Trustees on the Edmonton Catholic School Board (ECSB) debated the finer points of discrimination in late November, and they approved a second reading of a draft policy on transgender students that now implicitly allows “just” discrimination for their school system, which is located in the Canadian province of Alberta.
“On first reading, the draft policy included the sentence: ‘All members of the school community have the right to an environment free of discrimination, prejudice and harassment.’
“But on second reading Tuesday evening, that sentence was altered to add the word ‘unjust’ before the word ‘discrimination.’ “
According to trustee Cindy Olsen, the edit differentiates between just and unjust discrimination. Wording which includes “unjust discrimination” was in the second reading approved in a 5-2 vote. A third reading is required for final approval after being reviewed for legal compliance by Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen.
Not all involved in the process believe discrimination should be parsed in the policy. Two trustees, Marilyn Bergstra and Patricia Grell, voted against the new wording. Bergstra, who excused herself as chair so she could speak candidly, said the policy must be “black and white” so as to clearly articulate “what is expected.” Grell, who sponsored the policy, explained further:
” ‘It’s almost like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Is what is unjust sort in the eye of whoever is deciding what is unjust? It seems to be open to interpretation.’ “
Marni Panas, a transgender parent in Edmonton Catholic schools, asked who decides what is considered just discrimination. She told the Edmonton Journal that, after eleven months, “we’re not further ahead.”
Kristopher Wells of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies said the policy is essentially meaningless. What is needed are “specific, comprehensive and stand-alone policies [that] are targeted interventions” supporting LGBTQ students.
A September meeting on the draft policy devolved into a “shouting match.” Trustee Larry Kowalczyk has said trans* people have a “mental disorder” and the policy is backed by “God-hating activists.” Minister Eggen mandated professional mediation lasting two weeks after this meeting.
Debates by Edmonton Catholic officials mirror emerging debates in the wider Alberta School Board Association, though perhaps less intensely. At its fall meeting, he Association failed to achieve a 2/3rds vote to allow discussion of transgender policies. Interestingly, the Catholic School Board voted in favor of the discussion which Bergstra called “emergent.”
Minister Eggen has since mandated that all Alberta school boards, including the the Edmonton Catholic School Board, must develop policies supporting LGBT students by the end of March 2016. In this case, ECSB chair Marilyn Bergstra says her board hs a “head start” and could assist other boards just beginning the process of creating transgender polices.
ECSB’s “head start” did not come as a result to any trustee’s initiative, but because they were faced with the the incident of a 7-year-old girl being barred from the girls’ bathroom at her Catholic primary school. The proposed policy is intended to protect transgender and gender non-conforming students, but by allowing “just” discrimination it may only increase the already exorbitant risks trans youth face.
Catholic education, whose mandate comes from the Gospel, has a duty to ensure all students flourish by providing high quality education in safe and respectful environments. As it is written now, ECSB’s policy will not move their schools towards this end for trans students or their family, friends, and educators. Catholic officials attempt to differentiate “just” and “unjust” discrimination is not a new tactic, but it remains a failed and dangerous one.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry