GSA Conference continues to grow

December 6, 2016
Sandra Bit, ATA News Staff
Organizer Kris Wells is pleased with the growth experienced by the annual Gender and Sexual Orientation Alliance Conference.

Bill 10 has positive impact, still room for improvement, organizer says

Attracting 500 participants from across the province, this year’s Alberta Gender and Sexual Orientation Alliance (GSA) Conference was the largest in the event’s five-year history.

Held at Edmonton’s Eastglen High School on Nov. 19, the conference sold out well in advance, and had a long waiting list.

“It’s really exciting that it has doubled in size every year for the past five years. We started with 50 participants at our first one and this year we have 500,” said organizer Kris Wells.

“One of our main challenges was finding a space big enough to hold the event.”

The GSA Conference’s remarkable growth has happened in the context of the passing of Bill 10. Receiving royal assent in March 2015, the bill established students’ right to form gay-straight alliances if they choose and laid out expectations on the part of school boards, parents and students to create and contribute to welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environments where diversity is respected.

Wells sees the legislation as an important and historic step that made Alberta only the third province in Canada to legislate support for GSAs and the only province whose law imposes no grade restrictions, meaning that GSAs here can be started by students in any grade from elementary to high school.

“Children as young as five and six are coming out, so it’s important that school environments offer supports to students at these younger ages; students are demanding this, and their parents are standing behind them,” Wells said.

“We are now in an implementation phase: what does (Bill 10) mean for students and schools? One of the purposes of the conference is to help students and schools start, strengthen and sustain GSAs,” Wells said.

A related effect of Bill 10 has been the spurring of a review of Alberta’s curriculum by Education Minister David Eggen to address the absence of curricular outcomes that specify gender identity, sexual orientation or gender expression.

“If young people don’t see themselves included in their textbooks, it tells them that they don’t exist, that they don’t matter,” Wells said.

The education of teachers has also been affected by Bill 10. New teacher quality standards coming into effect will include training in gender identity and sexual orientation to help new teachers learn how to support GSAs and QSAs. The University of Alberta offers courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels for new teachers, teachers in the field, school administrators and counsellors. The training is expected to help all educators become more effective allies.

Bill 10 also prompted a revision to the parental opt-out provision in Bill 44, which permitted parents to remove their students from the classroom if LGBTQ issues were addressed. The Jim Prentice government was pressured to remove this particular provision, although other opt-out provisions involving religion and human sexuality remain, an indication to Wells that, while there has been much progress on LGBTQ issues, there is still a long way to go.

“Whereas once Alberta was seen as among the most regressive provinces on LGBTQ issues, we are now viewed as a leader and the most progressive on these issues, but … we must be vigilant against those who would drag us backwards,” Wells said.

Although LGBTQ students still face many barriers, Wells sees support for GSAs as just another step in the evolution of human rights in our society. He is hopeful for a cultural shift, a change to thousands of small, daily practices that end up changing culture in the long run. Students and their parents are looking to schools and teachers for support because “if you want to start changing society, you have to start changing the schools.”

“The worst message we can send to our students is to be afraid to talk about important issues,” Wells said 

Positive developments

Besides the growth in attendance, Wells said that other positive developments at this year’s conference were the addition of a francophone stream to support the needs of francophone students, and the inclusion of aboriginal and two-spirit experiences, “to help to live out the promises of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations by talking about issues of colonization, traditional understandings of sexual orientation and gender identity and reclaiming the teachings of the place of two-spirited people on Turtle Island before colonization tried to erase those teachings.”

As part of this new mandate, James Makokis, a two-spirited family physician practising on the Saddle Lake First Nation, gave the conference’s keynote address.

New network launched

The Alberta GSA Network, a new initiative launched at this year’s conference, aims at supporting and strengthening GSAs between conferences and helping to build a community where people can come together and learn from each other. Among its features are online tools, resources from the ATA and Alberta Education, a provincial GSA registry, and a blog to share stories and best practices. More information is available at albertagsanetwork.ca.