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Brian Bird: Parental rights have always existed. That hasn’t changed

Commentary

In the wake of last month’s protests in Canada over policies and lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in Canadian schools, a wave of criticism has been directed toward the idea that parents possess rights regarding the education of their children on these topics.

Some critics have gone further and questioned the concept of parental rights altogether. One law professor recently declared that the idea of parental rights “does not really exist in Canada.”

Much could be said on the problems created by over-reliance on the label of “rights” to ascribe value and importance in societies, but it is bizarre to suggest that, in Canada, parents lack jurisdiction over the upbringing of their children. This jurisdiction, especially with respect to education, has been recognized by courts and legal instruments long before parental rights made headlines here in recent weeks.

The Supreme Court of Canada has noted that parents “delegate their parental authority to teachers and entrust them with the responsibility of instilling in their children a large part of the store of learning they will acquire during their development.” In another Supreme Court case, Justice La Forest stated in relation to freedom of religion that those “who administer the Province’s educational requirements may not do so in a manner that unreasonably infringes on the right of the parents to teach their children in accordance with their religious convictions.”

Judges of the Court have also interpreted the right to liberty in section 7 of the Charter to protect a right of parents to nurture their children, care for their development, and make decisions for them in “fundamental matters.”

While freedom of religion in section 2(a) of the Charter is often invoked in legal disputes concerning parental rights, freedom of conscience—the freedom to live in alignment with your moral convictions—is also relevant. In a more recent case concerning public education and parental authority, Justice Peter Lauwers of the Court of Appeal for Ontario noted that the “rights of parents to make choices for the education of their children may be supported by religious beliefs and practices,” but these rights “are not conditional on religious belief” and “are equally protected under s. 2(a) as a matter of conscience.”

Justice Lauwers also referred in that case to international documents that affirm the jurisdiction of parents over the education, moral and otherwise, of their children. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that parents “have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” The Declaration of the Rights of the Child provides that the “best interests of the child shall be the guiding principle of those responsible for his education and guidance; that responsibility lies in the first place with his parents.” And the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights refers to “the liberty of parents … to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”

But even if the law were silent on parental rights, this would take nothing away from the natural right of parents—that is, a right that does not depend upon or find its source in the state —to raise their children according to what they believe is good, right, and true. And this natural right flows from a natural responsibility of parents to do their utmost to raise their children well.

The phrase “prior right” in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights conveys that parents, by virtue of being parents, possess this natural right. Since time immemorial, across civilizations and cultures, it has been widely accepted that parents have a solemn responsibility, relying on their understanding of what leads to human flourishing, to raise the children entrusted to them to be the best versions of themselves. Deviations from this principle, such as where state power has been used to replace the parental role, have been denounced as an appalling form of injustice that inflicts profound harm.

It is indeed more accurate to think about this topic through the lens of responsibilities rather than rights. The parents who recently protested aspects of public education in Canada appear to be claiming that the state is usurping the responsibility that belongs first and foremost to parents to impart fundamental lessons to their children. Delegation of parental responsibility to the state in contexts such as education is subject to the conditions that the state will always be forthright with parents in terms of what is being taught to their children, and that parents may alter or cancel this delegated authority.

Of course, parents sometimes fail to discharge their duties to their children. At times, they fail terribly. In certain cases, the state must intervene to protect children from parents who either cannot or choose not to live up to their parental responsibilities. But such interventions, for various reasons, are only justified in the clearest of cases and where no other reasonable alternative is available.

I suspect that persons who have been critical of parental rights in recent weeks would agree with what has been said here. They would agree, in short, that parents bear the primary responsibility for raising their children and teaching them basic values in line with what the parents believe to be correct. In a world that seems increasingly afflicted by polarization, this is a rare example of enduring consensus.

And this consensus reveals where the true disagreement resides. Many of the critics of parental rights profess the prevailing progressive beliefs on sex and gender, while the individuals who have adopted or been painted with the parental rights brush do not.

How sex and gender should be handled by law, public policy, and beyond is a sensitive and pressing matter, but it should be discussed directly and on its own terms. Calling into question the existence of parental rights and responsibilities is an unhelpful distraction that creates artificial fault lines. We have no shortage of real fault lines to contend with these days. We should keep our focus squarely on them.

Steve Lafleur: Canada’s reaction to terror in Israel shows we aren’t that divided

Commentary

The recent terrorist attacks against Israel have understandably preoccupied Canadian pundits. It’s the most consequential and horrific terrorist attack to hit one of our allies since September 11th, 2001. People are understandably devastated and angry. 

One thing that’s changed since 9/11 is social media. Back then we consumed the news. Now we participate in it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But the incentives in a click-based information ecosystem can be terrible. Measured responses don’t get much engagement. Edgy comments do. Needless to say, there have been some extremely bad takes lately. 

Those bad takes haven’t just been limited to one Kremlin stooge on Twitter. Organizations like CUPE Local 3906 have a lot to answer for to their members and to the public. But step back for a second. If you’re on Twitter, you probably knew immediately which tweet I was talking about, right? That’s because for the most part, Canadian institutions have come out in support of our allies, even if not unequivocally. 

No matter what you see on Twitter, Canada isn’t a badly divided country. We’re not Germany: we don’t have a white supremacist party supported by one-fifth of voters. We’re not the United States: we don’t have a major party willing to overturn legitimate elections. We’re really not that divided.

Consider the last week. The prime minister and leader of the official Opposition both spoke at a vigil in Ottawa, each denouncing the terrorist attack. The finance minister and the NDP-affiliated mayor of Toronto spoke at Nathan Phillips Square in support of Israel, while a much smaller pro-Palestinian rally took place nearby. 

While we don’t have any Canadian polling data yet, a CNN poll found that an overwhelming percentage of Americans are sympathetic to Israel after the attacks by Hamas. Seventy-one percent of Americans told pollsters they felt a lot of sympathy, while 25 percent of people said they had some sympathy. Even in America, a country with deep political divisions, there is a high degree of consensus on the matter. There’s no reason to believe polling results look much different here, notwithstanding a few protests.

Then consider Ukraine. While there’s rough political consensus on Israel, there’s virtually complete unity on Ukraine. All three major parties are fully supportive of our Ukrainian allies and there’s no equivocation from the media. 

There are always loud minorities on the other side of any issue, even whether gravity exists or not. We shouldn’t let them become a distraction. Fixating on them sure doesn’t help our allies in Israel or Ukraine, or our Jewish friends at home. Helping our friends and allies requires concrete measures, not rhetoric. I’m not an expert on geopolitics, but I can tell you that finger-pointing won’t help anyone.

Push comes to shove, Canadians are, for the most part, rowing in the same direction. We may sometimes lack resolve, but we share broad goals. No one anywhere near the levers of power is cheering on Vladimir Putin. No important elected official is cheering on Hamas. Few countries can claim that kind of political unity. 

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t criticize people who have opinions we disagree with. We should. But we also need to recognize that in a pluralistic society, there will be some people with horrible opinions. Frankly, in a non-pluralistic society there will be even more people with terrible opinions. We can’t prevent that: we’re human. 

What we shouldn’t do is paint broad groups with the same brush. Scouring the Internet to find people with bad opinions doesn’t help anyone. I recognize that partisan point scoring will always be tempting. But it’s not helpful. Not everything needs to be a wedge issue. We aren’t a deeply divided country. We shouldn’t try to exaggerate our differences, even if you think it will help your team in the next election. We’re bigger than any team.

We all get a dopamine hit from arguing with people online. It’s one of the dark sides of social media. But being preoccupied with disagreements doesn’t help anyone. It’s bad for our mental health. It’s bad for the country. We don’t need to go looking for fights over every single issue. Get some fresh air. Touch grass. Our neighbours aren’t your enemies.

We live in a great country full of great people, even if there are some bad ones. We should celebrate that. Stoking disagreements doesn’t move the ball forward. It bogs us down in pointless arguments. We can do better than that. We should. We must.