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Bill 8 and pandemic making LGBTQ2S+ students in Alberta feel unsafe, says advocate

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WATCH: NDP MLA Heather Sweet sat down with Global's Jennifer Crosby to talk about a marathon debate over an education bill that one MLA said was the longest debate in the history of the Alberta legislature – Jul 5, 2019

For years, Pam Krause worked with gay-straight alliances (GSAs) across Alberta to provide safe spaces for LGBTQ2S+ youth in schools. But the COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of Bill 8 has forced her and her staff at the Centre for Sexuality to pivot.

Bill 8, titled the Education Amendment Act, was passed in July 2019 to replace the 31-year-old School Act that governed everything from school attendance to district boundaries.

It also scaled back protections for LGBTQ2S+ students in schools that were put in place by the previous NDP government. Under Bill 8, schools can contact parents when their child joins a GSA.

There is also no time limit for school principals and administrators to set up a GSA after they’ve been requested to do so. Under the previous bill, schools had to set up a GSA immediately after being asked, a clause that was removed by the United Conservative Party in 2019.

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“The whole idea of a GSA is to be in a space, explore your own life and explore your own path without someone finding out. This bill might make people hesitant to come to a GSA meeting in the first place.

“There’s this young person in Grade 8 that I think about all the time. She said she only has one hour a week where she can feel safe in her life because she comes from a homophobic home. This is the only place there is for her mental health and her ability to make connections,” said Krause, who is the chief executive officer and president of the Centre for Sexuality.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated inequities between LGBTQ2S+, straight and cisgender students in Alberta. Krause said many students don’t feel safe in their communities, which prompted the Centre for Sexuality to develop virtual activities and counseling programs.

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“For GSAs, the destruction of schools means everything because they’re all school-based. A community network is super important,” Krause said.

The pandemic has also made it impossible for the centre to evaluate how Bill 8 has specifically impacted LGBTQ2S+ staff, faculty and students. According to Krause, teachers are stretched thin and often do not have the time to maintain or establish a GSA in their schools.

“Nobody is talking about it. We will have a better sense next year, but teachers are very focused on COVID-19 right now,” she said.

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Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood MLA Janis Irwin said the bill has made LGBTQ2S+ students fear for their safety.

“I talked to a few kids who said if a camera was on, their parents might find out they were part of a GSA. They told me that they were so worried,” said Irwin.

The Alberta NDP has already promised to repeal the bill if elected next year, a move that is a “continued priority” for them.

“We have a government in power who, when flagged with these concerns, refused to act prior to passing this bill. What message does it send when they refuse to make it safer for kids in school?” said Irwin.

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When asked for specific steps on how the NDP plans to repeal the bill, Irwin said the party will continue to support the community.

“Our values are about social justice, equality and supporting marginalized folks,” she said.

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The United Conservative Party maintains that GSAs are protected under Bill 8. Disclosure of GSA membership is permitted only when a student provides informed consent or if a student is at risk of harm, said Ministry of Education press secretary Katherine Stavropoulos in an emailed statement. Students also have the legal right to form GSAs in schools across Alberta.

“Alberta has among the strongest legal protections for GSAs and (queer-straight alliances)  in Canada. School authorities must provide a welcoming, caring, respectful, and safe learning environment,” said Stavropoulos.

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Despite the challenges, however, GSAs are still being run at schools. Krause said she is happy to see some schools providing that space for LGBTQ2S+ students.

“I’m super relieved about the fact that GSAs are actually still going. While this bill scaled back some stuff, there still should be that easy ability to have a GSA,” she said.

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