MANITOBA'S anti-bullying bill was praised as potentially life-saving for people who are often put down and marginalized -- and criticized for infringing on religious freedoms at the first evening of public hearings on Tuesday.
A crowd of about 60 people listened respectfully as more than two dozen Manitobans provided vastly different perspectives on Bill 18.
Some said the proposed law defined bullying too narrowly while others said the definition was too broad. Some quoted the Bible in attacking legislation that would encourage gay-straight alliances in schools, while others argued passionately a statute was long overdue to prevent LGBT students from feeling isolated.
Altona teacher Peter Wohlgemut, speaking as a private citizen, supported the bill's definition of bullying and said it gives parents, students and schools a place to start in addressing the problem of bullying.
"We have students in Manitoba right now who go their entire school career without seeing their identity or the identity of their parents or other loved ones portrayed in schools," said Wohlgemut.
Oftentimes, sexual- and gender-minority youth find themselves put down, he said, noting a common way of expressing disdain for something among teens is to say, 'That's so gay.'
Niverville parent Sandra Trinkies said she agrees something needs to be done to prevent bullying, but she feels Bill 18 would be ineffective. She noted the proposed law does not specifically address key reasons kids are bullied, including for body image, grades and cultural backgrounds.
"Just as many children are bullied for religious reasons as for gender and sexual orientation. Yet specific protection for religious beliefs are not included in the bill," she said.
Trinkies said bullying is too loosely defined to include hurt feelings, creating "a real possibility" children could be accused of bullying merely by talking about their religious beliefs.
A few presenters cited the Bible in opposing Bill 18, which encourages the formation of gay-straight alliances in schools. Brendan Hiebert said that's contrary to what is taught in Christian schools. "They (the schools) teach from the Bible, and it says that it's not right to be a homosexual," he said.
Andrew Micklefield, principal of King's School, a Christian school in East Kildonan, said he feared Bill 18, as written, would undermine the status of independent schools, leaving them unsure as to how far "promotion and acceptance of values outside our religious perspective will be enforced on us."
Micklefield said his school is home to students from 40 different nations, many of them refugees. He said a survey of students found "100 per cent" felt safe in their school. He said the school takes bullying seriously and would take immediate steps to deal with any occurrence.
He expressed concern that faith-based institutions would be unable to refuse a gay-straight alliance in a school.
Robert Rivard, president of the Manitoba School Boards Association, said trustees generally support Bill 18. However, they have a couple of concerns.
One is that bullying is too broadly defined in the bill. Also, he said, the onus for initiating activities such as gay-straight alliances falls upon the shoulders of "sometimes vulnerable individuals" -- students. Rivard said the legislation should be amended to allow students or staff to create such organizations in a confidential matter.