Government makes surprise amendment to controversial Bill 10
The legislative assembly has agreed to mandate gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in schools where students want them.
Education Minister Gordon Dirks took many Albertans by surprise when he rose in the house the first day of the spring sitting to make a ministerial statement and to table an amendment to Bill 10, An Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect Our Children.
“This draft amendment calls for students to be able to establish gay-straight alliances in any Alberta school, for these GSAs to be allowed to meet on school property and for students to be able to call their club a GSA, a QSA or any other name of their choosing,” he announced March 10.
While Dirks sidestepped parliamentary protocol by not providing the opposition caucuses with an advance copy of his ministerial statement, all three caucuses welcomed the announcement. But no one was happier than Alberta Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, whose Bill 202, Safe and Inclusive Schools Statutes Amendment Act, 2014, had forced the government’s hand.
Dirks acknowledged as much in the house.
“This matter was first brought before us by the member for Edmonton-Centre through her private member’s bill early in the fall, and I want to acknowledge her efforts this afternoon. Your efforts have not gone in vain,” he said.
While Bill 202 would have mandated GSAs in schools where students want them, Bill 10, as introduced in December, would have created a legal framework under which students could appeal to the school board if school officials refused to sanction a GSA. Faced with mounting public backlash over Bill 10, the government decided to hit the pause button and consult with Albertans.
It proved to be a smart decision.
“Over the last three months, during my consultation with Albertans from all walks of life, I was most struck by youths who are already members of a gay-straight alliance and who say that without a GSA, they would feel lost and alone,” Dirks said March 10. “I tabled these amendments for these young people, in hopes that they will always have a safe and welcoming community.”
That same afternoon, the legislative assembly recommitted Bill 10 to the Committee of the Whole, which unanimously agreed to the government amendment as well as a subamendment put forward by New Democrat Leader Rachel Notley. The amended bill then received third reading.
Alberta Teachers’ Association President Mark Ramsankar applauded the bill’s passage.
“The government has done the right thing by introducing new amendments to Bill 10 and passing a law that will have a definite positive impact on students in schools. There is a general consensus among teachers about the importance of gay-straight alliances in schools and their ability to foster safe and caring school environments. We have had policy supporting the establishment of GSAs since 2005, and teachers are glad to see that students who want them in their school will get them,” he said.
“Our thanks and kudos to Premier Prentice, Minister Dirks and the entire legislative assembly on listening to Albertans and finding a solution that supports students. But most important, thanks to Laurie Blakeman for showing such tremendous leadership on this issue. Congratulations on your success in changing the world for so many vulnerable students.”
ATA urges clarity
The ATA subsequently urged the government to implement ministerial orders to provide clarity around the implementation of Bill 10, as well as to support and protect teachers who will be facilitating GSAs in schools.
“It has become very clear in the last few days that government, boards and many individuals have some widely divergent views on what Bill 10 will mean in practice,” Ramsankar said. “The principals, teachers and students who will be involved need to know very clearly where they stand.”
The ATA called for ministerial orders that will provide clarity, support and protection by;
- preventing the disclosure of a student’s membership in a GSA (or similar organization established under section 35.1 of the Education Act) or participation in the organization’s activities to any person without the explicit prior consent of the student;
- confirming the right of the student(s) who requests establishment of a GSA, or similar organization, to determine the final operational name of that organization;
- confirming the right of student members and teacher advisors to determine the purpose, activities, projects and undertakings of the GSA, or similar organization;
- protecting principals and teachers who facilitate the creation or operation of a GSA, or similar organization, from employment discrimination or sanctions, formal or informal, related to their activities with the GSA, or similar organization; and
- affirming the right of denominational schools to require, as a condition of hiring or enrolment, a declaration of faith, but thereafter precluding discrimination on any protected ground, including sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
Passing such orders is essential, Ramsankar said.
“These are contentious issues and our concerns are not theoretical — there have been instances, some very recently, where teachers have been fired for no reason other than their sexual identity. It is clear that a failure by government to provide clear direction to school boards will have a profoundly chilling effect on GSAs in schools and undermine the very good work that the legislature has done.”
The bill, which has received royal assent, is expected to come into force June 1. ❚