Mercedes Allen

Distinctions Are Important in Fired Trans Teacher's Dispute

Filed By Mercedes Allen | April 11, 2011 8:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Transgender & Intersex
Tags: employment issues, human rights abuses, Jan Buterman, transgender, transsexual

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.

do-not-enter-catholic-school.jpgUnder 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. 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 favor 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, US-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're 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.

While it's still online, there is an interview with Buterman on CTV

Crossposted at DentedBlueMercedes; img flickr

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You can't put a price on Human Rights. The Catholics can't buy their way out of this one. What they did was wrong and they are going to pay the price for it. This proves why we need Bill C-389!

As I understand it, he's fortunate in that he's currently working and not totally destitute... which makes difficult moral choices a little easier. And great he's doing the right thing by refusing to allow their act of discrimination erased.

Again, there are other trans/queer people in teaching who not so 'fortunate,' and worked for districts who were a little smarter in how to get rid of them. If the district had any brains, they would known that if they waited until the end of the year and didn't rehire him, there's literally nothing anyone could do for redress... even if C-389 were law.

Actually, he's furthering his education and not particularly well-off when it comes to finances. Which is why the decision was that much more difficult.

I still don't get why Canadians still have a public Catholic school system. Is there pressure just to get rid of that? Any chance of that happening soon?

In the US, we do send money to religious grade schools through voucher programs and Americorps and a few other small programs. But it's far less and far less direct. I'm not judging - I just wonder how a modern, secular democracy understands this issue.

It varies by province. Some have scrapped the Catholic school boards entirely (i.e. Quebec did so quite loudly), while in others they're a bit more entrenched.

In Alberta, it would be painted as an attack on faith and on parents' ability to decide what their children are taught. Remember, this is the only place on earth which has written "parental rights" into human rights legislation so that any time tolerance, sex-ed or anything else that might be offensive to someone's religion (evolution, anyone?) is to be taught, ample notice must be given so that kids can be evacuated and without penalty to their grades. We still don't have entire certainty on how that would affect someone transitioning on the job, here (Jan's firing happened before Bill 44).

Alberta's a bit more on the Tea Party side of that "modern, secular democracy," at least with regard to legislators. The general public is more progressive, but is also far more focused on fiscal matters, in a way that ignores social issues.

But there are certainly people who oppose publicly funding religious schools, and budgetary realities mean that a reassessment here may be inevitable. And that's what it will probably eventually boil down to: dollars.

When I was fired by an employer in Bloomington, Indiana, I filed a complaint with the local human rights office. Eventually the case was settled (I won), but one part of the terms of the settlement was that I could neither disclose the settlement amount nor write about the company again - not even their name.

They can ask for that, yes. But then there's a question of whether that can be part of a "fair and reasonable settlement." Which is what will determine if there can be any further proceedings from here.