Alberta Gay Straight Alliance Debate

Justice Minister Jonathan Denis, Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, Premier Jim Prentice and PC MLA Sandra Jansen

It is sometimes amazing how quickly one political issue can transform and dominate the debate. This week’s raging debate about allowing Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA) in Alberta schools has twisted and turned so many times, it has become difficult to figure out who is in and out of the closet on this issue.

Wikipedia defines a Gay-Straight Alliance as student-led organizations that are intended to provide a safe, supportive environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) youth and their straight allies. 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.

Here is a simple timeline following the ongoing provincial debate around these student clubs in Alberta schools:

April 7, 2014: Liberal MLA Kent Hehr introduces Motion 503:

“Be it resolved that the Legislative Assembly urge the government to introduce legislation, like Manitoba’s and Ontario’s, requiring all school boards to develop policies to support students who want to lead and establish gay-straight alliance activities and organizations, using any name that is consistent with the promotion of a positive school environment that is inclusive, welcoming, and respectful for all students regardless of sexuality, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”

A coalition of 31 Progressive Conservative and Wildrose MLAs vote down Motion 503. Nineteen Liberal, NDP and PC MLAs, including PC anti-bullying Minister Sandra Jansen vote in favour of the motion.

September 15, 2014: Premier Jim Prentice appoints Gordon Dirks as Education Minister. Mr. Dirks is criticized for his relationship with evangelical Christian schools in Calgary.

 October 15, 2014: Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman announces plans to introduce a private members’ bill to mandate school boards to develop policies to support students who start a gay-straight alliance in their schools by offering meeting space and benefits given to other clubs.

November 15, 2014: At the party’s annual policy convention, Wildrose members reject a ‘definitive’ statement on equality. Party members voted against adopting as policy a statement affirming the rights for everyone regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, and other differences.

November 18, 2014: Wildrose leader Danielle Smith says her caucus will likely support Ms. Blakeman’s private members’ bill and prominent members of Edmonton’s LGBTQ community speak in favour of the bill.

November 20, 2014: Ms. Blakeman introduces Bill 202: Safe and Inclusive Schools Statutes Amendment Act, 2014 into the Legislative Assembly. It passes first reading.

November 22, 2014: Attending the annual Gay-Straight Alliances conference at the University of Alberta, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson speaks in favour of Bill 202. “People don’t all come in the same shapes and sizes, colours and genders so it is important that a space everyone is compelled to go to as part of their education makes space for everyone,” Mr. Iveson told reporters.

November 24, 2014: Wildrose MLAs Kerry Towle and Ian Donovan cross the floor to the PC caucus. The Wildrose Caucus defies its party’s members by issuing its own resolution on equality.

Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson proposes amendments to Bill 202 which would allow Catholic and other religious schools to opt-out of allowing student to form gay-straight alliances.

November 25, 2014: Mr. Prentice announces that PC MLAs will be allowed a “free vote on Bill 202. Mr. Donovan tells CBC that the PC Party is now more socially conservative than the Wildrose Party and that the GSA vote contributed to his joining the PC Party.

November 27, 2014: At a hastily called press conference, Mr. Prentice declares that Ms. Blakeman’s bill was no longer needed because he plans to introduce his own bill dealing with Gay-Straight Alliances. Arguing in favour of ‘parental rights,’ Mr. Prentice says his bill will allow school boards to decide whether GSAs should be allowed. If students are turned down, Mr. Prentice says they can take legal action against their school boards. It is suspected that Mr. Prentice’s bill was not yet written at this time.

December 1, 2014: Mr. Dirks, Ms. Jansen and Justice Minister Jonathan Denis hold a press conference during the time originally allotted to debate Bill 202. Bill 10: An Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect our Children is introduced into the Legislature by Ms. Jansen and passes first reading. ‘We’re moving forward. We’re moving forward incrementally,‘ said Ms. Jansen on the issue of gay rights. The Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald publish editorials harshly critical of Bill 10.

December 2, 2014: Bill 10 passes second reading and procedurally removes Bill 202 from the legislative order paper. Forty-two PC and Wildrose MLAs vote in favour and 9 opposition MLAs, including Ms. Blakeman, Ms. Smith, NDP leader Rachel Notley and Liberal leader Raj Sherman, vote against the bill.

Only one PC MLA, Thomas Lukaszuk, votes against it. “I simply do not believe in incremental granting of human rights,” Mr. Lukaszuk told the media. “We didn’t give women half a vote, we gave them a full vote during the suffrage debate.”

Klein-era Alberta Treasurer Jim Dinning condemns the PCs on Twitter for the limited time made available to debate the GSA issue in the Legislature.

Jon Cornish, a running back for the 2014 Grey Cup champion Calgary Stampeders, criticizes Bill 10 on Twitter.

December 3, 2014: Two days after it was introduced in the Legislature, Mr. Denis announces plans to amend Bill 10. The Edmonton Youth Council votes 14-1 to pass an amendment against Bill 10.

Ms. Jansen introduces an amendment that opposition parties say will simply segregate gay students and move their support groups out of schools entirely. “That student now does not have to go to the court, they come to the Alberta ministry of education and we provide that GSA for them, and hopefully within the school environment,” Jansen said in the Assembly. “But if that is impossible, we’ll make sure they get that GSA regardless.” Education Minister Mr. Dirks was silent during this debate and Mr. Prentice was not in attendance.

The amendment passes with the support of 38 PC MLAs, including Mr. Dirks. PC MLAs Doug Griffiths, Mr. Donovan and Mr. Lukaszuk join with 14 opposition MLAs and vote against the amendment. PC MLA Jason Luan spoke against Bill 10, but was absent during the vote on the amendment.

December 4, 2014: Former PC MLA and Senator Ron Ghitter tells the Calgary Herald he is disappointed in the “backwards” legislation put forward by Mr. Prentice’s government to deal with the issue of gay-straight alliances in schools.

BT Edmonton host Ryan Jespersen uses his platform on the popular morning television program to castigate PC MLAs for their support of Bill 10.

Popular artists Tegan and Sarah published a post on their blog against Bill 10 and well-known Canadian entertainer Rick Mercer also takes aim at Mr. Prentice’s Bill 10 and his position on gay rights.

A number of PC Party members announce their resignations from positions in their party in opposition to Bill 10. Calgary-Bow PC association President Josh Traptow announced he resigned in order to speak out against Bill 10. Former Calgary City Council candidate Chris Harper announced on Twitter that he left the PC Party and resigned from his local PC constituency association. And Brenda Meneghetti, campaign manager for former leadership candidate Ken Hughes, announced she has left the PC Party because of Bill 10.

After facing four-days of widespread opposition and condemnation, Mr. Prentice announces at a hastily arranged press conference that he is putting Bill 10 on hold and that is postponing the third reading vote on the controversial bill.

Bill 10 has added to, rather than resolved these divisions, and I accept personal responsibility for that as the premier,” Mr. Prentice told reporters. Following Mr. Prentice’s backtrack on Bill 10, Ms. Blakeman announced plans to ask the Legislature to resurrect her original Bill 202.