What if politicians could stop school kids from starting clubs?

Laurie Blakeman MLA Edmonton Centre Liberal

Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman (second from the left) introduced a private members’ bill that would stop school boards from blocking the student-led creation of Gay-Straight Alliances.

What does it look like when a politician tries to build his credibility among social conservative voters? We found out this week when Premier Jim Prentice sideswiped Edmonton-Centre Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s private members’ bill – Bill 202: Safe and Inclusive Schools Statutes Amendment Act, 2014 – that would allow students to form Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in Alberta schools.

Jim Prentice Premier of Alberta

Jim Prentice

A recent study from the University of British Columbia found that Canadian schools with GSAs may reduce the odds of suicidal thoughts and attempts among both sexual minority and straight students.

Although Mr. Prentice initially said Progressive Conservative MLAs would be allowed a ‘free vote’ on Bill 202, he changed his mind late this week.

At a hastily called press conference held on Nov. 27, Mr. Prentice declared that Ms. Blakeman’s bill was no longer needed because he was going to introduce his own bill.

Under the guise of protecting school board rights, Mr. Prentice’s soon to be introduced bill would add sexual orientation to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Alberta Bill of Rights while continuing to allow individual school boards to decide whether the student GSA clubs can exist.

Gordon Dirks Education Minister Alberta MLA

Gordon Dirks

This would allow publicly funded religious schools, like Catholic school boards, the power to deny students the ability to create safer and more welcoming environments for their sexual minority classmates. Essentially, if a school board votes to discriminate against students for religious reasons, it is okay.

Although Mr. Prentice’s bill has not yet been made public, it is expected to allow some recourse for students. If students feel their attempts to create GSAs were unjustly blocked, they can take legal action against the school boards. That is correct, Mr. Prentice’s bill could force schools kids to hire lawyers to fight school board decisions.

Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of outrage on social media against Mr. Prentice’s bill. But Ms. Blakeman’s bill was never likely going to pass in the first place.

Kent Hehr Calgary Centre MLA Liberals

Kent Hehr

Earlier this year, a coalition of 31 PC and Wildrose MLAs voted against a similar private members’ motion introduced by Calgary-Buffalo Liberal MLA Kent Hehr. Only a handful of PC MLAs, including then anti-bullying minister Sandra Jansen, voted with the Liberal and NDP MLAs in favour of the motion.

It is not hard to see what Mr. Prentice is doing. He is a shrewd politician and he is trying to play both sides of the debate with the next election in mind. On one side, he cannot afford to allow Ms. Blakeman to make his party look like a group of backward social conservatives by not supporting her bill. At the same time, he is trying to appeal to those same backward social conservatives who want him to oppose her bill.

Wildrose leader Danielle Smith may have created an opening for Mr. Prentice to appeal to these social conservative voters when she openly suggested her party’s MLAs would vote in favour of Ms. Blakeman’s bill.

Ian Donovan Wildrose

Ian Donovan

Before the Premier’s announcement, Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson had introduced a series of amendments to the Liberal bill that would have watered down sections considered the most offensive to social conservatives.

Speaking to CBCLittle Bow MLA Ian Donovan, who crossed the floor from the Wildrose to the Progressive Conservatives this week, told host Mark Connolly that the PCs are now more social conservative than the Wildrose.

Education Minister Gordon Dirks, who is also the former chair of the Calgary Board of Education, has remained noticeably silent during this debate. Having faced criticism during his recent by-election about his relationship with evangelical religious schools in Calgary, perhaps it is not surprising that he is not Mr. Prentice’s spokesperson on the issue of Gay-Straight Alliances in schools

After you wade through the politics on all sides of this issue, it is important to remember what this debate is really about: whether individual students can, without interference from narrow-minded school administrators, board politicians or parents, create clubs that are proven to help make school environments more safe and welcoming for some of their classmates.

11 thoughts on “What if politicians could stop school kids from starting clubs?

  1. daveberta Post author

    Also worth reading: in his column today, the Edmonton Journal’s Graham Thomson writes:

    “The most articulate, reasoned and convincing argument on this issue was made not by Prentice, not even by Blakeman, but by PC MLA Sandra Jansen back in April when she was Alberta’s “anti-bullying minister” — the associate minister of family and community safety, one of the departments that no longer exist in the provincial government.

    “We know that all schools in the province may not want a gay-straight alliance, but that need isn’t a board’s to determine; it’s a student’s to determine,” said Jansen. “This is not a question of religious rights and it’s not a question of sexuality as much as it is a question of the right to free speech and free assembly.”

    Reply
  2. midge

    Might also want to note that Jansen will be the one introducing Prentice’s bill in the lege on Monday, the one that says the decision to allow – or not- a gay-straight alliance in a school will be up to the school boards.

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  3. Marie

    Please cite your resource/study that give evidence that Gay-Straight Alliances’ clubs help make school environments more safe and welcoming to students.

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  4. William Munsey

    More cynical, political gamesmanship. If they don’t like the bill as is, they should be proposing amendments, debating in the open and then voting on 202. Let’s see who’s for what around here. Mr. Prentice calls 202 divisive. It isn’t. It’s democracy.

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  5. Rick Z

    202 doesn’t recognize the rights of independent schools or catholic schools. And to say that doesn’t make me a “backward social conservative” Dave.

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  6. Rocker Portwell

    In response to the question asked in your headline, I think our politicians should go after the Chess Club first. It’s anti-social, Russophilic, dangerously cult-like, encourages a lingo that parents can’t understand, and the most important piece is called a Queen! There’s just NOTHING right about any of that! Kids: Grow up normal! Just say NO to chess!

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  7. jerrymacgp

    @Rick Z: Schools do not have rights, people do. Public institutions funded by taxpayers, like schools (public, separate and private/independent schools all receive tax dollars) have a duty and an obligation to respect and protect the rights of vulnerable people, which LGBTQ students in our schools most certainly are.

    Furthermore, how does allowing a group of students to organize a club of their own volition, to which membership is 100% voluntary, infringe on the rights of anyone else?

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  8. Neal

    What’s been missed in this debate is that this is a great time to teach kids about non-violent protest & the occasional need to ignore the so-called powers that be. If the province is going to keep acting this way, the opposition and other interested groups should encourage students to do as they please and form these GSAs regardless. Make school boards actually try to crack down on these groups and then we can get to a court/charter challenge, which is how all the bad laws in this country get ironed out anyways.

    Reply
  9. Neal

    What’s been missed in this debate is that this is a great time to teach kids about non-violent protest & the occasional need to ignore the so-called powers that be. If the province is going to keep acting this way, the opposition and other interested groups should encourage students to do as they please and form these GSAs regardless. Make school boards actually try to crack down on these groups and then we can get to a court/charter challenge, which is how all the bad laws in this country get ironed out anyways.

    Reply
  10. Jose Ruba

    GSAs are already welcome in public schools. The controversy here is whether they should be mandated when a student at a private Christian school wants one.

    The problem is that GSAs define providing a safe space for gay students to include discouraging speech that would “harass” or “intimidate” or “bully” students. All of that is fine, but here’s the question no one answers: if a Christian school teaches Christian beliefs that sex is only blessed by God when it is between a husband and wife, is that “bullying?” If a Christian school were to teach that God loves homosexuals, just like all people, but does not condone their sexual activity, is that “hateful”.

    All gay students are welcome at any school in Alberta and no one should be mistreated or harmed when they attend the school. That’s not the problem. GSAs aren’t just about welcoming students though but a moral and theological position on sexuality that goes counter to that of some schools in Alberta, schools that were founded on specific Christian principles. Forcing these schools to accept a group with teachings directly opposite to those schools’ mandates would undermine the very purpose of those schools.

    It’s like saying because the Calgary Pride Parade is funded by the City of Calgary, I should be allowed to join the parade with a banner that said “I support traditional marriage between a husband and wife.” They’d tell me to start my own parade. That’s all Christian schools are arguing here.

    Reply

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