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We don't need an inquiry -- we need to bring the hammer of defunding down now on scofflaw private schools

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David Eggen

To jaw-jaw is generally held to be better than to war-war, as Winston Churchill observed, but there are times when a short, sharp correction is what a situation demands.

Alberta's New Democratic government now faces just such a circumstance in the case of the two Edmonton-area private Baptist schools openly defying the government on the matter of the Jim Prentice-era Tory law, supported back in the day by the NDP, that requires schools to permit students to form gay-straight alliances and other types of anti-bullying clubs.

Education Minister David Eggen has chosen -- unwisely, it is said here -- to form a third-party inquiry under Section 41 of the School Act to look deeply into this matter and render an arm's length judgment a month or two down the line. Presumably Eggen hopes this will give everyone an opportunity to ponder the consequences of their actions and let passions cool.

Good luck with that! It will not work. It will make matters worse. Here is why:

First, Alberta Education already knows perfectly well that Brian Coldwell, the pastor of the Spruce Grove-area Baptist church that runs the two schools and chair of the Independent Baptist Christian Education Society that administers them, does not intend to co-operate.

This has been going on for a year, and Coldwell has made it abundantly clear he has no intention of obeying the law. More chit-chat, no matter how well intentioned, will change nothing.

Second, studying the matter will not help the government, and will certainly help the conservative Opposition parties, which the evidence strongly suggests are covertly advising with Pastor Coldwell on how to prolong and magnify the embarrassment for the government.

Indeed, the longer this goes on, the worse it will be for the NDP -- which is the Opposition's whole idea. Delay will provide supposedly independent conservative groups working under cover with the Opposition more opportunities to falsely paint the NDP as totalitarian enemies of free speech motivated by ideology.

Third, the longer this takes, the more Alberta's many anti-gay bullies, homophobes and bigots are empowered. More delay will lead to more bullying, more alienation, more poisonous social media slurs, and more tragedies.

Delay will also encourage other social conservative school boards to drag their feet and submit Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity policies that intentionally meet neither the spirit nor the letter of the law. This will contribute to the narrative of crisis and mismanagement the Opposition naturally wants to create about the NDP.

This is already happening with, for example, many of the province's Roman Catholic school boards. Public Interest Alberta was reduced to having to FOIP Catholic school boards to winkle out their policies!

The NDP is understandably very anxious to avoid such a fight with powerful Catholic boards. But all Eggen's decision is likely to achieve, alas, is to make it more likely, and more damaging to the NDP's project of encouraging decency and diversity in our schools. It will give their social conservative enemies more time to organize and practice their deceit.

Finally, the NDP presumably wants to dot all the i's and cross all the t's on the reasonable assumption the law is going to end up being challenged in the courts. I understand this, but I fail to see how having a long inquiry will change anything.

A spokesperson for Eggen said yesterday "the minister has chosen to work through this process and to have a full understanding of the policies, procedures and perspectives of Independent Baptist Christian Education Society and the members of its community."

Excuse me, but we already understand these things perfectly! Coldwell has stated: "I'm not going to allow the minister of education to appoint anyone to come in here. … There is no way under heaven I'm going to allow gay activists to come in here and basically undermine our ministries and our religious freedoms or confuse and corrupt our children." What isn't clear about this?

The government has not yet named the person -- it will likely be an individual -- to take on this impossible task. The spokesman said the government hopes to name someone within a few days.

No matter who steps up, though, they will be excoriated and attacked personally by the Opposition. God help them if they've ever been a member of a union, especially the Alberta Teachers Association, an advocate of public education, or a defender of the rights of sexual minorities!

The inquiry will take as long as two months -- during which the Opposition will get up to mischief and the two schools will not move an inch closer to obeying the law. After he resigns on Friday, PC leadership candidate Jason Kenney will doubtless deliver many more pious homilies about the need for "a generous, sensible, balanced approach" -- one, I assume, that would allow sexual minority children to continue to be bullied.

At the end of this unproductive delay, Eggen will find himself in exactly the position he is in today, except perhaps with fewer options.

Which gets me back to where I started. There really was really only one option that made sense, and that was a short, sharp corrective in which the minister announced this nonsense had gone on long enough and the Independent Baptist Christian Education Society was being defunded. Period.

Eggen has the power under the current legislation to do just this.

Coldwell's group could then pursue their lawsuit without the benefit of public funding to subsidize whatever it is they teach in those schools. My guess is many of the parents of the children enrolled in them would pretty quickly drift away when the impact became apparent.

The Opposition would scream, but not for long. I bet that behind closed doors, they'd have said to each other: "I didn't think they had it in them! What the heck will we do now?"

More important, a strong statement that sexual minority children will be protected in Alberta would have been made for all to hear.

As Dr. Johnson famously observed, "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Such a move would concentrate the minds of some of school trustees and private school administrators still inclined to flout the law of the land. And to insert a little realpolitik into the discussion, better to have this fight with a private school on the far-out fringe that a large publicly funded board.

So, acting now, and forcefully, would have the effect of protecting children, upholding the rule of law and reducing the political impact of the problem for the government.

Holding an inquiry, in all probability, will make things worse for everyone except the devious conservatives who are exploiting this situation for their own political and ideological gain.

The government has chosen to go down this path. When the inquiry fails, can we just get on with defunding those schools, please?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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