Alberta School boards waiting to read Premier’s new bill

School boards across Alberta are waiting to read Premier Jim Prentice’s new bill aiming to balance the rights of sexual minority students and board autonomy in Alberta’s education system.

The government is expected to introduce Bill 10: The Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect our Children on Monday to counter Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s Bill 202, which proposed to mandate that school boards support student-led gay-straight alliance (GSA) groups in Alberta.

In a news conference Thursday, Prentice said Bill 202 is “unbalanced” and the government will move to amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Prentice said students who want to form a GSA will have “clear legal recourse if a school attempts to stand in their way” but ultimately, school boards will decide if a GSA is needed.

“Personally, I didn’t feel there was an issue with Bill 202,” said Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) Chair Sarah Hoffman.

“I don’t think this will change practice at Edmonton public because from the over-arching messages that were shared by the Premier, I think we already go farther on both of those points than what’s referred to.”

There are currently 25 GSAs in the city’s schools with staff at both the EPSB and inside each school dedicated to helping students start clubs to combat bullying and promote inclusiveness, said Hoffman.

“I’m really proud of the fact that at Edmonton Public Schools, if you want to form a GSA, you are supported in any school, any program, in making sure that you have a safe place to meet and support each other.”

Tony Sykora, President of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association and Chair of Elk Island Catholic Schools, said trustees are “pretty eager” to read Bill 10. Trustees are concerned about the safety of all kids, including those in LGBTQ community, he said, adding Catholic board polices don’t “segregate different traits” but promote inclusion in diversity clubs because GSA “invokes something that’s exclusive rather than inclusive.”

“Discrimination against a native child I don’t believe would be any different than discrimination or bullying against an LGBTQ student or someone who comes from a social status that’s different than the rest of the peer group,” he said. “Bullying is bullying and we stand against it.”

Zander Hartman, a trans-gender male who was born female, said the GSA at Ross Sheppard High School helps create an accepting environment for students to learn about homophobia, trans-phobia and other kinds of bullying. He supports calling the clubs GSAs in legislation because it’s “kind-of a big deal.”

“Right now, it’s a privilege to have a GSA in school but it should be something that’s there no matter what so that when a student says ‘We need this’, they can’t say no,” he said, adding GSAs reduce suicide rates among sexual minority youth. “To have a GSA is to say our lives matter.”

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