Manitoba poised to demand faith-based independent schools allow gay-straight alliances

Manitoba appears set to demand faith-based independent schools allow gay-straight alliances, sparking complaints it will be a threat to their freedom of religion.

The province may well be the first to require private schools — many of them religious — to comply with anti-bullying legislation because a large number receive 50% funding from taxpayers.

“Parents are making a significant economic decision to send their children to our school and they’re doing so because they share the same values as the school would,” said Scott Wiebe, principal at Steinbach Christian High School. “We currently meet all the requirements for funded independent schools in Manitoba and… [but] our acceptance of funding shouldn’t come at a cost to a Charter right, which is freedom of religion.”

More than 1,200 parents, students and community members attended a meeting at Steinbach Sunday night about Manitoba’s Public Schools Amendment Act, or Bill 18 — heavily informed by Ontario’s Accepting Schools Act, also known as Bill 13.

Like Bill 13, Manitoba’s proposed legislation defines bullying broadly, as any behaviour “intended to cause, or should be known to cause, fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other forms of harm to another person’s body, feelings, self-esteem, reputation or property.”

It also requires that schools allow gay straight alliances — a hot button issue for Catholic schools in Ontario. Some schools are also worried the Catholic and evangelical Christian teaching that homosexuality is wrong will count as bullying under the law.

Robert Charach, principal of Winnipeg’s Linden Christian School, where 870 students attend Kindergarten-12, said he believes that schools should have the power to approve clubs that “respect the values of the school.”

“We’re all on the same page: stop bullying,” he said. “But the fundamental ability to have a discussion, in some ways we’ve got an imbalance — the communities of faith feel that they’re being bullied by this process.”

Mr. Wiebe and others in his community worry that mention of “actions that should be known to cause harm to another person’s feelings” in the bill could stifle religious expression.

“That can be very broad and one of our concerns is there’s potential for the sharing of religious views to be considered bullying,” he said, adding that the legislation should allow independent schools more discretion.

There are more than 14,000 students attending funded independent schools in Manitoba — 5,000 of them in Catholic schools, and smaller numbers in Islamic, Jewish, Sikh and other Christian institutions.


“I’m not really sure what they’re concerned about,”

– Nancy Allan, Manitoba Education Minister

Since tabling the bill in December, a few months after the death of British Columbia teenager Amanda Todd, NDP education minister Nancy Allan said she’s obtained the support of more than five major “education partners” in the province. In the past month or so, more than 3,000 emails — mostly form letters, but some “compelling letters”— about the bill have flooded her office, she said.

Asked directly about the concerns around freedom of religion and whether discussion of religious beliefs that may hurt people’s feelings could fall under the purview of the act, Ms. Allan said the inclusion of hurt feelings in the bill is important and follows best practices.

“I’m not really sure what they’re concerned about,” she said. “I think that at the end of the day what we want is all of our students to feel safe at school regardless of whether or not they’re in a public school or an independent school and we have examples of that here in Manitoba.”

The province counts 31 gay straight alliances and the female student who started one at Westgate Mennonite Collegiate — a partially funded religious school — recently received a humanitarian award, Ms. Allan said.

Robert Praznik, director of education at the Archdiocese of Winnipeg Catholic Schools and board chair for the Manitoba Federation of Independent Schools, said in a statement that Ms. Allan agreed to “review the wording of the requirements placed on our schools so that they are in keeping with the original funding agreement which recognizes our ability to operate within the unique religious perspectives/cultural objectives and values of an independent school.”

That discussion is ongoing, Ms. Allan said.   In an interview, Mr. Praznik said British Columbia’s anti-bullying legislation doesn’t apply to independent schools, despite their funding structure being similar to Manitoba’s. Bill 13 in Ontario doesn’t apply to independent schools because they don’t get any public money.

The bill will be up for debate when the legislature sits for its spring session.

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