A decision by the government-appointed board overseeing the Manitoba Human Rights Commission is being taken to court — and drawing criticism from advocates of LGBTTQ+ rights and opponents of the political appointment process.
The complaints stem from the agency’s board of commissioners dismissing parent complaints that Manitoba’s education curriculum discriminates against LGBTTQ+ students and families.
The application for a judicial review filed in Court of Queens Bench seeks to quash the dismissal of the human rights complaint by Michelle McHale, Karen Phillips, and Sonja Stone.
In court documents, the parents said the "lack of representation of diverse family structures, sexual orientations and gender identities in classrooms leads to very high incidences of bullying and harassment of LGBTTQ+ students in schools, contributing to a hostile school climate and unsafe environment for students."
They argued there’s a "hidden curriculum" that promotes heterosexuality as the default sexual orientation and being cisgender as the default gender identity, "rather than teaching students about the full spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations."
In July, after investigating, the Manitoba Human Rights Commission found "sufficient evidence" in support of the complaint, and recommended it proceed to a public hearing.
In October, the agency’s seven-member board voted 4-3 in favour of dismissing the complaint.
In a letter to the trio’s Public Interest Law Centre lawyer, chairwoman Brenlee Carrington Trepel wrote there is not enough evidence indicating the Manitoba curriculum "contributes to the creation of a discriminatory learning environment." She said the parents could apply for a judicial review of the board’s decision, which they have now done.
While the trio aren’t commenting on the case that’s before the courts, critics are expressing concern, and saying it highlights the need for inclusion and diversity in education — as well as a problem with political appointments to boards in Manitoba.
"The human rights commission has made decisions in the past that have helped support the (LGBTTQ+) community and organizations," said Rainbow Resource Centre interim director of operations Liana Lutz. "(It) does hard, valuable work that takes an incredible amount of energy and focus.
"We were hopeful that the environment for Manitoba students would become inclusive of diversity, so it is disappointing that the commission’s board did not support the recommendation from their staff."
Her concerns were echoed by some provincial politicians.
"We rely on the... commission to make these rulings about human rights, and to have that overruled by a government-appointed board is very concerning to me," said Lisa Naylor, a same-sex parent and former Winnipeg School Division trustee who is now the NDP MLA for Wolseley.
"Instead of this ruling being an opportunity to make our schools safer places, this is just another way the government is pushing back at progressive policies."
"What you need with the appointment process is for people to be qualified and independent," said Dougald Lamont, leader of the Manitoba Liberals, who’ve called for an overhaul of the process of appointing overseers to provincial boards. "These organizations need to be more at arm’s-length from government."
Naylor said she hopes the province’s sweeping K-12 education review report expected in March will promote the inclusion of LGBTTQ+ students and families.
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.
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