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Transgender Policy Ignites Debate on Alberta Catholic School

Alberta’s publicly funded and administered Catholic school system has become an ideological battleground thanks to the provincial government’s guidelines requiring schools to develop a policy accommodating lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. Policies must be submitted by March 31 and if a school board refuses to comply they could face discipline from the province, including dissolution by Minister of Education Dave Eggen. One result of this high profile debate has been a renewed questioning of the role and purpose of Alberta’s publicly funded Catholic schools.

The government’s transgender policy guidelines were a response to a controversy that erupted in the Edmonton Catholic school district last fall. When a transgendered girl was not allowed to use women’s washrooms at the school, the matter went to the school board for discussion; however, the meeting turned into an emotional and angry confrontation between trustees. Eggen even had to hire a mediator to defuse the situation. Since then, the provincial government has made it clear that all public schools, including Catholic schools, must allow transgender students to identify as the gender of their choice, including in such areas as clothing, washroom use and participation on gendered sports teams.

Leaders in the Catholic community have not taken kindly to these directives. In an open letter to parents, Calgary Bishop Fred Henry called the guidelines “totalitarian” and “anti­Catholic” while Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said they are “not congruent with Catholic teaching.” The Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association said it was disappointed by the government’s lack of consultation when the guidelines were created.

In January, Eggen stated that he had not ruled out dissolving the Edmonton Catholic school board if it defies government policy. Recently he has adopted a more conciliatory tone, meeting with Catholic leaders, including Henry and Smith, on February 8 to discuss how the schools’ transgender policies could accommodate religious beliefs. However, one Edmonton Catholic high school is already facing another controversy after the school principal refused to let a 16­year­old student wear a rainbow Pride flag in a school procession.

Why publicly funded Catholic schools?

Alberta, like Saskatchewan and Ontario, has a dual system of non­denominational and Catholic schools which are both funded entirely by the provincial government. Additionally, private schools exist in Alberta, which are eligible for government grants but not full public funding. It may seem odd that schools of only one religious affiliation are part of the public education system. Nonetheless, this arrangement is based on Canada’s history and culture at the time Alberta became a province.

Back in the nineteenth century, the Constitution Act, 1867 provided that all publicly-­funded denominational schools created by law prior to Confederation would be preserved. In those days education was heavily influenced by religious beliefs. The Catholic minority in Ontario did not want to send their children to schools where they would learn the moral and religious values of the Protestant majority, so the Ontario government funded separate Catholic schools. The same principle applied for the Protestant minority in Quebec. When the Northwest Territories became part of Canada, the territorial school system was modelled on Ontario, providing separate schools for the Catholic minority. The Alberta Act, 1905, now part of the Canadian constitution, preserves the Ontario system in Alberta to this day.

However, the education policies of 1867 and 1905 do not necessarily make sense in the 21st century. The non­-denominational public school system has become resolutely secular and Protestants are no longer the majority in Alberta. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, Protestants make up only 39% of Alberta’s population, with 27% being Catholic, 24% unaffiliated with any religion, 4.1% other Christian denominations, 1.7% Muslim, 1.5% Christian Orthodox and 1.1% Buddhist, with other religions below 1%. However, only the Catholic minority has a constitutional right to publicly funded schools – not Protestant, Muslim, Orthodox, Buddhist or other religious minorities.

Time for change?

Controversies such as the transgender policy suggest that Alberta’s publicly funded separate school system is unfair to both Catholics and the public. Catholic parents expect the separate schools to provide their children with an education in line with their religious values. Despite this, the fact that Catholic schools in Alberta are funded and ultimately controlled by the provincial government means that they must adhere to legislation and policy governing public schools, even when it is out of step with Catholic values and doctrine. As Minister of Education, Eggen has the power to dissolve a Catholic school board and replace it with a single government appointed administrator who may not even be Catholic. Thus, Albertans have neither a true public school system or true religious freedom in education.

A solution appears simple, but will not be simple to achieve. Former Alberta education minister Dave King, who served in Premier Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservative government, has recently renewed his call for the elimination of publicly funded Catholic schools. King argues that the separate school system is a relic of the past, no longer relevant to Alberta society.

Moreover, if Catholic schools were private, like those of other religious denominations, they would not be subject to government policies which apply to public schools, such as the transgender policy. No longer funded and controlled by government, Catholic schools could remain consistent with church doctrine. If the Alberta government chose to subsidize parents wishing to send their children to a private school, such subsidies would be available equally for Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Sikh or non­religious schools. Alberta’s neighbouring province, BC, currently has such a system (and has never had public denominational schools).

There are, of course, obstacles to such a change. For one thing, it would require a constitutional amendment to the Alberta Act, 1905. However, a constitutional amendment affecting only one province is much less daunting than one affecting the entire country – it would simply need to be passed by the Alberta Legislature and the federal House of Commons and Senate. In fact, Newfoundland successfully passed such a constitutional amendment to its Terms of Union with Canada in 1998, abolishing its publicly funded multi­-denominational school system in favour of fully public non­-sectarian schools.

On the other hand, the ideologies underpinning both of Alberta’s major political parties present a much greater hurdle to education reform. Eliminating publicly funded Catholic schools would require sweeping privatization to an extent probably unprecedented in the province’s history. It is doubtful that the left-­leaning Alberta NDP government would support such large-­scale privatization. And while the opposition Wildrose Party espouses free markets and limited government, elimination of funding to religious schools would not likely sit well with that party’s rural, socially conservative base.

Could the abolition of separate schools form a viable political issue for the emergence of a third party? Such a change may be good public policy, but whether it gains popular support will probably depend on the actions of Catholic school boards – and the Alberta government – going forward.