Former MLA honoured for public education advocacy

May 30, 2017
Kim Dewar, ATA News Staff
Laurie Blakeman (centre) accepts the Public Education Award from Alberta Teachers’ Association president Mark Ramsankar (left) and South West district representative Jason Schilling.

Longtime Alberta Liberal MLA and social activist Laurie Blakeman was honoured with the ATA’s Public Education Award at this year’s Annual Representative Assembly (ARA) in Edmonton on May 20.

The award is presented to an individual or group that has shown outstanding support to public education in Alberta, other than through teaching. Blakeman was selected due to her nearly 30 years of advocacy work. In her acceptance speech, Blakeman noted that both her parents were teachers and said the award is a huge honour.

“I write a lot of speeches and could not find the words to describe how honoured I was to receive an award from teachers,” Blakeman said to the 450 teacher delegates of ARA.

Blakeman’s advocacy work dates back decades to her time as executive director of the Alberta Advisory Council on Women’s Issues. In that role, she pointed to linkages between women living in poverty and their children’s ability to flourish in school.

In 1997, Blakeman was elected as the Alberta Liberal MLA for Edmonton-Centre. She went on to be re-elected four times. During her 18-year career as an MLA, she shed light on issues like school closures and the collection of school fees. She was also a defender of teachers and teacher professionalism.

One of Blakeman’s most publicized displays of advocacy was in 2009, when she repeatedly criticized the government for its Bill 44, which sought to dictate how teachers would handle sensitive or controversial issues in the classroom. She noted that these efforts met with resistance in some circles but drew support from others.

“I was supported by students, teachers, staff, trustees, business and even civil rights groups,” she said.

In 2014, after already having earned a reputation for speaking up for the marginalized and demanding recognition of human rights, Blakeman introduced private member’s Bill 202, entitled The Safe and Inclusive Schools Act. The bill sought to require that all schools allow for the creation of gay-straight alliances when requested by students. It also sought to change the Human Rights Act so that parents would not need to be notified prior to instruction dealing with sexual orientation.

“When I learned that young gay men in high school had the highest rates of suicide, and that the founding of gay-straight alliances reduced that suicide rate dramatically, it was an ‘I can do that’ moment,” Blakeman said.

Blakeman said it was important that gay–straight alliances be not only allowed, but also accepted.

“In the school, not in a shed off the property, and allow the students to call it whatever they wanted … it would be a safe place for LGBTQ and their allies to discuss, to plan and support each other,” she said.

The PC majority government interrupted Blakeman’s bill by introducing its own version: Bill 10. After Bill 10 generated controversy and pushback, it was amended to include many of the measures that had been contained in Bill 202.

While introducing Blakeman prior to presenting her with the award, South West district representative Jason Schilling noted her commitment to education and the extraordinary length of time that she has been advocating for students.

“As a teacher, I can’t thank you enough for your bravery in this fight,” he said.

In accepting her award, Blakeman noted that it’s important to acknowledge politicians when they get it right, because that encourages them to keep doing it right.

“I came into politics to change the world and I did,” she said, “in small and big ways.” ❚