By Kristy Koehler, June 13 2019—
Critics of the United Conservative Party’s recently introduced Education Amendment Act say the legislation will put LGBTQ+ student lives at risk.
Darren Lund, a professor at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education is one such critic. Lund earned his PhD in education at the University of British Columbia in 2002. Prior to that, as a high school teacher in Red Deer in 1999–2000, Lund helped his students form Alberta’s first-ever gay-straight alliance club. The idea spread and Lund helped countless other institutions form their own GSAs.
“The students went to the principal and convinced him that we needed a gay-straight alliance in our high school,” said Lund. “Not because it was a particularly hostile environment, but because it was the right thing to do. They were a bit ahead of their time.”
Lund believes that today, it’s as important as ever for students to have access to GSAs.
“The need remains to make schools better places for every single student,” he said. “Now, we have all kinds of recent research that shows how important GSAs are. In fact, they make the school a better learning environment for all students — not just those who identify as LGBTQ+.”
In 2017, under Rachel Notley’s New Democratic Party, Bill 24 — the Act to Support Gay-Straight Alliances, received assent. It amended the School Act and ensured that every publicly-funded school in Alberta had a clear policy allowing GSAs to be formed, as well as protecting the privacy of students who joined those clubs. It also ensured that principals and administrators created them in a timely manner.
The UCP’s Education Amendment Act, while not disallowing GSAs, removes the phrasing that requires schools to “immediately” grant student requests. Lund believes this is a “cop-out clause” for administrators that could delay the granting of requests to form GSAs indefinitely.
“It’s for those fearful administrators who are unable or unwilling to address this issue or who want to deny that these students need any special consideration,” said Lund. “By not forming it immediately, what we have seen in the past are administrators who put it off indefinitely, who delay and delay, until the students either give up, or graduate or commit suicide.”
The proposed amendments also remove the guarantee of the students’ rights to have “gay” or “queer” in the title of inclusion clubs. Though it may seem like a simple case of semantics, Lund says the way these clubs are named is incredibly important.
“It’s absolutely crucial,” he said. “It reminds those students that they’re valued in that school and that it’ll be a safe place for them. To not name it really erodes the significance and power of those programs.”
The timing of the new bill coincided with Pride Month. June is a significant month for the LGBTQ+ community as it commemorates the Stonewall Riots which occurred in June 1969. Whether intentional or not, Lund says the introduction of the amendment during Pride Month is tone-deaf.
“I believe this is just as unconscionably ignorant of Pride Month as every other one of their announcements since taking power,” said Lund. “The forests were burning as they announced the rollback of the carbon tax. It was symbolic of a government that has their head in the smoke while the province is burning. To roll back these important protections for young people — the most vulnerable young people in the province — at this time, just signals a government that absolutely does not wish to protect their lives.”
The UCP’s proposed amendments also allow, in certain circumstances, for disclosure to a parent or guardian that their child has joined a GSA, though they make clear that “public schools must adhere to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.”
Critics say the amendment leaves too much room for students to be potentially outed.
“I think it’s a child’s right to come out when they wish to come out and to discuss these issues with whomever they feel safe discussing them,” said Lund. “Many students are not safe in the home environment — we know this from the number of young people who are kicked out of their homes when they reveal that they are LGBTQ+.”
Lund says in light of these changes and their potential impacts, it’s important “to show the leadership we need to show in the community as well as taking a public stance in terms of evidence-based research that clearly shows that young people need the unfettered opportunity to form GSAs without the threat of being outed, being allowed to name it a gay-straight alliance, and being allowed to start it when they know they need it.”
The Gauntlet contacted Adriana LaGrange, the UCP’s Minister of Education, and requested comment with regard to three specific items — the timing of the release during Pride Month, why the word “immediately” was removed and why guarantees in the naming of inclusion groups were removed.
Colin Aitchison, Press Secretary for Minister LaGrange’s office, responded with a statement via e-mail. The statement did not pertain whatsoever to the Gauntlet’s inquiries but instead discussed the disclosure of information to parents of students involved with GSAs.
“We were elected with a clear mandate to bring the Education Act into force by September 1, 2019,” the statement reads. “Our government has been clear, we oppose mandatory parental notification of any student. Alberta will have the most comprehensive protections for LGBTQ+ students in Canada. Section 35.1 of the Education Act specifically guarantees students entitlements to create inclusion groups, including GSAs and QSAs.
“Schools cannot disclose a student’s membership in any inclusion group, as there are student privacy considerations that trump other legislation,” the statement continued. “Under Alberta’s privacy legislation, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, and the Personal Information Protection Act, disclosure of GSA membership would only be justified if a student is at a risk of harm. Our government trusts educators to navigate these difficult situations to do what is in the best interest of kids.”
The UCP has also released a GSA fact sheet in an attempt to address common questions surrounding the legislation.