Bowen Island found itself making headlines with Fox News, CNN and other media outlets last week in the wake of the BC Human Rights Tribunal’s decision to order the Bowen Island Montessori School (BIMS) to pay $12,000 to a local family in a discrimination case (see related story).
Alden Habacon, a diversity and inclusion specialist, talked about how a contentious issue on a small island sparked outrage across the country and continent, with many affronted by the perceived attack on Christmas.
“I kind of wish that the human rights tribunal had announced this the week after Christmas or a couple weeks after, where now people are emotionally charged and emotionally invested in this particular conversation,” Habacon told the Undercurrent. “The danger of this sort of story is that the report and the headlines do simplify this as all atheists versus everyone who celebrates Christmas.”
North American headlines include: “Christmas comes early for atheist family who opposed holiday symbols in the classroom,” from CBC, and “Preschool that refused atheist family who complained about Christmas, Hanukkah celebrations is forced to pay,” from Fox News.
“That’s actually not really what the case is about but it’s really easy to do,” he said. “You can very easily stereotype all Christians as being intolerant and you can also stereotype all atheists as intolerant of anything to do with faith.”
“This is a nuanced thing, this is a family, this is their family’s practice, their family’s beliefs, and they had issue with the nature of how the school was talking about faith,” he said. “When I get asked similar types of questions with other situation often my response is how would you respond to this if the family was Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist?
“The finding of the human rights tribunal affirmed for me that we need to see atheism as a legitimate faith identity, no different than any other faith identity.“
One thing I liked about the ruling is that it basically dismissed any argument to do with the curriculum,” he said. “It really showed that what school is doing around the curriculum and providing students and children with access of knowledge about different faith identities, perhaps including atheism is was what they're missing, but what they did nothing wrong with that. That was not an infringement.”
“What was infringement was trying to force the family into signing an agreement that basically said, without actually saying, you basically give away your right to protest against whatever it is that we're teaching in the school.
“Because the context is Christmas, it seems a bit messy.”
Habacon, who has mediated many a diversity issue, is too trying to look to the future.
“The community has got to go through some healing,” he said. “When I was reading the ruling, it hurt. It hurt my heart because I could see the hurt.”
“I don’t know if it’s repairable. That’s one of the things about a legal proceeding is that there’s always a cost and the cost might that the bridges between the family and some other families in the community.”
But Habacon does point to a couple of steps concerned members could take.
“The court has ruled that what the school did was wrong, so, you know, like anything, one of the things that will need to happen will be an apology right from the school in saying what we did in trying to force you to write to sign this contract was discriminatory and we're sorry. That's going to take a lot of guts.
“What is clear as well, is that the ruling does not take into consideration the curriculum. So there was nothing wrong with the curriculum. That was not the issue. So to some extent there needs to be acknowledgement that the Montessori school has also the right to what they've done.
“I actually think that for the solution, I'm the wrong person to be looking at it. We need to be going to the wisdom of Indigenous peoples and kind of tapping into their thousand-year-old wisdom and asking them, how would you recommend we handle this? Because this messed things up for us in the community, and we went about it badly, and it's resolved legally, but it's not resolved.”