Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bill 18: The anatomy of a controversy

The education minister's anti-bullying bill and the emotions it has stirred

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Education Minister Nancy Allan is taking one on the chin for the team.

What Allan introduced so innocuously last Dec. 4 in the Manitoba legislature has now become ground zero in a polarizing debate over whether Allan's Bill 18 violates constitutional rights of religious freedom.

At a time when attention should perhaps be more focused on the economy and how well the NDP is running the province's finances, many Manitobans are instead talking about Bill 18, the Public Schools Amendment Act (Safe and Inclusive Schools). Some are going so far as to suggest it forces homosexuality on impressionable high school students.

When Allan introduced the bill, she said the focus was more on protecting schoolchildren from bullying, both in the class and on the Internet.

At a news conference at Garden City Collegiate, Allan said her bill is in part the product of what happened to Amanda Todd, a Grade 10 student from British Columbia who posted a revealing picture of her breasts and then was hounded relentlessly on the Internet until she committed suicide Oct. 10 last year. Todd, 15, posted a video on YouTube in which she used flash cards to tell of her experience of being bullied.

"We know the Amanda Todd story," Allan told students. "She was a young, bright student who was a victim of cyber-bullying. She put something on Facebook, and once you put something on Facebook it is forever. You can't take it back. Her tragic story shows us that bullying is not only in schools but on social media and the Internet."

A couple of hours later, Allan was standing in the legislature to introduce Bill 18, the first step of the legislative process.

"The bill also requires each school board to establish a respect-for-human-diversity policy," she said in the house. "The policy is to promote the acceptance of and respect for others in a safe, caring and inclusive school environment. The policy must accommodate student activity that promotes the school environment as being inclusive of all students, including student activities and organizations that use the name gay-straight alliance."

Two days later, Bill 18 went to the next step in the legislative process, second reading.

"The policy is to promote the acceptance and the respect of others in a safe, caring and inclusive school environment," Allan said in the house Dec. 6. "The policy must also accommodate students who want to lead activities that promote gender equity, anti-racism, understanding, respect for people with disabilities and people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, including student-led clubs or groups that use the name gay-straight alliance."

There was no criticism from the Progressive Conservatives to the bill.

Instead, the bill drifted to the pre-Christmas legislative ether. For all intents and purposes, it wasn't supposed to surface again until sometime in May, when it's to go to a legislative committee for public input, the next stage in the legislative process.

But on Jan. 30, things started to go sideways for the NDP.

That's when Steinbach Christian High School principal Scott Wiebe issued a news release saying the school had concerns regarding the legislation and how it pertained to religious freedoms of the faith-based school.

"The all-inclusive wording currently proposed in the legislation might limit SCHS's faith-distinctive teachings and restrict the school's ability to direct student-led activities and groups," Wiebe said. He issued the release following discussions with Allan's staff in the preceding days.

Allan's staff had also met with the Manitoba Federation of Independent Schools, the umbrella organization for funded, non-profit, independent faith-based schools in the province, on Bill 18. Things really got going Feb. 24.

SCHS held a public information meeting and prayer forum on Feb. 24, where officials could brief parents about the bill. About 1,200 people showed up.

On the same day, pastor Ray Duerksen of Southland Church in Steinbach told parishioners in a fiery sermon God can replace local politicians, teachers, media members and other local citizens if they stayed silent on the call to oppose the province's Bill 18.

Following that, Bill 18 in some quarters became more a debate over whether the Bible condemns homosexuality than on its merits in protecting kids from bullying.

Late Friday, federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews weighed in on the debate. In a letter to constituents, the Steinbach MP said he believes Bill 18 violates Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms by infringing on freedom of religion. "If the provincial legislature does not amend Bill 18 to address concerns of faith-based organizations, school and communities, the only remedy may be an application to the courts to decide if the legislation is compliant with Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms," Toews said in the letter.

Allan, Opposition Leader Brian Pallister and his education critic, Steinbach's Kelvin Goertzen, have in the past week attempted to calm the waters and steer the debate more to bullying itself. It hasn't been easy. The web-savvy Goertzen had to terminate his Twitter account because of the backlash.

How Allan responds to the criticism against Bill 18, whether the government entertains any opposition amendments, will be seen in the coming weeks.

The legislature resumes sitting April 16 to consider Finance Minister Stan Struthers' new budget. That's followed by nine days of budget debate and then about three weeks of what's called estimates, where the opposition gets to pick apart government policy and spending, department by department.

That means any debate over new legislation, including Bill 18, won't take place until after the May long weekend.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 11, 2013 A3

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