Despite pledging to build a big tent conservative party, Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party MLAs appear to be doing their best this week to define themselves as the voice of social conservatism in Alberta. While I was convinced this new Conservative party would be disciplined enough to avoid being caught in the trap they found themselves in 2014 and again earlier this year, their actions this week suggest otherwise.
UCP opposition to Bill 24: An Act to Support Gay-Straight Alliances, has caught the party on the wrong side of public opinion and on the wrong side of history. The bill would protect the privacy of students who decide to participate in a student-organized Gay-Straight Alliance and prevent those students to be outed to their parents by teachers or school administrators.
While introducing an amendment to Bill 24, Calgary-West UCP MLA Mike Ellis suggested GSAs could be a cover for the teaching of a covert sexual education curriculum. Ellis told the Assembly that his party “unequivocally support GSAs” but he believed the bill “deliberately or unwittingly erodes parental rights.”
“…it’s deeply disappointing that the members opposite continue to peddle dangerous conspiracy theories instead of accepting the simple fact that this is about protecting kids,” said Calgary-Hawkwood NDP MLA Michael Connolly in response to Ellis’ proposed amendment.
While Ellis did not actually use the words ‘secret gay agenda’ when suggesting GSAs could have a covert sexual education curriculum (which they do not), one of Kenney’s prominent supporters is actually saying just that.
Conservative commentator and former Alberta Report publisher Ted Byfield, age 88, shared some pretty disgusting opinions about GSAs on his blog, referring to the student-organized anti-bullying clubs as “sex clubs” designed to push a homosexual agenda.
“If my son or daughter, having reached, say, the age of ten or eleven, is lured into a school sex club, is persuaded that he or she must be homosexual, acts accordingly, acquires HIV and then AIDS and remains crippled for life, whom do I sue?” wrote Byfield. “The government, or the minister that helped bring this tragedy upon us?”
Byfield’s blog post made a powerful argument for why Bill 24 is necessary to protect LGBTQ students, wrote Postmedia columnist Graham Thomson.
I was surprised to discover the recent announcement that Byfield will be awarded a Senate 150 Medal by Edmonton Conservative Party Senator Betty Unger. The medal recipients were chosen “in recognition of their significant contributions to their communities.” According to a message on Unger’s Facebook page, the medals will be presented in a ceremony on November 14.
Despite the opposition of the UCP and some outdated conservative commentators, educators and school board trustees continue to voice their support for the NDP’s Bill 24.
David Keohane, superintendent of the Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools, told the St. Albert Gazette that his board appears to be in compliance with the new bill. “Job number one is ensuring the safety and well-being of a child while they’re at school,” Keohane told the Gazette, noting that outing a child before he or she is ready can harm them.
John Lehners, chair of the Grande Prairie Public School District, told the Grande Prairie Daily Herald Tribune that “I don’t think we’d have a lot of problems adhering to (the new requirement) because I think a lot of our policies reflect that.”
Despite school trustees from across the province voicing their support for Bill 24, Kenney argues that teachers should be allowed to decide when to inform parents when a student joins a GSA.
“We trust highly trained educators to use their professional judgment to make decisions in the best interests of children, particularly given that this policy applies to children as young as five years of age,” Kenney said in a press conference on November 2. It is unclear where Kenney found evidence that five year olds have been organizing GSAs, which seems like a fairly silly and weird claim.
The president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, Greg Jeffery, says his organization supports Bill 24. Jeffery also says a lack of response by Kenney is the reason he has been unable to arrange a meeting to discuss education issues with the new UCP leader.
Perhaps the most convincing argument I have heard this week in response to Kenney’s opposition to Bill 24 came in the form of a comment on Facebook:
“I’m frustrated by the way he is using the “teachers know better than politicians” line. Actually, as a teacher, we don’t. The point of the legislation is that the student gets to decide when and to whom they come out, because that is best for the mental health of the student. I feel like he is trying to frame the issue to make himself appear that he is on the side of the teachers, when in reality, many support this bill because it supports the mental health of some of our most vulnerable students. He says he doesn’t want to out LGBTQ+ students, when mere months ago he was saying exactly that to pander to his social conservative base. So frustrating.”
Kenney’s reaction to Bill 24 this week actually surprised me. I did not expect the UCP leader to embrace a progressive agenda, but I believed a 20-year veteran of Ottawa politics would at a bare minimum take a reasonable approach to creating safe school environments for students, not, as Postmedia columnist Paula Simons tweeted this week, sound an “air raid siren of homophobia.”