Posts Tagged ‘Luke Fevin’

Education panel

2015/11/09

(This is part of a series of posts about the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)

After lunch on the second day of the conference, we had a panel of three speakers to discuss the issue of religious intrusions into education here in Alberta. This was very interesting – in part because it connected directly to me in two ways: as someone who has been through the public school system, and as someone with kids in it now.

Scott Rowed

First, we heard from Scott Rowed on Creationism in science education. Did you know that we have not one but two creation museums here in Alberta? One down in Big Valley*, and the other in Brooks**. (This latter doesn’t even call itself a museum – it is openly a ministry.)

I know a reader from certain parts of the US, or from many other places in the world, might roll their eyes that I’m complaining about this. But this is Canada. This is 2015. I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed in my fellow Albertans, that they are credulous enough to keep places like this in business. And not only that, but there are teachers in this province (not many, so far as I know) who think it’s okay to treat this dogmatic rubbish as science.

Here are some articles about the intrusion of creationism into Alberta education:

My comfort is that our new government in Alberta seems happy to take things in hand and straighten out wayward educators who think public schooling is their playground for the sectarian interference in giving children a free and safe environment to learn and to thrive in the modern world.

Kathy Dawson

After that, we heard from Kathy Dawson, a tireless campaigner for comprehensive sex education. We learned that various loopholes in the educational system here in Alberta allow school administrators to bring in external groups to teach certain topics. So, without notice to their parents, some students are being subjected to propaganda-laden presentations from anti-choice abstinence-only groups rather than being given science-based, balanced, and complete instruction about crucial topics in sexual health. Kathy’s daughter was one victim of these loopholes, and she’s been working ever since to get this garbage kept out of public schools. Here are CBC and Edmonton Journal reports on their story and its immediate aftermath.

Yes, this has my steam up. Next year my daughter will be in Grade Four, the first year where sex education is part of the curriculum here in Alberta. Deena and I may be able to help counteract any misinformation she is given. (I’m hopeful – our school administrators seem to have their heads screwed on right.) But we can’t reach every kid, and when she becomes sexually active, there is a good chance any partner she has will be playing from a broken rulebook when it comes to safe and enjoyable sexual behaviours.

Kathy pointed us to Alberta AIM – “Accessing Information, not Myths”. According to their website,

Accessing Information Not Myths is a group of community stakeholders and concerned citizens addressing gaps in the Alberta Education curriculum and curriculum revisions.

Our current campaign focuses on the lack of clear parameters for sexual education in the CALM curriculum.  After successfully having groups that teach medically inaccurate, anti-gay, faith-and fear-based sex education banned from presenting in Edmonton public schools, we are now expanding this campaign across the province.

Follow current developments on Twitter: @AlbertaAIM.

Luke Fevin

Third, we heard from Luke Fevin, the main public voice of A PUPIL – “Alberta Parents for Unbiased Public Inclusive Learning”, an organization that works to remove exclusionary and divisive practices from Alberta schools, including school prayer (yes, it still happens in some places!) and the dual school system.

On school prayer, it’s hard to see why it’s even a question. For a school to actively promote prayer for one religious belief over others is blatantly, inescapably divisive, setting up some children as “normal” and others as “different”. Especially in places that are majority Christian, this is an intolerable imposition on the children whose own beliefs or family traditions are not Christian (whether they are atheist or of another religion). Even different Christian sects who pray in a different way are excluded. And of course, despite what the defenders of school prayer like to cry, nobody is trying to prevent kids from praying on their own. We just want schools to stop officially promoting prayer.

We currently have public money going not only to a public, inclusive school system, but also to a parallel Catholic school system. Luke talked about the inefficiency of this redundant setup – to the tune of $200 million in extra costs (ie, money we would save by combining the systems). The recent difficulty establishing a trans-friendly environment in a Catholic school highlights the sort of problem that can arise when one group thinks they are special and don’t need to follow the basic rules of decency that the rest of us take for granted.

Of course, it is part of the Alberta Act (our provincial “constitution”) that we have these two systems, but the privileging of one religion (not a majority, not even when the province was founded in 1905) over all others is a Bad Idea, and that is just the sort of thing that constitutional amendments – in this case, updating the Alberta Act – are really good at fixing.

It’s been done before – Québec (a culturally very Catholic province) abolished their separate system in 2000.

I want to be clear: I have nothing against Catholics. At the risk of sounding trite, my best friend is Catholic, and her kids attend a Catholic school. I just think that, in an age when governments watch budgets, there ought to be a pretty solid case for spending $200 million extra dollars on education, and I haven’t heard that case here. And, in a province that has a great variety of religious, political, and cultural backgrounds among its people, the idea of picking one particular identity and saying, “Those people get their own school system; everyone else goes in the other system” is beyond ludicrous.

You can find A PUPIL on Facebook here. (I actually wrote about them back in June, when I first found them.)

——

After the speakers had each given their presentation, there was a general discussion around the issues at hand. Many of the attendees are either alumni of Alberta schools (like me) or have kids in Alberta schools (like me). This (along with the Dying with Dignity talk) was perhaps the most close-to-home of all the events at the conference – directly relevant, something we could sink our teeth into, and even start acting on right now.

I have not yet determined how I want to approach these topics at my kids’ school. Like I said, they seem pretty sensible about things. (No school prayer, thank goodness.) I don’t want to start out antagonistic. But I also don’t want these to be invisible issues. If I run into any issues, I’m sure you’ll hear about it here on the blog. If I don’t, it probably means everything is fine.

Footnotes:

* No, I’m not linking to them directly. I’m giving the Wikipedia link.

** Yes, this one is not popular enough to have a Wikipedia link (happily), so I’m (reluctantly) linking to them directly. Please don’t feel obliged to follow the link.

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None of the Above conference

2015/10/27

Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above

Earlier this month, on October 17 and 18, Deena and I attended our first ever secular conference: “None of the Above”. Around a hundred people, variously identifying as humanists, skeptics, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers – the usual spectrum of labels you get in this community – came together in Red Deer. (For non-Albertans, Red Deer is a delightful small city, about equidistant between Alberta’s two larger cities, Calgary and Edmonton.)

If you’re not an active member of the community, you may expect we spent the time congratulating ourselves on escaping the “delusion” of religion, and whingeing about how religious people make everything worse.

Yes, there was a bit of self-congratulation – though it was tempered with the knowledge that all human understanding is fallible, and we might be wrong.

And yes, there was some complaining – though it was focused and action-oriented rather than just self-pitying.

There were several social action issues raised that are important, not just for non-believers, but for anyone interested in having a tolerant, open, free society.

And then there was the whole social side of it: meeting people (some local to my own city) who I had never seen before, but who hold similar values and beliefs to me. It reminded me that I’m part of a larger community.

The fact that the conference was immediately before our federal election gave it an interesting tenor, especially when we were discussing politically potent topics.

So what did we get for our delightfully modest attendance fee? Here is a quick rundown of the schedule. I will be posting a series of short articles over the coming days on some of the talks and discussions.

Day 1:

Opening remarks. The MC for the conference was Karen Kerr, president of the Society of Edmonton Atheists, one of the conference’s two sponsors. (The other was Atheist Alliance International.) She set a nice tone – neither too formal nor too loose.
Bradley Peter: Dying With Dignity. Canada is on the verge of a shift here, as a Supreme Court ruling decriminalizing physician-assisted death will come into effect in February. What things will look like after that will depend on how legislators prepare for this shift. How legislators prepare will depend on what they hear from constituents. Now is the time!
Rob Breakenridge: Openly Secular in the Media. An Alberta radio and newspaper personality, Rob talked about the issues faced by public personalities around their beliefs and identities.
Lunch. Not really relevant to a summary of the conference’s events, you say? Of course it is! This is where the ideas are digested, batted around, and where the human connections are made. People differed on the gastronomic value of the food on offer, but the opportunity to break bread together and share our thoughts was a crucial part of the whole conference experience.
Ali Rivzi. A Muslim who no longer believes in Islam. This was a compelling presentation on the difference between culture and beliefs, and on the danger of conflating the two, especially in areas of the world where democratic freedoms are still tenuous at best.
Lynn Honey: Statistics. Oh, to live in a world where every community of belief spent some of their time together talking about how to critically examine the numbers that wash over us in the media. And oh, to live in a world where Lynn Honey can teach these things to everyone!
Nathan Phelps: Son of Westboro. This presentation moved through Nate’s childhood in one of the most poisonous and hateful churches on the continent, through to a call for action and encouragement to vigilance. Not all religion is bad, but too many people use religion as a cover not just to be assholes, but to actively harm others in many ways.
Debate: Matt Dillahunty vs Jon Morrison on whether science points to God. An atheist heavy-hitter with dozens of debates behind him, against a Christian with no debate experience. This debate turned out much more engaging and worthwhile than I had feared.

Day 2:

Greg Hart: Critical Thinking. The perfect complement to Lynn Honey’s statistics talk from Day 1, this talk wound through several pitfalls of critical thinking. Just to reiterate: this wasn’t a talk about how we do it so much better than them, but about how all of us need to be careful in all of our reasoning about the world.
Shelley Segal. A musical interlude with a thoughtful, expressive artist whose songs, often, express feelings and experiences in the world that no religious singer can capture, but which are central to the experience of an atheist life.
Panel discussion: Education in Alberta. Three panelists, with experience and knowledge about different aspects of education as it is influenced by religion: prayer in schools, creationism, and sex-ed. Enlightening, rather horrifying at times, and well-articulated.
Keynote: Matt Dillahunty. A wonderful, personal call to action – Matt responded to some of the things he had learned about “Canadia” during the conference, and gave a talk that left room for everyone – from a timid, closeted agnostic to a brash, letter-writing, sign-toting activist – to do their bit in making the world a better place for us all to live.

Deena and I left this conference energized, motivated to do a little bit more to engage with our atheist community and to push against infringements on our rights and values. In the posts to come, I will dive down a little deeper and give you a more complete recap of the message I took away from each presentation and event at the conference.

This was not just our first secular conference. It was Alberta’s first secular conference. There is already a plan afoot to hold another, to make it a recurring event in the province, rotating between the cities of Calgary, Edmonton, and Red Deer (at least). Things are looking up!

If you are in the area next year, I hope you will join us.