If human rights commissions have a place, it should be as public witnesses to social conduct gone awry. By examining the conduct, and the ideas behind that conduct, a human rights body can lay the issues bare for society to evaluate.
But by creating laws that must be arbitrated by a human rights commission, a government further entrenches the growing — and insidious — notion that rights commissions are another extension of the judiciary.
And by pushing human rights legislation into the realm of free speech, including in schools, government shows itself intent on controlling expressions of thought. Such a government also leaves itself open to influence by special interest groups.
Alberta’s human rights legislation — first passed in 1971 and revised in 1996 — prohibits discrimination in three areas: employment, public services and housing. It allows the commission to examine complaints based on, among other things, race, income, age and religion.
And Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett has introduced legislation (Bill 44) to include sexual orientation as cause for a rights complaint.
If it was as simple as that, and the examination of complaints was as prompt and transparent as possible, the Alberta Human Rights Commission could represent a useful tool in the evolution of social behaviour.
But free speech has become the purview of the Alberta commission — the Red Deer Advocate was embroiled in one such case, by publishing a letter to the editor. Far better that such complaints are dealt with through existing hate law. The court system has the clarity and the rigour to hear these issues in a far more efficient manner, and the power to deal with them upon judgment.
And now Blackett’s Bill 44, the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Amendment Act, proposes that the rights commission be allowed to examine how, and what, Alberta students are taught.
The amendment would give parents the right to take complaints to the commission about classroom material — or discussion — they find offensive or objectionable. The reforms would allow parents to remove children from a class that explicitly examines “human sexuality, religion and sexual orientation.”
The amendment is flawed on several fronts:
• Public school is intended to provide a broad-based education for a broad-based student body. Censoring content, either by removing students in the face of content or by stifling that content, flies in the face of true education.
It would be far better if the parents concerned, for example, about material on evolution place their children in private Christian schools (where public funding is available).
• Discussion is a natural part of quality education; students need to raise and consider ideas from all directions. Tailoring classroom discussion to avoid potentially contentious topics is both restrictive and insulting to teachers and students questing for knowledge.
• If sexual orientation is to become cause for a human rights complaint under the amendment, and parents are allowed to remove their children from classroom discussions about sexual orientation, are they flying in the face of the legislation? What if their children are gay?
Human rights protection should be fundamental. So too should be the right to examine ideas in their fullness. A society can’t progress and blossom without faithfulness to both ideals.
Human rights legislation shouldn’t restrict either ideal.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.