Monday, June 08, 2009

Charting a Tenuous Course for Human Rights Commissions

From Alberta and Ontario: different conservative visions for the CHRC

From across Canada, different courses are being proposed for the country's contentious Human Rights Commissions.

Some, like Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership candidates Tim Hudak and Randy Hillier, are proposing that such commissions should be abolished.

Others have proposed a radical new course for the HRCs -- a course that Alberta's Progressive Conservative government has chosen to follow with the passage of Bill 44.

Certainly, there are many practical issues with Bill 44. As some have noted, teachers could find themselves facing charges in an Alberta Human Rights Tribunal if a parent decides that they didn't receive sufficient warning about an upcoming lesson on almost anything. This is a serious problem with the legislation.

But as Lafleche notes, Bill 44 is only the most recent move in a political chess game over how Canada's Human Rights Commissions should function -- or if they should exist at all.

In Ontario, as Lafleche notes, the Ontario Human Rights Commission "has been all about the right not to be offended". In many cases it's been the same in Alberta. But in noting that Bill 44 seems to reinforce the "right to be a dullard", Lafleche misses one key point: the "right to be a dullard" seems not only to be about "the right not to be offended", but also about a parent's right to make decisions about their childrens' education.

Parents have long been lectured about the need to manage what their children are or are not exposed to. Disclaimers on television shows warning parents that "viewer discretion is advised", film rating schemes and parental advisory stickers on CDs have long been part of efforts to empower parents to control the extent to which their children are being exposed to violence, foul language or controversial subjects.

Now, for good or for ill, parents are being given an opportunity to make similar decisions in regard to their childrens' education.

Not all Canadians -- and certainly not all Albertans -- will empathize much with the religious conservative who pulls their children out of class because they insist that their children be given abstinence-only sex education. Nor should should they.

But many would agree that morality should not be taught in the classroom. If anyone has the right to teach morality to their children, most people would agree that a child's parents are the only ones who possess that right.

Yet many attempts have been made to smuggle left-wing morality lessons into the classroom. Most Canadians would almost certainly roll their eyes at a religious conservative's complaints regarding a tolerance-minded lesson plan that may try to teach children that homosexuality is normal. But it's impossible to overlook the fact that teaching children that homosexuality isn't immoral -- and in this author's opinion, it most certainly isn't -- is still teaching morality in the classroom.

Any parent uncomfortable with this -- whether most Canadians agree with their reasons or not -- has the right to blow the whistle on this.

But there is a flip side to the entire affair. Bill 44 could be used by parents in Catholic school divisions to pull their children from classrooms in Catholic Schools whenever they are taught that Catholic doctrine dictates that abortion is wrong -- certainly a right that one would expect moderate Catholics to exercise. The same parents could use Bill 44 to pull their children from any lessons in which homosexuality is said to be wrong. Similarly, atheist parents could use Bill 44 to pull their children from lessons related to religion.

Again, Bill 44, in its application, could turn out to be a stalemate, in reality favouring neither side of the so-called "culture war".

This is how it should be considering that liberal democratic governments have no business taking sides in social or cultural affairs.

For Hudak and Hillier, meanwhile, their proposal to abolish Ontario's Human Rights Commission has opened a fissure within their own party. Some, like Christine Elliott -- who is now leading the leadership race -- have insisted that the commissions should be maintained out of political considerations. Others have reminded Ontario Tories that it was a Progressive Conservative government that instituted the HRC in the first place.

Elliott has joined fellow PC leadership candidate Frank Klees in calling for reform of the OHRC. Elliott has yet to articulate any concrete proposals for that reform. Klees, meanwhile, has proposed repealing Section 13 and taking away the Commission's ability to effectively act as a censor, and allow it to focus on clear cases of discrimination.

Of those out to chart a new course for the HRCs, Elliott and Klees are certainly the least radical among them. Alberta's Bill 44 may have charted a course into a pragmatically-tenuous position, but at least the Alberta PCs haven't charted them a course to oblivion.

Other bloggers writing about this topic:

Richard Shih - "Alberta's Bill 44"

Four Strong Winds - "Why Alberta's Bill 44 Represents a Blow for Alberta's Democracy"


  1. Pat,

    re: "Yet many attempts have been made to smuggle left-wing morality lessons into the classroom." With respects I believe that is too sweeping a statement. From my vantage point, (i.e. with 4 little beautiful demons(?) currently enrolled in our school system) the right has done a masterful job of promoting the infallibility of capitalism. True there are nuggets of left-wing social consciousness interspersed throughout their varied curriculum's. But one thing is absolutely clear, when it comes to imbuing our children with the ability (or tools) to think critically about the existing merits of our dominant economic framework (i.e. capitalism) our children are being under served. And for this, the right-wing must be congratulated. For if nothing else, they have managed to "smuggle" into our school system and maintain the myth of the notion that, so far as economic determinism is concerned - there are no other options available to us to ensure maximum human advancement. Capitalism first, last, and always is the CORE curriculum my children are currently leaning!

  2. Fat Arse,

    I've never been taught that capitalism's infallible.

    I have, however, taken a class in which I was taught that capitalism was actually evil -- although, this was at the University level.

  3. Pat,

    Okay, "infallible" may have been too absolute a term. Point I was trying to make is that the curriculum my children are exposed to every day reinforces a (misguided) notion within them that capitalism and its consumerist culture is a fait-accompli. That the foundations of our existing economic relations are generally (save the history of the Dirty Thirties) above reproach. The transference of accepted wisdom to my children in our public education system seems (at least to me) to be predicated on the idea that we live within an economic system whose inherent merits are the only reasonable foundation upon which a progressive and "just society" can be built. In this regard, I believe I am correct. (Course I also believe in the Wpg Blue Bombers - so there is slim chance I could be wrong here too!)

  4. Well, I wouldn't agree fully with you on that.

    Meanwhile, however, one very much does have to put some of these lesson plans aimed at teaching tolerance in the classroom under the microscope.

    Personally, I'm fully in favour of them.

    But one has to consider it from the viewpoint of someone who is not. For example, it's ethically tenuous to teach someone a moral lesson plan that contradicts what their parents -- the only ones with the right to teach morality -- are teaching them in the home.

    Conservative Catholics probably wouldn't approve of their children being taught that homosexuality is "normal". I don't feel a ton of sympathy for them, but I recognize the exclusive right of the parent to teach morality to their child.


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