Twitter kerfuffle over Canadian ERC Curriculum

In Ethics, In the News by Steve Wilkinson6 Comments


Photo: confusion by marfis75 (Flickr)

This past Saturday (Feb 25th), I got into a bit of a Twitter kerfuffle with Dr. James White (of over the Canadian ERC (Quebec) “Ethics and Religious Culture” Curriculum which has been causing a stir around the Internet recently. In this case, it is concerning Alberta, but seems related to the Quebec ERC debate (I could be in error here, as the article was a bit mixed). We exchanged a number of messages in the process, but I’m not sure we gained much clarity. (Note to self: Twitter is just horrible for this kind of thing.) I decided to give up on Twitter and post a blog on the topic. If Dr. White would like to respond, he would be most welcomed (and I’d be honored, though it isn’t expected).

First, I’d like to thank Dr. White for taking the time to respond and interact with me on this in the first place. I’d also like to – right up front – acknowledge that I share his concerns and mostly (I think) agree with him on issues surrounding homosexuality and same-sex marriage. I think we also agree on how dangerous the tactics are, which are being used to silence Christians who enter the public square in opposition. The use and abuse of “tolerance” and “diversity” by the political “left” is quite disgusting these days. I’d also like to say that I might be misunderstanding the situation in Alberta, given the intermingling of what an Alberta administrator said in the article Dr. White linked, with the Quebec ERC debate that has been ongoing.

Where I believe we disagree, is over what has been happening in Canada concerning the ERC (Ethics and Religious Culture) curriculum, and the implications for schooling and home-schooling more specifically. I think we’re arguing a bit past one another, as he is focusing on a potential problem over “diversity” training on homosexuality, while I am looking at the program more broadly, including the debate over parental vs state’s responsibility for education (which was more the issue in Quebec).

First, a little background:

The article you will see Dr. White link to in the twitter exchange below is here on Life Site News. It is certainly an alarming article. Donna McColl makes some statements (if they are properly in context, and if terms are defined in certain ways), with which I would also disagree.

The articles I linked to in response to this tweet by Dr. White, were written by my former professor, Dr. John G. Stackhouse Jr. on his blog. They can be found HERE and HERE. I introduced them as another perspective to consider. I noted that I mostly agree with Dr. Stackhouse and that I thought the LSN (Life Site News, sorry, I errantly referred to it as LFN in the Twitter exchange) article was an overreaction. (Also note, I do follow LSN and usually agree with their articles and stances on the pro-life cause.)

A bit of confusion then ensued, as Dr. Stackhouse’s articles didn’t speak directly to the issue of homosexuality, in fact, they focused more on the religious aspects of the curriculum. It was more in the comments following the articles where this was discussed. Even then, homosexuality wasn’t the focus. I tried to point that out, but it just wasn’t working via 140 characters. Dr. White began posing some good questions, but it was becoming clear to me that we were not only failing to get on the same page, but that there was no way I was going to be able to clear it up on Twitter (let alone answer the questions he posed to me).

Also, as noted in Dr. Stackhouse’s article, here is the website for the actual ERC curriculum, so you can examine it for yourself.

Here is the site for the Alberta Education Act 2012. If you can find anything in there that prohibits Christian teaching, or forces students to learn that homosexuality is morally positive, please let me know. The only thing I see is that school boards must notify parents when “subject matter that deals primarily and explicitly with religion, human sexuality or sexual orientation” will be discussed, and the parents can excuse their child from those parts.

Section 16 (mentioned in the LSN article) states, “Diversity and respect 16 – All courses or programs of study offered and instructional materials used in a school must reflect the diverse nature and heritage of society in Alberta, promote understanding and respect for others and honour and respect the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Alberta Human Rights Act.”

What does this mean? Well, I suppose it could mean that Christians can’t teach homosexuality is sin if you read it a certain way. Or, it could mean that, say, Dr. Michael Brown’s book, “A Queer Thing Happened to America” would be permitted, but not the Westboro Baptists. A little further investigation is needed.

So, following the rabbit trail, we come to the Alberta Human Rights Act. I’m not going to paste in the section here, but just start reading on page 3, where it says, “Code of Conduct” (for about 1 page). While I suppose someone could try to use it against a Christian teaching against homosexuality, claiming they were discriminating or promoting hatred, it would seem to cut both ways. A Christian could also use it against someone seen to be discriminating or promoting hatred of Christians. I guess Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” won’t be allowed as part of a curriculum either then! Religion is on the SAME list of protected groups as sexual-orientation. While I’m not a big fan of this kind of legislation (because of the problems it often prompts), the spirit of it doesn’t seem to be to smack down religion and promote homosexuality, as it is being portrayed.

The following is a transcript of the Twitter conversation (hopefully I didn’t miss any):

@DrOakley1689 – Homeschooling families can’t teach homosexuality a sin in class says Alberta gvmt <— WOW.

@TilledSoil – @DrOakley1689 Different perspective by Canadian & Prof @jgsphd I mostly agree; LFN an overreaction

@DrOakley1689 – @TilledSoil Must be bad links, since there was nothing there about the Life News issue of homeschool mandates about homosexuality.

@TilledSoil – @DrOakley1689 He doesn’t mention LFN or this issue specifically, though I did bring that up in the comments, which he addressed, esp. in 2nd

@DrOakley1689 – @TilledSoil Sorry, read comments on 2nd, as noted..saw zip.

@TilledSoil – @DrOakley1689 Sorry, issues with 140 chrs 🙂 discussion of LFN article in comments of 1st; 2nd more broadly addresses concerns of this type.

@TilledSoil – @DrOakley1689 Neither directly addresses homosexuality, but the issue more broadly; and from more Canadian mindset (sans libertarian of US)

@DrOakley1689 – @TilledSoil Uh, the link you provided him is not the link I provided, and is on a different subject. My article is 2/23…all this is prior

@TilledSoil – @DrOakley1689 Fair point… there have been a few on LFN; very similar. I think Dr. Stackhouse’s view still applies. Sorry 4 the confusion.

@DrOakley1689 – @TilledSoil I saw nothing in his views relevant to the prohibition of teaching homosexuality is a sin in a Christian school or homeschool.

@TilledSoil – @DrOakley1689 I’m not seeing this prohibition… my understanding is that the prohibition applies to THIS curriculum.

@DrOakley1689 – @TilledSoil Would Paul have allowed Christian parents to teach their children that worship of Zeus is OK by gov’t mandate?

@TilledSoil – @DrOakley1689 – I think one can teach world religions in an academic manner w/o endorsing one or all as correct.

@DrOakley1689 – @TilledSoil Of course. Has nothing to do with the article I posted however. End of my comments till you read it. 🙂

@TilledSoil – @DrOakley1689 Read (2nd time); your concerns noted. Should probably examine source curriculum (Stackhouse linked) if I ever get time. But…

@TilledSoil – @DrOakley1689 not seeing how this stops from teaching it in Christian ethics class. Integration gets tricky, but a bubble doesn’t fix that.

@DrOakley1689 – @TilledSoil Mandating the teaching of respect for moral perversity is morally perverse, is it not?

@TilledSoil – @DrOakley1689 Is it respect for the position or the people? Need to find out. Thx for the chat. I’m giving up via twitter. 1/2

@TilledSoil – @DrOakley1689 I will blog Sun or Mon to try and clarify my position. I’ll include you in the tweet in case you’re still interested. 2/2

OK, now that the readers are caught up, here we go:

First, the problem I have with the LSN article is that it seems rather sensational to me. Terms aren’t well defined, quotes are really cut-up, etc. It seems clear that Donna McColl, herself, might be a bit confused on the matter and was probably trying to run a “politically correct” line in this interview which would keep her out of hot water with certain constituents. Her damning phrase was, “we do not tolerate disrespect for differences,”; (which , note, was cutoff mid-sentence).

Then, we get a statement by a home school legal defense person to toss some gasoline on the fire: “clearly signaling that they are in fact planning to violate the private conversations families have in their own homes.” Woah! Where did this come from? How, exactly, would mandating respect for differences (even if this means what some Christians fear) in the state curriculum, violate the family’s private conversations? I might be a bit slow on the uptake here, but that seems like a bit of an unwarranted Orwellian jump to me.

Second, what does it mean to teach respect for diversity in a state curriculum? Again, even if our worst fears are true, we’d have to define whether we are being told to respect homosexuality, or homosexuals. Of course I respect homosexuals as fellow citizens, and I can certainly respect (and respectfully disagree with) the ideology of the state surrounding how the laws concerning homosexuality and marriage are established. (Note: I’ve yet to find anything dealing with homosexuality in the ERC, but given the language I have run across in it regarding diversity, it seems to be working hard to avoid problems.)

Third, if a Christian home-schooler can’t teach their children to respect, as a fellow human and citizen, a homosexual person, or be able to teach the state’s view and law on same-sex-marriage, while at the same time handle an adequate rebuttal (even if it must occur in a separate lesson plan) from the Christian worldview, this family probably shouldn’t be homeschooling. They are, in effect, doing their children a disservice. One day, these kids WILL have to “leave the nest” and deal with the real world. We, all too well, are familiar with how a similar situation turned out with kids who’s school or parents ripped out the evolution sections of their science texts, rather than deal with them.

Do we need to watch this unfold carefully? Certainly we do! However, the correct response – it seems to me – would not be to pull our kids from such curriculum, but to learn how to meet it head on, while fighting for change in the curriculum (this is, assuming the curriculum is bad in the first place, which I’ve yet to see or be shown.)

Dr. Stackhouse’s articles, on the other hand, argue that the courts in Quebec made the right decision in overruling the parents efforts to remove their children from the ERC curriculum. To the American ear, this probably sounds rather odd. Yet, even in America, I think it is recognized that children receive certain educational components for their own benefit and the benefit of society. If parents are keeping their kids from such education, it might be considered neglect in some form. (1)Certain recent cases have especially triggered a reaction in the USA, such as a child being removed from the home over extreme obesity. The general attitude in America, from what I can tell, is one … Continue reading

It is important, at this point, to understand something about a difference between American and Canadian culture (at least from my observations, being an American, but having lived in Canada for the past 5+ years). I would say that Canada is more social in thinking than America. By this, I don’t mean that Canada is socialist, as in communistic, while America is democratic (lots of countries are democratic; Iran is democratic; democracy isn’t necessarily a positive thing). What I mean is that Canadians seem to have less of the American “libertarian” attitude going on. I’m not sure if that is the best term, so I’ll put it into a common expression: “every man for himself.”

This is important to this discussion, because when it comes to parental rights, I think Americans are more inclined to lean towards, “he/she is my child and I’ll do with him/her as I please.” Or, to put it in a bit more positive light, “He/she is my child and it is my responsibility to bring him/her up correctly.” The Canadian, I think, is less likely to stress that kind of attitude, and to think of preparing the child to interact in society as a whole (which includes benefits, as well as responsibilities). Consider Canadian health-care. While it is often criticized (2)Our family has yet to find the downside of it. Our healthcare here, so far, has been far superior to what we had in various places around the US., especially in America, the thinking here seems to be more that we pay for this, not because health-care is an entitlement or a right (though some certainly believe that, here or in the US), but because having it available to all just seems like the decent, neighborly thing to do.

In the same way, while America has more of a “melting pot” mentality, Canada has more the attitude of maintain the diversity and learn to live with and respect it. This can, of course, have it’s downsides, but it also helps explain why something like the ERC curriculum is seen as such a beneficial thing. I think the USA could benefit from something similar. Ignorance of other’s beliefs, religion, and positions hardly ever helps any situation.

As I noted in response to Dr. Stackhouse’s articles, I am also nervous about the teaching of ethics in this manner. I’m completely fine with the teaching of world religions as a requirement for all children. In fact, I’ll be a cheer-leader for that! But ethics are a much more tricky thing, in that there needs to be common grounding. That said, Dr. Stackhouse challenges us to actually read the curriculum and bring the problems to the conversation. Currently, it does seem like much of the discussion is more hysteria over what might happen. Of course it probably will (when don’t humans muck things like this up). But let’s address them as they come, not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As Dr. Stackhouse puts it, “Again, Canadian parents do not have the ‘right’ to keep their kids ignorant. Canadian parents do not have the ‘right’ to make public institutions say only what they prefer them to say–as if ‘public’ means ‘an extension of what I believe with nothing I find objectionable’ instead of what it really means, which is ‘shared with people of other views.'” While this does prick my American ears a bit, upon reflection, I tend to agree. As a Christian apologist and parent, I recognize that I can’t keep my child in some kind of Christian-bubble, and I certainly recognize the damage that has been done by parents and various groups in their attempts to do so in the past.

So, maybe I’m reading the situation in Alberta incorrectly. If the state, in this situation, tries to impose that I must teach my child to respect moral perversity, as Dr. White put it (rather than to respect those who are morally perverse), I will of course join him in opposing it. As Christians, God comes before state. On the other hand, if the state is simply requiring that I teach my child about the law of the land (as defective as it might be in areas), and to give a certain societal respect to my neighbor (as sinful as they may be) why would this present an obstacle to comply?

So, then, to directly address some of Dr. White’s challenges:

1) “Homeschooling families can’t teach homosexuality a sin in class says Alberta gvmt.”

I think we would need a bit more legal clarification than the statements of  Donna McColl in the LSN article here. In which class; any class? I could see that IF this ‘diversity’ training course addresses same-sex-marriage, given its legal-status in Canada, it would probably attempt to teach that it is legal and that GLBT folks be respected. Even if it goes further than that (to teach that it is ethically good or positive), I fail to see why a parent can’t teach this as the state’s position. Then, in their Christianity Ethics 101 course, teach why we as Christians oppose such thinking.

2) “Would Paul have allowed Christian parents to teach their children that worship of Zeus is OK by gov’t mandate?”

Probably not, but he might have allowed Christian parents to teach their children that according to the Greek government, worship of Zeus is mandated and proper (if, in fact, it was so mandated). This doesn’t mean we have to agree with the state’s position.

3) “Mandating the teaching of respect for moral perversity is morally perverse, is it not?”

As I responded in tweets and noted above, first we’d have to figure out what is being taught (ie: IF, in fact, this is even taught in the curriculum). Is it teaching respect for the moral perversity or for the morally perverse (person). If it is as you say, then of course we would have to object to that as Christians. But even so, how exactly is the government of Alberta going to control what is taught to the children OUTSIDE of this particular curriculum? And, as I also noted above, if parents can’t handle a situation in which the state’s teaching conflicts with Christian teaching, how will the kids survive once they leave home?

So, even if the worst case is true, I think our reaction should be to: 1) Use our legal channels (see the Alberta Human Rights Act I linked to above) to argue against aspects of such a curriculum, if it is found to be unfair. 2) Push heavily on educating parents in Christian apologetics, rather than argue for our ability to keep our kids in a bubble. But just as important, we need to be certain that the worst case is indeed the case before we strongly oppose something which might be beneficial. Or, possibly even be overall more beneficial than harmful if we can easily counter the harmful.

What do you all think?

Should the state require a core education to familiarize our children with the world’s major religions? Should the state require a course on ethical thinking and some of our common societal ethics? Should the state be able to override the parents will to keep their children from learning certain things? Certainly we agree that parents should be able to teach things contrary to what the state teaches (or maybe better, in addition to), but do you believe there is a real threat from the state to prevent parents from doing so (as the LSN article seems to present)? If so, do you think they could realistically enforce such a policy?

(Note: This is an “in the news” article, so more related to commentary and discussion than apologetics training. We will be covering topics of ethics and sexuality in regard to “core” apologetics training in articles to come.)

Update: Monday, March 19, 2012

I’m updating the post to pass along a response that Dr. John Stackhouse posted at Cardus which I thought was especially good, as well as make my main points crystal clear.

My main points:

1) My problem is not so much with the fears the LifeSiteNews article expresses, but with the fact that there is no evidence to support the allegations. Of course, if the state were going to come into my home and tell me I couldn’t teach my kids about my religious beliefs, I’d be outraged. That hasn’t, to my knowledge, happened, nor do I see anything to indicate it will.

2) And, this is the critical point for Christian apologetics: We can’t keep our children (or people in general) in a Christian bubble! That might have been somewhat possible a generation or two ago (though still a stupid idea!) but it simply isn’t the case today. Kids, especially, need to know what they will be up against. Hiding it from them just doesn’t work.

Also, the following was a response to a discussion over at Cardus by Dr. Stackhouse (used with his permission and blessing). He said some things so well here that I wanted to pass them along and certainly doubt I could say them better:

March 4, 2012

John G. Stackhouse Jr. · North Vancouver, British Columbia
Signing off (I’ve got a book to write and on a completely different matter!):

1. If you distrust the public school system, then you distrust it. I have lots of reasons to be wary of it, but I don’t fundamentally think it’s a Bad Thing. Quite the contrary: I think it is a necessary thing in Canada today and ought to be supported by everyone, including Christians. But if you just distrust it, as some of you do, then that’s that.

2. If a public school teacher teaches a curriculum badly, he or she is liable to correction and everyone involved in the system (pupil, parent, colleague, principal, citizen) can legitimately ask for that to happen.

3. If a curriculum itself either fails to tell the truth or transgresses against either law or basic Canadian values, it must be changed. Lots of people can announce the need for that and there are, of course, mechanisms in place to change it.

4. If parents believe their children are at risk of serious harm, including educational or ideological harm, they must protect them. Parents also need to teach their children, however, how to cope with the Real World. Withdrawal is a radical option and must be employed only as a last resort in the face of clear and present danger, not because a parent worries that something, somewhere, sometime might go wrong.

5. The community ought to look out for the welfare of every child and insure that children receive a basic level of care, including educational care. The community therefore ought to intervene when a parent mistreats a child, including when a parent wants to keep a child ignorant of facts and values the community agrees ought to be taught to all of its citizens.

6. Christians are citizens and ought to act like citizens. Our supreme loyalty is to God, but God is the one who requires us to act like citizens. So our situation is not simple, but complex, and only discussions that remain cognizant of this complexity will suffice.

7. There is nothing in the ERC curriculum that a Christian cannot endorse. The only plausible reasons I can see to oppose it, therefore, are (a) you don’t like public education on principle; (b) you believe there is something about this particular subject matter that will ensure it is badly taught; (c) you don’t believe bad teaching of the ERC curriculum can be dealt with effectively by the public school system; or (d) you don’t believe what is bad about the ERC curriculum (point b) or bad teaching of it (point c) can be handled by parents and churches providing alternative education to their children (whether via suppertime conversation, Sunday School, and so on).

I disagree with all of these points, and I do so as a graduate of Canadian public schools (K through university), as a parent whose three sons have graduated from Canadian public schools, and as a former instructor in a Canadian public school (professor at the U of Manitoba).

I am really sorry that so many obviously thoughtful people are reacting this way to the ERC. So what I would like to hear from ANY of these critics (and I’ll have to return to my own blog now, hoping someone will take up the challenge there) is how he or she thinks religions and ethical reasoning OUGHT to be taught to the children of our society.

I have maintained in several places that parents and churches manifestly are NOT providing this education nor CAN they, since neither pastors nor parents are educated themselves to do so. So for all the real or presumed faults of the ERC curriculum and its equivalents elsewhere, what positive alternative do the critics suggest? I look forward to hearing about them.

Thanks for the interaction, friends,


The problem is that (d) above is an actual problem (so a valid fear); just not a necessary one. It seems some parents would rather just pull their child and not deal with the situation either in education, or in having the guts to try and change the system. Make no mistake, if our churches had good education, attended by these parents, there would be no problem with their providing of an adequate alternate view in a respectful manner. Also, if even a small percentage of Christians were equipped to make the case in the public square (say, for example, on same-sex-marriage, in a level-headed and well-thought-out manner, the laws could also be changed making this whole conversation a moot point.

John also makes a great point about the need for an education on ethics and religion to the general culture. If the churches can’t do it for their own, who will do it for the rest of the people in Canada?

Update: Monday, August 1, 2012

One point I should make REALLY clear, as I didn’t take it into account in my original article (it comes up in discussion below… thanks Kris!), is that of the Canadian human rights tribunals. These are a sort of kangaroo court in which the normal methods of justice are tossed aside. Basically, the person making the allegation is financially funded by the State; the accused is presumed guilty and bears legal costs. This is NUTS (i.e. INSANE!) but it is beginning to exist in the (previously civilized, apparently) West in many places around issues of discrimination and ‘hate crime.’ The thing to note here, though, is that the problem is the tribunals, not the ERC or changes to wording in various human rights documents. Sure, certain legal wording can make one more susceptible to such courts, but the courts shouldn’t exist in the first place. My call to Canadians would be to get rid of the core problem instead of combatting otherwise good things which might be utilized by this perversion of justice. Even without the ERC or wording changes, you’re still susceptible to the tribunals, should you end up in their crosshairs.