On December 1, 2014 the Alberta Government introduced a bill called Bill 10: An Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect our Children. The bill was introduced as a response to Bill 202, a private members bill brought forward by Laurie Blakeman that would disallow school boards from banning Gay-Straight Alliances. While Bill 10 would repeal the highly controversial section 11.1 of the Alberta Human Rights Act and add sexual orientation to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Alberta Bill of Rights, it would allow Alberta’s school boards to reject their students’ requests to create a peer-support group known as a Gay-Straight Alliance. Critics argue the bill does not do enough to protect LGBTQ students.
Last Wednesday night while MLAs debated Bill 10 in the Alberta Legislature, 15 youth were meeting in City Hall to do the same. After heartfelt testimonies, tears and countless amendments, the City of Edmonton Youth Council passed a motion to publicly oppose Bill 10, 14-1. How fitting for young people to take part in debate on a bill that would affect them.
The next day, Bill 10 exploded as the top trend on twitter nationwide. It made headlines across Canada – gaining the attention of professional athletes and high profile Canadian celebrities alike. Just 24 hours after the City of Edmonton Youth Council passed their motion at City Hall, a number of those youth would find themselves on the steps of the legislature, chanting in chorus with hundreds of other Albertans: “GSAs save lives!”
Bill 10 was introduced as a reaction to a private member’s bill introduced by Laurie Blakeman called Bill 202 – the Safe and Inclusive Schools Statutes Amendment Act, 2014. Bill 202 would have allowed students, regardless of where they go to school, to create a Gay-Straight Alliance without the risk of being turned down. When it looked as though the bill had a chance of passing, Bill 202 was pushed off the order paper without debate or a vote and Bill 10 was hastily introduced in it’s place.
On Thursday afternoon, Jim Prentice announced Bill 10 had been put on hold. He claimed responsibility for the introduction of the bill, saying that he’s heard “loudly and clearly, that Albertans wish there to be further consultation on the substance of Bill 10.” Democracy worked in Alberta last week, and that’s something to be proud of. But the fight is anything but over.
In the end, Prentice got what he wanted. Bill 202 would have prohibited school boards from denying students the right to form a Gay-Straight Alliance if they requested to do so. But it was moved off the order paper without debate and without a vote. As of today, GSAs are still being banned in schools across the province. Nothing has changed.
Regardless of the Government’s plans to “consult” with Albertans, the fact remains that GSAs are desperately needed. A 2011 national survey found that 70% of students report hearing homophobic language like “that’s so gay” every day at school. Consequently, 53% of LGBTQ students reported feeling unsafe at school, compared with only 3% of heterosexual youth. Studies show that LGBTQ teens experience greater levels of violence and more negative health outcomes than their heterosexual peers. In fact, almost half of lesbian, gay and bisexual students and 75% of transsexual students report being verbally harassed about their sexual orientation or gender expression. Of those students harassed, they reported lower grades (24%), higher absentee rates (27%), greater depression (55%), and are more likely to make plans to commit suicide (35%). An estimated 40% of youth on the streets of Edmonton are LGBTQ.
The “GSAs Save Lives” chant sounds dramatic, but it’s absolutely true. Multiple studies show that Gay-Straight Alliances create more inclusive school environments for all students, regardless of sexuality or gender expression. An extensive study at the University of British Columbia found that schools with anti-homophobic policies in place for at least three years saw instances of suicidal thoughts and attempts by gay and bisexual boys lowered by 70 per cent. Further, these instances also lowered by two-thirds lower for lesbian and bisexual girls, compared to schools without them. Homophobic bullying is not exclusive to LGBTQ students. Heterosexual boys that attended schools with GSAs were half as likely to attempt suicide as straight boys in schools without these policies. Gay-Straight Alliances quite literally save lives.
The government has stood up on multiple occasions to pat itself on the back for the number of anti-bullying (637) and diversity clubs (665) currently operating in Alberta. For some perspective, there are only 94 GSAs in the province of Alberta, and not one of them is in a Catholic school. Diversity and anti-bullying clubs are certainly valuable but by themselves, don’t work. Studies have shown that unless a club addresses homophobia specifically, it will be ineffective in creating safer environments for LGBTQ students. Either the government knows this and is blatantly ignoring it, or they’ve neglected to do their research. I don’t know which is worse.
Bill 10 is a part of a larger discussion about who gets to decide what “safe” really means. Arguments that school boards should be able to disallow GSAs and form their own anti-bullying strategies illustrate the assumption that students are incapable of deciding for themselves what their own school environments should look like. In a province that allows youth to get behind a steering wheel at 14, an argument that students are unable to decide what is required for their own safety does not fly. Given that a majority of homophobic bullying takes place in the absence of adults, and that students are often afraid to report it for fear of being “outed” or re-victimized, the reasoning that “school trustees know best” is preposterous. Bully Free Alberta says that 10% of students report hearing anti-gay language directly from their teachers, so how can we rely on educators alone to create these “safe” environments? Bill 202 would have allowed any student the ability to form a GSA if they requested to do so – a key step in letting students play a role in creating safe spaces for themselves. The fight is just beginning. Bill 10 should be scrapped all together and Bill 202 should be brought back for the debate it deserves.
Even if you could care less about LGBTQ kids starting GSAs, even if you could care less about discrimination in our education system, even if you could care less about politics in general – you should care about Bill 10. You should care that legislation in Alberta can be written and pushed through the legislature in less than a week. You should care that our government is drafting legislation without consulting with the stakeholders who will be directly affected. You should care that the government can place two hour time limits on debate – even when it comes to matters as important as human rights. Bill 10 is not an isolated event, it’s part of a larger system. Having power for the past half-century does should not give you the ability to sneakily pass legislation – it’s an insult to Albertans and the democratic process we value so dearly as Canadians.
Albertans should be proud of themselves for standing up for diversity and inclusion, but it’s not enough to put Bill 10 on hold. Jim Prentice needs to ensure that all legislation going forward will be debated in an open and transparent way.
What are we going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
CC Banner courtesy of Flickr user Dave Cournoyer