Alberta’s Bill 24, an act to support gay-straight alliances (GSA), passed in the legislature last week, ending months of rhetorical build up between the NDP and UCP.
The bill updated the legal framework for extracurricular clubs introduced in 2015’s Bill 10, limiting the amount of disclosure school principals and teachers can make regarding club members.
Bill 24 makes the outing of any students participating in organized extra curricular activities promoting equality and non-discrimination in relation to race, religious belief, colour, gender, gender identity, gender expression, family status, sexual orientation and or disabilities without that student’s consent illegal.
The bill’s primary focus was on GSAs.
“There was a bit of a loophole in Bill 10 that some schools were utilizing to either block the creation of GSAs or make them not effective,” said Banff-Cochrane MLA Cam Westhead.
“There were a few bad actors out there that were unscrupulous and kind of used those small loopholes to deprive kids of their rights.”
The bill also stops schools and school boards from preventing the creation of GSAs by students through declarations that no teacher supervisors are available for extracurricular activities.
Provisions within Bill 24 require school boards to report if teachers are willing to act as liaisons to GSA clubs and, coming into effect next year on April 1, ending the ability for boards to use a legal fiction to stop the creation of GSAs.
The Canadian Rockies Public School system stated its continued support for LGTBQ students is independent of Bill 24 passing.
Speaking on behalf of CRPS from his background as an educational psychologist, CRPS Superintendent Chris MacPhee said Bill 24 was the right thing to do.
“There are many, many students across this country and across this continent that struggle with who to communicate with during these times and many of them do not have someone at home to communicate with who would be acceptant of the path their child has chosen,” he said.
MacPhee spoke from his own experience of seeing friends disowned for being gay during his time growing up in Eastern Canada.
“They need a venue for safety, they need a venue for support,” he said.
“We have a duty to protect the safety and welfare of all of our students, and if this is the best way to do it, this is the way we’ll do it.”
MacPhee said even though the possibility of repercussions for students being outed in the Bow Valley was remote, it is still a concern for CRPS staff.
“It’s a challenge no matter where you are in the country and no matter the size of the community, or the level of acceptance within the community,” he said.
“It only takes one.”
Bill 24, like Bill 10 before it, had become a partisan issue in the legislature.
Members of the Alberta Party, Liberal Party of Alberta, NDP, and Progressive Conservative party cast 42 votes for the bill, with the UCP being the exclusive party to vote against the bill with 23 votes.
“When I entered into this debate I expected it to be a non-partisan issue, that the teachers were asking for this, the kids were asking for this and the parents had a legitimate concern,” said Westhead. “The parents maintain their rights,” he said.
During third reading of Bill 24, Mark Smith, MLA for Drayton Valley-Devon, read into the record a statement by newly elected UCP leader Jason Kenny regarding the alleged motivations behind Bill 24.
“The only rationale they have offered is transparently cynical: as a political instrument to attack their partisan opponents; part of their desperate effort to talk about anything but their failed economic record,” said Smith on Kenny’s behalf.
Calgary-West MLA Mike Ellis said in the legislature he believes a section in the bill undermines parental rights and introduces covert sex education to the classroom.
“I sincerely hope that Section 9 is not a way for the government to do after hours what it could not do in the classroom during school hours,” he said. “If GSAs aren’t instructing children in any way, there is simply no need to exempt them from this provision.”
MacPhee characterizes concerns like Ellis’ as fear mongering.
Section 9, as written in Bill 24, relates to school boards releasing information to parents about activities primarily related to religion or human sexuality related to curriculum in the classroom, and does not refer to GSAs or extracurricular clubs of any sort.
GSAs in Alberta do not teach the province’s human sexuality curriculum.
“For me and for this school division, [Bill 24] is not a method to introduce any kind of sex education curriculum and never will be,” said MacPhee.
Human sexuality curriculum is taught in health classes during classroom time province-wide.
“This is about a club to support each other and is no different than if a whole group of students gathered in a corner to hang out,” he said.
Teacher involvement is to provide guidance to support resources and to pick up on if any of the students are in crisis.
“It’s a shame that politics go down this road sometimes. This isn’t a political issue, it’s about the safety of kids,” said MacPhee.
The UCP offered further objections during the reading of Bill 24, stating concerns raised in 2017 by the NDP about loopholes found in the application of Bill 10 were not initially raised as amendments to the readings of Bill 10 in 2015.
The UCP has also stated Bill 24 reduces parental involvement in the lives of their children.
Westhead said he doesn’t believe UCP arguments against Bill 24 stand up to scrutiny.
“Quite frankly, many of their rationales were absurd,” he said.
“When you can dismantle all of the reasons not to support the bill the UCP provided, they are playing to a socially conservative base and don’t hold up to scrutiny about what a modern Alberta is about.”
UCP members by in large have stated they support gay-straight alliance clubs in schools, despite their objection to parts of the bill.
CRPS has stated politics surrounding Bill 24 has not been a distraction, as there are no changes that affect what MacPhee calls “business as usual.” GSAs continue to be an important issue for CRPS and one the school board is prepared to defend.
“This, I believe, would be a hill to die on for us,” said MacPhee.
Student engagement with GSAs was a primary focus for the creation of Bill 24 by the NDP.
“What we were hearing from students was that if there was even a hint that they might be outed by joining (a GSA), they wouldn’t go to the club,” said Westhead.
“If a club can’t be effective and protect student privacy, the kids won’t go and they won’t have the support they need.”
Although Bill 24 precludes teachers and principals from informing parents about student involvement in GSAs, the bill allows for parents to be told when their children are in danger.
“Nothing precludes the teacher from informing the parent if a kid is at imminent risk of suicide or that sort of thing,” said Westhead. “They don’t need to say they’re in a GSA and they’re suicidal. They just say the kid’s at risk and they might need help.”
MacPhee echoed this position, saying teachers at CRPS have always exercised their professional diligence when students are in crisis.
“We don’t communicate all the time that a student is involved in a soccer group or a chess club. The students make those decisions and if they want to communicate to their parents, they do so,” said MacPhee. “And we would always communicate with a parent if we felt a child’s safety is a concern.”
The Alberta Teachers Association, which represents all teachers employed by a school board, has publically supported the passing of Bill 24 to provide legal certainty for rules that were previously unclear under Bill 10.
Newly elected United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenny, though, does not share the ATA’s enthusiasm for legal certainty during the build up to the Bill 24 vote.
“We believe that highly trained educators are in a much better position than politicians to exercise their discretion on whether it is in the best interests of a child to engage parents,” his statement read.
“Teachers, not politicians, should decide when it makes sense to engage parents.”
The ATA released a statement on Nov. 2 clarifying its position.
“Teachers and students will benefit from legal clarity,” wrote ATA president Greg Jeffrey in that statement.
“If (Bill 24) is passed, teachers will no longer have to worry about managing competing pressures on such a sensitive topic.”
Questions were raised previously by the ATA as to whether their own bylaws and provincial privacy laws were sufficient protection for their obligations to students.