Alberta Tories move to contain caucus rift over gay-straight alliance bill

The leaders of Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives scrambled on Wednesday evening as more of the party’s members started turning against a bill that could segregate school children who want to form peer-support groups for LGBT students.

Dissent in the government’s ranks started the previous day, when a bill that did not give students the automatic right to form gay-straight alliances on school grounds was passed in the Legislature.

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“I will not accept anything short of equality. Equal but separate, equal but differently accommodated is not the answer,” PC MLA Thomas Lukaszuk, a former deputy premier and past contender for the leadership of the party, said on Wednesday afternoon.

The Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect our Children was introduced on Monday, replacing a bill the opposition Liberals put forward that would have forced schools to allow LGBT peer-support groups. The alliances have been shown to reduce bullying and suicide rates.

Only days earlier, Laurie Blakeman, the Liberal MLA who wrote the original Bill 202, cried when she saw the government’s edited version, Bill 10. On Wednesday, Ms. Blakeman said the government’s amendment would institutionalize segregation of gay school children by forcing their clubs off school grounds.

An attempt to respond to criticism of the bill with a hastily written amendment on Wednesday did little to calm the growing backlash. Under the revised bill, the government would create the clubs, but only after a student request was rejected by a faith-based or rural school board. It would not guarantee that those clubs would be on school grounds.

Sandra Jansen, the MLA who presented the motion, said she was “hopeful” school boards that reject the clubs would allow the government to create them on school property.

“This government should be ashamed of itself,” NDP MLA Brian Mason said, at the beginning of hours of passionate argument against the bill. Members of the opposition and the government party compared it to apartheid and the restrictive Jim Crow laws once found in the southern United States.

Mr. Lukaszuk was the sole PC member to vote against the bill on Tuesday. He was joined in his dissent by two more MLAs on Wednesday.

PC MLA Jason Luan compared Bill 10 to Canadian laws that discriminated against his ancestors from China, telling his fellow Progressive-Conservatives to not be on “the wrong side of history.”

Running back Jon Cornish, fresh of the Grey Cup-winning Calgary Stampeders, called Bill 10 unacceptable. “This is almost 2015, so absolutely I will say something,” Mr. Cornish said. “I want my kids growing up in a world where it doesn’t matter who you love.”

On Tuesday, Premier Jim Prentice said in on a conference call from Quebec City that he supported the legislation. “Rights are never absolute,” Mr. Prentice said, calling the bill strong and balanced. On Wednesday, the Premier was in Ontario and unavailable for comment.

Three months into his term as Premier, Mr. Prentice had seemed secure in his role: His party won four by-elections and the Opposition Wildrose was in disarray after language in the party’s platform that supported equal rights for gay Albertans was watered down at a convention.

Political scientist Duane Bratt said the Premier underestimated how much the issue would blow up, “splintering his own party.”

The Alberta legislature debated late into Wednesday evening on the amendment. The government passed its amendment to Bill 10, with 38 MLAs in favour and 17 against, during a late-night vote.

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