Education Minister David Eggen

Education Minister David Eggen

December 21, 2015
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Education Minister David Eggen is confident Edmonton Catholic Schools' trustees will ultimately produce a policy that provides a safe and supportive learning environment for LGBTQ students.

"My ministry will provide further guidance for all (school) boards and in the end I expect we'll have something we can all be proud of," Eggen said Dec 11.

"We want to make sure that all students are safe (and) have a safe environment in which to learn and that each school board will follow the letter of the School Act. I'm optimistic we'll reach that goal."

That's a change from Dec. 2, when Eggen expressed concern over how Catholic trustees dealt with the second reading of their proposed transgender policy.

At a Dec. 1 meeting, trustees decided their policy should oppose "unjust discrimination" against LGBTQ students, rather than simple discrimination.

The proposed policy now says, "All sexual and gender minority members of the Catholic education community have the right to an environment free of unjust discrimination, prejudice and harassment."

The Catholic board has been trying to craft a policy that protects homosexual and transgender students since a seven-year-old transgender student began identifying as a girl earlier this year.

She didn't want to stand out by having to use a gender-neutral washroom. In May, her school agreed she could use the female facilities. The policy underwent a two-week public consultation before second reading.

In an interview, Eggen said he was surprised at the direction the board had taken but he inferred his concerns had been somewhat dealt with by the disposition of board chair Marilyn Bergstra.

"I heard positive words from the chair. My staff met with her and she had some concerns about the changes as well. She said she is looking forward to the ministry providing more direction and so I will respond."

MEET SCHOOL ACT

Asked about his main concern with the Edmonton Catholic policy, Eggen said, "This policy must be specific to the School Act and provincial law, and so if they try to overgeneralize then it doesn't serve the purpose."

The minister said school boards should be able to develop their own policies.

He added: "I will provide specific guidelines for them to help along with that and quite frankly I think that we will see a positive outcome when people start working through this."

Bergstra was too busy in meetings for an interview, but on Dec. 11 she sent an email explaining she did not understand the rationale for adding the word "unjust" to modify discrimination. Consequently, she voted against the addition of the word.

"In providing the rationale for my position and subsequent vote on Dec. 1, I made the argument that it is important that policy be designed to provide absolute clarity and consistency," Bergstra explained.

"Policy is intended to remove judgments. It was my position that the addition of this word has the potential to compromise this design and intent."

The province will be providing guidelines to boards in January. "As we await these guidelines, one could anticipate that we will see changes to Edmonton Catholic draft policy prior to its third reading," said Bergstra. "I suspect the guidelines may challenge the addition of the word 'unjust' to discrimination."

WORK TOGETHER

Asked what Catholic trustees can do to make it right, Eggen said, "It's important that you look at what the law states and that you use specific language that meets those needs. We have until March 31 to sort it out so everybody will work hard to that goal."

Father Stefano Penna, a Newman Theological College professor who has been following the development of the policy, said "LGBTQ students are right now protected and safe when they come forward in a Catholic school in Alberta."

Penna said the policy approved in second reading was "a good step forward."

"I'm quite pleased about the way in which there is collaboration and conversation going on in all the groups on this issue."

Penna said Eggen has a responsibility to the law and also a responsibility to the parents of Alberta who entrust their children to him.

"A third of those parents are Catholic parents, and I would hope the minister listens not simply to ideological voices that are narrow and selective, but rather to the wide constituency to which he is responsible as an elected official," the priest said.

"(This issue) has been brought to our attention and we are going to respond," Penna said.