(UPDATE: Bill 202, the Safe and Inclusive Schools Statutes Amendment Act, passed first reading on Nov. 20)
EDMONTON – A bill to allow gay-straight alliances in schools, introduced Thursday in the Alberta legislature, will be the litmus test for Premier Jim Prentice’s Tories on tolerance, says Liberal Leader Raj Sherman.
“It will test their progressiveness and test to see if they will do the right thing,” Sherman told reporters.
“Stand up for teachers and stand up for our children, especially those children from the LGBTQ community.”
Liberal Laurie Blakeman introduced Bill 202, the Safe and Inclusive School Act, mandating schools to allow students, if they wish, to create gay-straight alliances to combat bullying.
Blakeman told the legislature the bill is about protecting students who feel bullied and, in extreme cases, try to take their own lives.
“As we well know, bullying can have terrible effects. And the proof is (that) the highest suicide rate is sexual minority youth,” said Blakeman.
Gay-straight alliances are student-led peer support networks in schools that make students of different sexual orientations feel welcome and give them support from being alienated and bullied.
“Gay-straight peer support groups have been proven to reduce suicide in our gay youth,” said Blakeman.
Blakeman’s bill is not sponsored by the government. It is a private member’s bill. Such bills traditionally do not pass.
However, Blakeman’s bill is expected to reopen a polarizing debate on how Alberta’s political parties view gay youth and, more broadly, homosexuality.
In the spring, Liberal Kent Hehr introduced a non-binding motion for schools to allow gay-straight alliances. It sparked heated debate that broke down along ideological lines. The centre-left Liberals and the NDP supported it.
Some members of the centre-right PCs and Wildrose said they feared the motion would infringe on the authority of schools, which already are mandated to provide safe, caring environments for students.
The motion failed when 22 PCs and nine Wildrosers joined to defeat it. Its demise re-raised questions on whether the Tories and Wildrose are socially progressive, socially conservative, or socially regressive.
Both parties have traditionally struggled with the perception of being anti-gay.
In 2010, the Tories amended section 11.1 of the Alberta Human Rights Act to allow parents to pull children out of class when religion, sexuality, or sexual orientation is taught. Critics say that provision unfairly limits teachers and stigmatizes sexual orientation.
Blakeman’s bill seeks to remove that section.
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith was not in the house for the spring vote, but said at the time she shared concerns about how the alliances would infringe on school autonomy.
This week, Smith said that while she wants to study the bill further, she is leaning towards supporting it.
Smith said the personal stories she has since heard from schoolchildren had an affect.
“Puberty is an awful time for kids generally speaking. It’s an extra layer of complexity when a child is struggling with coming to terms with their sexual orientation,” said Smith.
“Some of the stats that I’ve seen are pretty clear about attempted suicides, suicides, (and) homelessness as a result of kids being kicked out of their homes.
“These kids need a safe place.”
The Wildrose lost the election in 2012 in part over criticism after Smith refused to take action on a candidate who had once warned gays to repent or spend eternity in hell’s “lake of fire.”
This past weekend, the party voted not to adopt as policy a statement it had already passed spelling out that it believed in the equality of gays, among other groups. A Wildrose riding official subsequently quit, saying the party is controlled by a bigoted minority.
Premier Jim Prentice, during his summer leadership campaign, said he is not in favour of removing section 11.1, saying the government needs to respect the rights of parents.
Asked earlier Thursday if he still stands by that, Prentice would only say he wants to study the bill before commenting further.
He did reiterate that as a Conservative MP he voted for same-sex marriage in 2005.
“My credentials are pretty clear in terms of a Canadian who stood up for the rights of gay and lesbian people in this province going back to the gay marriage debate in 2005,” he said.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley, whose caucus also plans to support the bill, said it’s time for Prentice to put his resume away and step up.
“His vote was 10 years ago, and it was on a completely different issue,” she said.
“Gay-straight alliances are a critical tool in ensuring the safety of a particularly targeted group – sexual minorities.
“His failure to stand up for it is a failure in leadership.”