Distinctions Are Important in Fired Trans Teacher’s Dispute

Watch the interview on CTV

It’s not unusual for parties in a legal dispute to seek a non-disclosure agreement, in which the dollar amount or specific terms of an agreement are not for discussion.  That kind of non-disclosure agreement was not what the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division (GSACRD) sought when making an offer to Jan Lukas Buterman, the substitute teacher in the Edmonton area who was fired because he was undergoing a transition to male.

Under the terms that GSACRD sought, Buterman would not be able to acknowledge that the discrimination ever happened, and could be held in violation of the terms of the settlement if it were perceived that he spoke about the incident at all — it’s not clear what this might mean if portions of old interviews surfaced.  During the months that have transpired since his complaint was first filed, Buterman found that despite his own silence, he really had no control over how or when his firing was brought up.  After all, it is relevant in his work as the current Chair of the Trans Equality Society of Alberta (TESA), an advocacy organization that involves itself in issues that include employment rights.  (Full disclosure: this writer is also a board member of TESA). From the Canadian Press:

For months he spoke out in favour of federal Bill C-389, which would have amended the Canadian Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or gender expression. The bill passed third reading in Parliament earlier this year, but died in the Senate last month when the federal election was called.

Buterman says he has a right to speak out about the discrimination he faced.

“People like us have all experienced job harassment, job discrimination, job loss — it is a common theme in the community,” he says. “The only difference between me and everyone else is that I got mine in writing. I have no interest in pretending it didn’t happen.”

It’s an important distinction, and one that one could reasonably speculate that the GSACRD does not want people to make, as it has become known that Buterman has declined a cash settlement.  In fact, a string of distinctions has already enabled the school district to sway favour from people who don’t realize the details:

1. Separate, But Yes, Still Equal

While the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division is a Catholic school district, in the Province of Alberta Catholic school districts are publicly funded and are therefore subject to the same laws and requirements as public school districts, including non-discrimination regulations.

2. The Only Game In Town

In the majority of its region, there is no corresponding public school district, so GSACRD oversees the area’s public schools, and is the only public employer in that region.  This is an ongoing issue that parents in the region have been raising, including a delegation that spoke to GSACRD last December after one parent found that a public school was teaching her daughter Catholic perspectives on creation:

“They are breaking the rights of the children under the Human Rights Act of Canada, and they are breaking the rights of the children under the Alberta School Act, where they have the right to a secular education from their public school system,” [another parent Dave] Redman said. “This is a public school system. If they wish to be a separate school system, that’s wonderful. I’m happy if they wish to teach Catholicism every day and in every way to the children that attend the school as a separate school.”

Because there is no secular option, students are allowed to opt out of the Religion class and take a health and wellness class instead.  Having attended a Catholic school back when that class was called “Catechism” and faith was ever-pervasive far beyond that one class, I’d be skeptical that that option would make much difference.  And sure enough, blogs one former student in the district, at the prominent Canadian blog, Daveberta:

My personal experience attending these schools makes me keenly aware of how thin the “public” line of the system actually was. I chose not to attend Religion classes in high school, like most of my graduating cohort, yet we still had to start classes with morning and afternoon prayers. A student could avoid some of the more pervasive official religious education inside the classroom, but there was no mistake that the schools themselves existed in a religious environment.

This issue is continuing even now.  MorinvilleNews Editor Stephen Dafoe made a short film documenting the different sides of the dispute.

3.  It’s Not As Easy As “Just Find Another Job.”

Based on responses when I’d previously written on this, U.S. -based readers are unaware of the way substitute teachers are handled in Alberta, and how that differs from south of the border.  Here, they complete their degree before entering the classroom to teach.  By the time they become substitute teachers, they’ve already invested heavily in making education their career.  It is also a requirement for teachers to put in a minimum number of hours before being able to become a permanently-placed instructor, so the dismissal, lack of other employers in the region and unavailable hours are actually a significant career obstacle.

The Question Now

So now, the question becomes twofold: 1) whether the GSACRD discriminated against Buterman when they fired him, and 2) whether the money and conditions offered constitute a fair and equitable settlement.  On the first point, there’s not a lot of doubt, considering they put it in writing:

In a letter, Steve Bayus, deputy superintendent of schools for Greater St. Albert, wrote that in discussions with the archbishop of the Edmonton diocese, it was their view that “the teaching of the Catholic Church is that persons cannot change their gender. One’s gender is considered what God created us to be…. Since you made a personal choice to change your gender, which is contrary to Catholic teachings, we have had to remove you from the substitute teacher list,” Bayus wrote.

4. Silence, Or Total Erasure?

Much of the coverage right now is focusing on whether the $78,000 cash offer constitutes a fair and reasonable settlement.  But it is not the only question.  Is total erasure and even a requirement to participate in erasing the fact that discrimination ever occurred a reasonable requirement when the community concerned is in desparate need of advocative voices, and is nearly invisible in human rights discussions in Canada?  The Conservative party largely took the position that human rights protections for trans people were unnecessary and (with a few exceptions) opposed them at every juncture when Bill C-389 proceeded through Parliament.  There are few “out” trans people who can speak to this issue.

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)

  1. April 11th, 2011

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