Ending separate schools in Alberta would build equality

Albertans should stop tolerating the separate school system

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CALGARY, AB Jun 23, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Canadians and Albertans are fortunate indeed: Our societies protect human rights, including gay rights, far better than most in the world. But ending the separate school system in Alberta would make our province a fairer, and thus better, place.

Alberta has struggled with official recognition of gay rights more than other provinces. In a way this is odd, because on the ground Albertans have had probably no more hesitation than other Canadians to embrace gay rights fully. But previous Alberta governments have dragged their feet.

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that the Charter requires that Alberta law treat gays equally. Thus, the Alberta Human Rights Act protects everyone – gays included – from discrimination in essential matters, such as access to public services, housing and employment. So we should have full legal protection for gay equality in the province now. But do we?

Consider this true story. A gay teacher recently applied for a job with the separate (Catholic) school board in one of Alberta’s cities. Before his interview for the job started, he was asked to sign a document stating he would not live a gay life. He didn’t sign. The interview didn’t take place. Needless to say, he didn’t get the job.

Separate schools further interests of one religion

But doesn’t Alberta law make discrimination in employment illegal? Unfortunately, not always.

The problem is that a significant part of our province’s public education system is devoted to furthering the interests and teachings of one religion – Catholicism. This is not true across the country. Only three provinces have separate school systems – Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.

The separate school system came about when Alberta was formed as a province: The central government insisted that the new province’s education system include this component. The same was true of Saskatchewan. Political leaders in Alberta at the time resisted this imposition, but had to acquiesce to the powerful federal government.

But doesn’t favouring one religion over all the other belief systems to which Canadians subscribe violate the freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed by the Charter? In principle, yes, but in law, no. The effect of Section 29 of the Charter is that nothing else in that document can be used to argue against this favouring of Catholicism.

Albertans can change their provincial constitution. Other provinces have done so and now no longer have separate schools. But until that happens we are stuck with these religious schools embedded in our public system.

The upshot is that the Catholic schools in Alberta have the legal right to impose their religious beliefs, for example, that homosexuality is a bad thing, in their hiring practices.

Discrimination still legal in separate schools

Yup, you’ve got it. In 2015, a publicly run and funded school system is still legally entitled to refuse employment to someone who is gay (or someone who is divorced, living common-law, has had an abortion or does anything else that offends Catholic sensibilities). One particular religion gets to impose its beliefs including those that offend hard-won human rights victories because 110 years ago the federal government imposed that discriminatory requirement on Alberta.

There are additional reasons for ending the separate school system. Why, for example, does only Catholicism get a school system of its own? It makes sense to roll the Catholic system into the overall public one and make savings in administration costs.

Catholics have every bit the same right to practise their faith, as do others in the province. But they should have no greater right either. The time has come to move on from the absurdity of religious schools in our public education system and in particular from the offensive anachronism of the separate school system.

Albertans should stop tolerating the separate school system.

Janet Keeping is leader of the Green Party of Alberta.

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