A student-led initiative saw young people across Alberta walk out of schools Friday morning, showing opposition to the new provincial government’s stance on a contentious issue.
At 9:30 a.m., some students staged a walkout, as part of a province-wide movement meant to send a message to the United Conservatives that they’re not OK with its policy surrounding LGBTQ students and, more specifically, gay-straight alliances (GSAs).
Dozens of students at Victoria School in Edmonton participated in the walkout, chanting and holding signs, one of which read “homophobia kills.”
They were joined by NDP MLA and former education minister David Eggen.
WATCH: Hundreds of students across Alberta walked out the front doors of their schools at 9:30 a.m. Friday to protest the Kenney government’s plan to change Bill 24. Jenna Freeman reports.
Students at Branton Junior High in Calgary were already on the front lawn of the property by the time the clock hit 9:30.
Students held signs and chanted “QSA,” which is the name of the gay-straight alliance at their school.
When Global News interviewed students, the crowd ran across the street to support their peers chanting and screaming in solidarity.
When the clock hit 9:50 a.m., students retreated back to school, still chanting “QSA.”
More than 200 students from Queen Elizabeth High School in southwest Calgary took part in Friday’s walkout. Those at the school who worked to spread the word about the protest said they were surprised at the turnout.
“I am really happy that there’s so many people supporting the community,” said Grade 8 student Emma Chandler.
“We need to be heard and that’s important,” added fellow Grade 8 student Piper Thompson.
“I have personally attended our school’s GSA multiple times and it has been a safe environment to feel comfortable with your own identity and grow from there,” one of the students coordinating the walkout said on Thursday. “I just can’t imagine not having the security and the confidentiality that it currently has.”
The students behind the walkout spoke to Global News on the condition of anonymity Thursday to protect their identity ahead of the event. Since they aren’t old enough to vote, they say this is their way of making their voices heard.
“This is the students and this is our personal opinions on this.
“The youth… we can’t do much — we weren’t able to properly vote and we weren’t able to make these decisions for ourselves — so in any way, we are trying to make our voices heard because this is our future too and we want to be comfortable with what’s happening.”
During the election campaign, Kenney said the UCP would replace the NDP’s School Act with the former Progressive Conservative government’s unproclaimed Education Act update, impacting some of the protections for students who join GSAs in schools.
On Friday morning, Kenney reiterated that promise and responded to the walkout.
“It’s great to see young people taking an active interest in issues,” he said.
“I’d suggest it’s better for them to do rallies or protests after school hours and not during them. We want to make sure young people are actually learning in class instead of doing politics.”
Dr. Darren Lund, a professor at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education and one of the organizers of Alberta’s first GSA in 1999, said the walkout was a “good opportunity for students to have their voices heard.”
“They’re obviously tuned into political issues and tuned into educational policy issues so good for them to actually take a stand and say, ‘We actually want to be heard on this issue,’” he said.
“I do see something troubling about it because we already have Bill 24 in place so rescinding that actually takes away the right of the student to be able to be more confidential, to actually have their own decision making in how they come out and to whom. And just for a teacher to make a decision and say, ‘I just think I need to let that parent know that this child has attended a GSA,’ seems to me a violation of that trust.”
WATCH: Dr. Darren Lund joins Global News Morning Calgary to talk about the planned walkouts at some Alberta schools in support of GSAs and against changes to them.
Lund said a GSA shouldn’t be viewed differently than other school groups like a chess club, adding that many straight ally students will join a GSA to see how they can help, and presumably their parents could potentially be told as well.
“What’s really the point of this seems to be to creating a chill on joining a group like this if you think your parent might be notified if you do,” Lund said.
Right now, schools by law must allow kids to set up the peer support groups and cannot tell parents if a child has joined. Kenney said a UCP government would allow teachers to use their judgement and if they felt a student’s health or safety was at risk, they’d be able to tell parents their child had joined.
“If your child is genuinely at risk… You never know what’s going on in a child’s home and it’s not always safe and you can’t always assume that it is,” a student said.
“Even with support systems like GSAs, they’re getting more support than they would at home.”
“It’s just such a supportive environment … and it helped me feel so much more comfortable with myself and I’m doing so much better now. I know there are so many other students like that and I just think it’s really important.”
WATCH: Calgary students stage walkout in support of gay-straight alliances. Joel Senick reports.
In an emailed statement, Education Minister Adriana Lagrange said she “will have an open line of communication with everyone who has a role in our province’s education system.”
“One of my top priorities is to meet with students, as well as parents, teachers, principals, trustees and other stakeholders – and work with them to strengthen our education system,” she said.
“Our government has been very clear: we do not support mandatory parental notification or ‘outing’ of any student.
“We do strongly support efforts to make our schools in Alberta free from bullying, by providing peer support, counselling and safe spaces for all students in our province, especially those subject to bullying or prejudice because of their sexual identity.
She went on to say she wants to meet with “passionate young Albertans” in hopes of better understand their concerns and “clarify any misunderstandings about our position.”
“I believe that we share the same values in wanting a strong, vibrant and inclusive education system that protects students against discrimination and bullying.”
School boards observing walkouts, not participating
School boards in Edmonton and Calgary released similar statements Thursday, saying while they encourage students to stand behind causes they believe in, a walkout is not a school-sanctioned event and participation in this particular action is not being encouraged nor prevented by schools.
“We are aware of a student-led event being planned for May 3, which encourages students to walkout to protest potential policy changes to gay-straight alliances in schools,” said Megan Normandeau, a spokesperson with Edmonton Public Schools.
Watch below (March 26): UCP Leader Jason Kenney announced his party’s platform on education. As Sarah Kraus reports, one of his responses to a question about GSAs in schools drew swift criticism online.
“This is a student-led protest. Staff are not participating; however, our staff’s priority is to ensure the safety of our students, so they may be outside observing, ensuring students remain safe. We have provided schools with information, like a letter or SchoolZone post, they can provide to their school communities.
“At this time, we don’t know how many students will participate. We know that not all students will participate,” Normandeau said.
“A significant component of Catholic education is encouraging our students to engage in social justice,” said Lori Nagy, a spokesperson for Edmonton Catholic Schools. “We respect our students’ democratic rights to exercise their voices and we will work to minimize any disruptions that may occur as a result of a walkout.”
The Calgary Catholic School Division said Friday will be treated like a regular school day and attendance will be taken as usual. The district declined to comment on the planned walkout, calling it “a provincial issue.”
The Calgary Board of Education said since it’s not a CBE event, it’s not sure which students are choosing to participate in Friday’s walkout. The district has posted information for families on its website, encouraging adults to speak with children about how they feel about the walkout, the issue it’s about and, if they choose to participate, how to do so safely and respectfully.
“This is not a CBE event and as such, we are not promoting it,” the board said in a statement. “It is a regular school day and students are expected to be in class unless excused by a parent or guardian. We anticipate that student learning will continue as scheduled that morning regardless of this event.
“We will not prevent our students from leaving class during this time; however, any students who were not present in class will be marked as an unexcused absence.
“As a safety precaution, we will suggest that students who chose to participate stay on school property.
“We work with our school communities to create welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environments for all students. We recognize the importance of public schools in creating a stronger democracy and the right of students to advocate for important causes.”
Some parents were notified about the walkout.
Watch below (April 4): Alberta political party leaders debate social issues and, more specifically, gay-straight alliances in Alberta schools.