Alberta is known for being Canada’s greatest hotbed of religious fundamentalism and conservative attitudes. So when some proposed legislation aimed to make high school a little safer for queer teenagers, things get a little bit messy.
The legislation in question is Bill 202, the Safe and Inclusive Schools Act. It’s a private members’ bill aimed at decreasing anti-LGBTQ bullying by requiring all schools to permit the formation of gay-straight alliances (GSAs). If the bill passes, it means school administrators won’t be allowed to stand in the way of students who wish to form a GSA.
What’s more, Bill 202 seeks to repeal the portion of the Alberta Human Rights Code that grants parents the right to be notified in advance of controversial lesson plans so they can remove their children from in-class discussions of religion, sexual orientation, or human sexuality. No other Canadian province recognizes a similar parental right.
Bill 202 was introduced by the Alberta Liberals based on concerns about the suicide rate among LGBT youth and the impact of bullying on teens’ mental health. The bill’s creator, Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, observed that “gay-straight peer support groups have been proven to reduce suicide in our gay youth.” In spite of widespread opposition to a similar bill earlier this year, Blakeman told the press she hoped to see the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties supporting her proposed legislation.
So far, it hasn’t exactly worked out that way.
The Wildrose Party proposed to amend the bill such that religious schools — including the province’s publicly-funded Catholic schools — could be exempted from the GSA requirement. General bullying-prevention programs would be required, but such schools would not have to create programs that specifically address targeted bullying against LGBT teens, nor the elevated rates of depression and suicide in sexual minority populations.
(In other words, the kinds of issues that might be exacerbated in LGBT kids who are surrounded every day by the trappings of a religion that sees them as fundamentally broken — “intrinsically disordered,” the Catholic Church would say — and in need of repentance.)
Alberta’s Progressive Conservative premier, Jim Prentice, went a step further, calling to discard Bill 202 entirely as “unfair to us and to those we represent.” (Apparently Mr. Prentice does not see himself as representing, for instance, high school students who want to participate in gay-straight alliances.)
To counter the unfairness he perceives, Prentice is proposing an alternative bill, introduced on Monday in the Alberta legislature. Bill 10 — titled “The Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights To Protect Our Children” — would not require schools to permit GSAs if the students want them; elected school boards would be empowered to make the ultimate decision about GSAs. Students would have the right to seek legal recourse if their school board denied them the right to form a GSA.
In theory, Education Minister Gordon Dirks would be able to sidestep a school board policy against GSAs by permitting students to form off-campus groups even if their school board said no. It’s a controversial proposal; requiring such groups to meet away from school grounds has a segregationist savour that discomfits some LGBT-rights supporters. Perhaps even more worrying is the on-the-ground reality that Gordon Dirks is an evangelical Christian pastor in a church that encourages gays to repent of their homosexuality.
As for the Alberta Human Rights Code, Bill 10 proposes to eliminate “sexual orientation” from the list of topics about which teachers must notify parents prior to classroom discussion, and to add “sexual orientation” to the list of protected groups in the Alberta Bill of Rights. Those steps are broadly seen as acceptable across party lines. The GSA question, it appears, is the real sticking point.
Blakeman perceives Prentice’s new bill as an attempt by the Tories to sidestep debate or discussion about issues like students’ rights and diversity of beliefs in school settings. She views Prentice as pandering to conservative parents and home-schooling families who want to see their social values legally supported, at the expense of pro-LGBT students’ freedoms:
GSAs are still not guaranteed to be able to go ahead unless the student or their parent is willing to fight this all the way to the courts. So why does one group get all kinds of things enshrined for them and the other group will ultimately have to go to the courts?
Legal experts add that the appeal provisions are written in such a way as to suggest that judges should rule in favor of the school boards in most cases. Even if they manage to pull together the resources to appeal the case in court, students will have slender grounds on which to argue against administrators’ decisions.
To his credit, Prentice acknowledges that his effort to fix the “unnecessarily divisive” Bill 202 ended up creating more problems than it solved. He agreed to withdraw Bill 10 and put the entire question on hold until 2015. The PC Party plans to investigate whether mandating GSA formation is constitutional, and whether the public supports this sort of change in the rights of parents over their adolescent children’s school environment.
(Image via Shutterstock)