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Bill 18: What would Tommy Douglas think?

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CONTRARY to what many of my close friends would think, I spend a great deal of my spring break preparing for the final term of the academic year.

I catch up on my assessment, think about how I could improve learning experiences and read about teaching and history. This week, I have been reading Victor Lam's biography of Tommy Douglas, part of John Ralston Saul's Extraordinary Canadians series.

One quote of Douglas's, which Victor Lam used, made me think about the Canadian narrative, our schools and my own issues related to my faith, or lack thereof: "The universe isn't made up of a great cruel God who tells everyone what to do, or of a great organization called the Church that steps with relentless heel on anyone who doesn't do what it tells them to do... Jesus was, in his day, and he hasn't been surpassed since, a great moral teacher who recognized man's place in society, the kind of society that man could build... that the great motivating force in society is love for your fellow man..."

As I have read about Douglas's life, I have been keeping a close eye on Bill 18, or the Public Schools Amendment Act, and specifically Section 41, which deals with accommodating gay-straight alliances in Manitoba schools.

This seemed to be a rather benign or even redundant amendment when I first read it, given the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (one of Douglas's ideas) and human rights legislation in this country, but then leaders from religious communities began to take issue with this amendment to the anti-bullying legislation. For example, Pastor Ray Duerksen from Steinbach was quoted in a sermon via the Globe and Mail that Bill 18 is "going to be the beginning of an incremental attempt to destroy the Christian church."

Even our Minister of Public Safety, Vic Toews, has jumped on this amendment saying that it is unconstitutional as it infringes on fundamental freedoms of Christian organizations.

Hold on. We are equating providing safe learning environments with the destruction of the church and fundamental freedoms. Is the church really this fragile that a gay-straight alliance group could bring it down? What's the real issue here?

Perhaps the issue is fear, the prime motivation behind bullying.

My question is to the superintendents, principals, teachers and community members who oppose such legislation: If you're not going to allow students to create and advertise safe spaces and groups, such as gay-straight alliances, then how are you going to protect the most vulnerable, our children?

Recently I watched a student, Evan Wiens, talk on the CBC about how he wanted to create such a space in his public school. During the interview his peers walked by and issued slurs at him. What actions are being taken to protect him from these assaults? How are students who are bullied supposed to equip themselves when adults prevent them from creating safe spaces?

Educators should be embracing Evan and other bullied students, applaud and encourage their self advocacy and say, "Everything will be okay. We are the adults, and we will help you. We love you."

Otherwise, are teachers going to be in the business of sexual conversion? Are you going to make kids straight? Because that's the alternative if we don't protect them; they will either be persecuted or shamed into pretending to be something they are not.

The last time I checked, the Don't-Be-Gay laser gun was still a prototype.

And gay-straight alliances are not political organizations, as Dr. John Stackhouse suggested last weekend in the Winnipeg Free Press's FYI section. They are groups where gay and straight kids can feel safe without being subjected to cowardly words and actions by the fearful and hateful.

As educators, our primary role is to provide safe spaces for students to learn. If we take away someone's fundamental rights and freedoms, even if their gender, sexual orientation, hair colour, taste in food or political views differ from our religious beliefs, are we still not obligated to protect them and accommodate them? Would my faith truly be challenged by a gay-straight alliance?

If it were, then my faith needs some work. The notion of Canada, as articulated by Pastor Tommy Douglas and his conception of civil liberties, might also be threatened.

There is homophobia in schools. I went to school. I teach in one. This legislation is not about attacking Christianity. It is saying to straight and gay kids that we have their backs, even if our religious beliefs might suggest that homosexuality is wrong. Even conservative religious groups can accept, accommodate and love within the Canadian narrative.

And finally, to those who would deny Evan Wiens and other students their constitutional rights because of religious beliefs and/or fear that Steinbach may all of a sudden host a Pride parade, did Jesus not hang out with the most vulnerable in society? Did he not seek out those who were bullied in order to make them part of his posse and create communities based on love? Perhaps in this context, the Charter and Christianity may indeed see eye-to-eye.

This might be the lesson we want to bestow on our citizenry.

Matt Henderson is a graduate student in the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba and teaches high school social studies at St. John's-Ravenscourt School.

The Learning Curve is an occasional column written by local academics who are experts in their fields. It is open to any educator from Winnipeg's post-secondary institutions. Send 600-word submissions and a mini bio to julie.carl@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 J16

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