Alberta is proposing new legislation to ensure students who join gay-straight alliances in school are not outed without their permission.
Education Minister David Eggen says the new law will also mandate that all schools that get public dollars take more specific steps to embrace and create gay-straight alliances if students ask for them.
“No student will be outed if they choose to join a GSA,” Eggen told the house Thursday as he introduced the bill.
“We are continuing to ensure that all students feel welcome at school regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”
Gay-straight alliances are social clubs set up by students to help LGBTQ children feel welcome and to lessen any chance of bullying.
They have long been a controversial issue in Alberta, given their location at the intersection of education, religion, students’ rights, parents’ rights and human rights.
Students already have the right to set up an alliance in their school if they want one, but the government says updated rules are needed to clarify language, mandate action, and close loopholes.
Eggen said the proposed legislation makes clear that parents are not to be notified when a child joins a GSA.
“We know that Alberta parents love and support their children and that they play a critical role in their children’s lives and education,” said Eggen.
“But we also know students sometimes feel safer and more comfortable talking about these issues with their peers.”
He has said the GSA clause is a direct response to Opposition United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney’s comments that parents should be told when their child joins a gay-straight alliance unless there is concern that the disclosure would result in the child coming to harm.
In a statement to Global News, Kenney said the UCP will comment on Bill 24 after the caucus has a chance to review and discuss it.
“It is unfortunate that the NDP is using this sensitive matter as a partisan political wedge issue,” Kenney said.
“Our approach will always be determined by what is in the best interests of children. We trust highly trained educators to use their professional judgement to make decisions in the best interests of children, particularly given that this policy applies to children as young as five years of age.”
Advocates of gay-straight alliances say the final decision must always rest with the child because there is no way to be sure whether outing a child to their parents will lead to family ostracism or physical harm.
They say students won’t join a GSA under such a policy and that the clubs will then wither and die.
“I think it’s really important that young people who participate in GSAs feel safe that they can do so without any push-back from anyone, really,” said Pam Krause, president and CEO of the Calgary Sexual Health Centre.
“Forty per cent of homeless youth are LGBTQ and so this really speaks to us that it can be very unsafe.
“At the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, we put lots of attention on working with parents so that they too can understand what their youth is going through, they can find those ways of support.”
The centre works with GSAs across the province and is hosting the sixth annual GSA conference in Calgary later in November.
“We believe strongly in the self-determination of LGBTQ citizens,” Krause said. “It’s important that these things exist and I think it does have to go a step further given young people may make the choice to come out in that group… we must ensure privacy.”
Eggen agreed, telling reporters Kenney’s approach “is dangerous.”
The bill also has a provision beefing up the mandate for all schools to post rules and codes of conducts to ensure students feel welcome, know that they have legal rights to be protected from discrimination, and can set up gay-straight alliances if they wish.
The rules must be displayed prominently on school websites starting next June.
The new law will apply to all public, separate, francophone, charter and accredited private schools that get public money.
Eggen has said that many schools have already been working with the province on these policies, but some of them, most of them private schools, have been resisting.
The changes will also make it clear that the principal of a school is responsible for approving a gay-straight alliance and getting it off the ground quickly rather than waiting for approval from higher-ups.
Kris Wells, with the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies, said, “I’m pleased that the minister has addressed some of the ways that many school districts are trying to get around GSAs (by) telling principals that they need to immediately support a GSA.
“Because we’ve seen that happen, where the schools will try to outwait the kids and wait until they graduate and they think the GSA issue will (then) go away.”
Greg Jeffery, head of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said the legislation is critical.
“Some students who are even nervous that their participation in GSA activities might be disclosed simply will not go — and the support they need disappears,” said Jeffery.
LISTEN: Education Minister David Eggen talks to Rob Breakenridge about NDP legislation on gay-straight alliances (GSAs)
— With files from John Himpe, News Talk 770 and Global News