Shawn W. Brackett and Nancy Janovicek
The Alberta government is engaged in a six-year comprehensive overhaul of the K-12 school curriculum, the first major reform in thirty years. In response to calls for consultation with stakeholders, the Council of Catholic School Superintendents of Alberta (CCSSA) has proposed an alternate sex education program that reflects Catholic teachings. Inclusion and diversity are core principles of education policy in Alberta, which now recognizes the need to protect the rights of students on the basis of gender expression, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Minister of Education David Eggen has rejected the CCSSA proposal, insisting that the government will not accept curriculum that is not inclusive of LGBTQ2S students.[i]
Critics of separate school boards have asked why public dollars are supporting schools that prioritize religious values over the obligation to defend the rights of all youth.[ii] In 1905, Alberta agreed to separate schools that would protect French-language rights because most Francophones sent their children to Catholic schools. Governments have funded separate schools under the agreement that they could include religious instruction, but that such material would be in addition to (but not in replacement of) a unified curriculum. In the current debate about protecting religious rights in the school system, social conservative groups have invoked parents’ rights to push back against Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) and inclusive lessons on human sexuality. Implicit in the demand by LGBTQ2S students for recognition of their identities is a call for Alberta Education to maintain its historical position in defence of minority rights more broadly.
Alberta Public and Separate School Boards: Historical Context
Schooling has always been an expression of community values and aspirations. The place of minority groups in a schooling process designed for majoritarian purposes has naturally come up for discussion and compromise throughout the history of the province. Since Alberta was part of the North-West Territories, politicians and communities have navigated complex relationships among public schools, separate schools, and government, and how those relationships expressed themselves in curriculum. In the context of a country that has experienced significant legal and social divisions along ethno-religious and linguistic lines, it is useful to explore how Alberta has approached schooling. Understanding the long-term constitutional and social factors that led to the province’s unique system will inform current discussions about educational reform, student rights, and community values.
Ironically, national issues have characterized a provincial responsibility. The British North America Act (BNA Act) of 1867 reserved educational authority to the provinces, but Parliament was intimately involved in crafting legislation that established the provinces. Politicians in Ottawa debated the Alberta Act of 1905 and, after entrance into Confederation, the Legislative Assembly of Alberta passed laws in the midst of vociferous debate in Manitoba and Ontario over linguistic and religious rights in schools. At the turn of the twentieth century legislatures, citizens, and churches struggled to reach a compromise about schooling because it represented, in many ways, the future of minority rights in Canada.
Alberta has always linked curriculum with public funds, inheriting the framework of its schooling system from that of the North-West Territories. The School Ordinance of 1892 abolished what had been a dual confessional approach with two systems of Protestant and Catholic schools teaching distinct curricula in favour of a single system of funding and curriculum delivered by public schools and separate schools.[iii] Public schools tended to represent the religion of the majority—in most cases Protestant Christians—but admitted students of any faith. Separate schools were established when and where sufficient members of the Christian minority existed and successfully petitioned the government.[iv] Parents had the right to establish separate schools under certain conditions, but they did not have the right to opt out of the provincial curriculum. All public and separate school boards had to operate under the same system of funding, teacher certification, and curriculum set by the province. Because the BNA Act and Alberta Act entrenched the educational system of a province at time of Confederation, schooling as it existed in 1905 has largely persisted to this day—with the notable exception of the expansion of services and programs for other minority groups in schooling.
Despite the common convention of treating public school boards as part of one “system” and the separate school boards as part of a distinct “system,” the province has historically asserted its right to maintain a single system following a unified curriculum because both public and separate schools are fully funded by public tax dollars. Alberta has permitted the establishment of private schools since 1967, but those institutions are only eligible for financial support if they teach the approved curriculum.[v] Representatives of separate schools have generally agreed with provincial control of curriculum. Historian Amy von Heyking notes that in 1943, Catholic bishops expressed ambivalence toward the province’s implementation of a progressive education model, but ultimately avoided taking a strong stance by highlighting that the province had responsibility for crafting curriculum.[vi] The Cameron Commission of 1959 studied the institutions, participants, and issues of education in Alberta with an eye toward evaluating progressive education. Catholic Bishops took this opportunity to more forcefully make requests for Catholic versions of textbooks and provincially-approved Catholic teacher-training institutions.[vii] The Commission did not respond to either request.
In the late 1980s, the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association recommended the inclusion of a statement in the preamble of the proposed School Act that would recognize the equal status of Catholic education with the public system. Their recommendation was accepted by the Education Caucus Committee and the preamble to the School Act referenced the school system’s “two equal dimensions, the public schools and the separate schools.”[viii] This clause remains in effect today.[ix] Though Alberta’s approach to schooling has endured occasional challenge, it remains fundamentally the same in 2017 as it was in 1905: a system that protects the rights of minority groups.
Sex Ed, Gay-Straight Alliances, and Parents’ Rights
The current debate about GSAs and inclusive sex ed programs pits LGBTQ2S rights against religious freedom. The CCSSA proposal for an alternate sex ed curriculum builds on a movement that demands protection of parents’ right to make decisions about their children’s education. In 2009, social conservatives introduced amendments to the Alberta Bill of Rights that required school boards to give written notice to parents when material on sexuality would be taught so they could remove their children from class. The parental rights clause was introduced in the same bill that recognized discrimination based on sexual orientation.[x] Student demands for GSAs were supported by two Liberal motions in 2014; both were defeated. Bill 10 An Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect our Children, a Progressive Conservative attempt to strike a balance between students’ rights, parental authority, and religious freedom, was controversial because it gave school boards the final say on GSAs. The initial bill allowed school boards to deny GSAs. Amendments to the bill would have given the Minister of Education the authority to approve a student group’s request to form a GSA if a school board rejected it, but the club would not have met on school grounds. Students and LGBTQ2S activists were outraged by the suggestion that students could fight school board decisions in civil court. The government delayed the vote on the bill.[xi]
Since coming to power in 2015, the NDP government has advocated for GSAs. Section 16.1 of the Alberta School Act stipulates that principals must support students who want to form a GSA and in 2015, the Ministry of Education instructed all schools to submit LGBTQ policies. A 2016 Alberta Health Services report found that only 58 per cent of publicly-funded schools had developed a policy.[xii] Facing opposition from parents and politicians who argue that parents have a right to know if their children belong to a GSA, Minister Eggen has recently proposed an amendment to the School Act to ensure students’ right to establish GSAs and to protect the privacy of those who join them.[xiii] Eggen defended the government’s position that separate schools follow policy: “If you are receiving public money the law should apply to those schools just the same as any other.”[xiv]
The Alberta government has not yet released a draft of the new curriculum. The CCSSA proposals rest on the presumption that the new curriculum will “promote” lifestyles and gender identities that do not follow Catholic values. The CCSSA identifies teaching outcomes that would be “problematic”, including “homosexual relationships and/or lifestyles” and “‘gender’ or ‘gender identity’ as disassociated from biological sex.” Jason Kenney, the newly-elected leader of the United Conservative Party, has stated, “it’s not for me or the premier to dictate to the Catholic education system how it teaches Catholic values.”[xv] The historical record proves Kenney wrong. Despite assertions to the contrary, the School Act has protected religious instruction, but on the condition that publicly-funded schools – both public and separate – teach the same curriculum.
The debates about GSAs and inclusive sex ed curricula are playing out on the backs of an extremely vulnerable community. Recent studies estimate that 25-40 per cent of homeless youth in Canada identify as LGBTQ2S. Family rejection is a major reason why many leave home.[xvi] For Want of a Home: Experiences of LGBTQ2S Homelessness in Wild Rose Country, a 2015 video presented by Safe Accommodations for Queer Edmonton Youth, documents some experiences of queer youth who became homeless after they came out to their families. The filmmakers acknowledge that the video does not include Indigenous youth and LGBTQ2S people of colour who face greater risk due to systemic racism. One trans Indigenous youth who had agreed to participate in the project committed suicide before their interview. Students demanding GSAs insist that these peer support groups save lives.
Anxiety about sex ed is not new. Parents’ and religious groups have been uncomfortable with the idea since it was proposed in the postwar period.[xvii] We know very little about how high school students engaged in past debates. Today, they are vocal and visible participants who demand a curriculum that recognizes LGBTQ2S identities. Monica Gugliotta, a Grade 11 student who left the Catholic school system after her school removed Pride decorations, explains the potential impact of the CCSSA proposals on students in Catholic schools: “If that happens then there will be discrimination against the LGBTQ community. If these teachings are [included] then that right of people being able to identify a different way, other than straight, is taken away.”[xviii]
Shawn W. Brackett is a PhD student at the University of Calgary. He specializes in the history of education in the North American West.
Nancy Janovicek is associate professor of history at the University of Calgary, where she teaches twentieth-century Canadian history and women’s and gender history. She is a board member of the Women’s Centre of Calgary and co-chair of its Social Policy Committee.
[iii] J. W. Chalmers, Schools of the Foothills Province: The Story of Public Education in Alberta (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967), 323 and Michael Bryn Kulmatycki, “Influences on the Rise of Catholic Education in Alberta: An Historical Study” (PhD dissertation, University of Calgary, 2009), 148-149.
[iv] Most often, the minority was Catholic, but several Protestant separate school boards have been established.
[v] In 2017, accredited private schools received 60% of the base funding rate of public and separate schools. Alberta Education, Funding Manual for School Authorities, 2017/2018 School Year (Edmonton: Alberta Education, 2017), 89 and 94. See also Alberta Education, “Private Schools in Alberta,” https://education.alberta.ca/private-schools/private-schools-in-alberta/, accessed 1 November 2017.
[vi] Amy von Heyking, Creating Citizens: History and Identity in Alberta’s Schools, 1905 to 1980 (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006), 97-98.
[vii] Michael Bryn Kulmatycki, “Influences on the Rise of Catholic Education in Alberta: An Historical Study” (PhD dissertation, University of Calgary, 2009), 150 and 194.
[viii] Robert Carney, “‘Hostility Unmasked’: Catholic Schooling in Territorial Alberta,” in Exploring Our Educational Past: Schooling in the North-West Territories and Alberta, ed. Nick Kach and Kas Mazurek (Calgary: Detselig, 1992), 17.
[ix] While the Education Act was passed and given royal assent in 2012, it has not been proclaimed. Janet French, “Education Minister David Eggen Would Rather Amend School Act than Finally Proclaim Education Act,” Edmonton Sun, 7 September 2017.
[xvi] Alex Abramovich, A Focused Response to Prevent and End LGBTQ2S Youth Homelessness. Prepared for the Government of Alberta, 30 June 2015.
[xvii] Mary Louise Adams, “Sex at the Board or Keeping Children from Sexual Knowledge,” in Histories of Canadian Children and Youth, ed. Nancy Janovicek and Joy Parr (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2003), 291-304; The Trouble with Normal: Postwar Youth and the Making of Heterosexuality (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).
[xviii] Hunkar, “Alberta education minister rejects sex-education curriculum.”