we’re going to navigate through this,” she said.   

The School Act already requires school authorities to support students in creating and naming student organizations aimed at promoting equality and non-discrimination, including gay-straight alliances.

Bill 24 goes further, requiring a principal to grant permission for establishment of a GSA or similar group “immediately” upon request. It also specifies that the principal “shall not prohibit or discourage students from choosing a name that includes ‘gay-straight alliance’ or ‘queer-straight alliance.’”

Alberta’s Catholic schools have been using a document called the LIFE Framework as a guide for the creation and operation of student groups “that are comprehensive in their approach to inclusion and open to the exploration in a Catholic context of a variety of issues including bullying, sexual harassment, sexual orientation, gender identity, discrimination, justice, and respectful relationships and language.”

Under the LIFE Framework, names for groups that focus on respect for the human person are to incorporate language reflective of Catholic teaching and are to be approved by the principal in consultation with the superintendent. All parents are notified that such a group has been established in a school, and encouraged to talk to their children about it.

“If something for me is difficult to navigate, I would typically pick up the phone and ask the questions and that is what any good administrator would do,” said Kardynal-Bahri. “Now if the law says I can’t do that around certain things, then I won’t. I would have to navigate that on my own.

“That’s my job ultimately, to support my students to have the best education they can have, and if it is feeling comfortable in a school environment and providing a GSA, then I will do what needs to get done,” she said.

In the 10 years that she has been an administrator, Kardynal-Bahri said she has seen increased government influence in the schools, “particularly with this last government.”

“As educators, we’re used to having things done fairly independently,” she said. “We have guidelines with the School Act and curriculum, but how we act within those guidelines we’ve been able to navigate that as a school division and as schools.”   

School boards will need to work closely with Alberta Education to make the legislation work, said Hauptman, “so that we’re not breaking other laws and that we’re still maintaining our role in protecting children.”

“That’s critical,” he said. “I have hope, but I’m still cautious at this time.”

Principals and school authorities who are concerned about the legislation should discuss questions related to their legal responsibilities with their privacy coordinators and/or legal counsel, said Alberta Education spokesperson Lindsay Harvey. The ministry will continue to work with school authorities, who will be required to take necessary steps to ensure their policies and practices align with the legislation, said Harvey.

The legislation is scheduled to be in force by April 1, 2018.