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Alberta MLA wants to make schools safer for LGBT students

Laurie Blakeman wants to close opt-out loophole on sexuality classes

The opt-out clause — Section 11.1 of the Alberta Human Rights Act, which allows parents to remove their children from classes on sexuality, sexual orientation and religion — has “left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths,” MLA Laurie Blakeman says. Credit: Courtesy of Laurie Blakeman

Alberta Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman says she will introduce a private member’s bill Nov 17 that would make schools safer and more supportive of queer students.

Bill 202, the Safe and Inclusive School Act, would amend the Alberta Education Act to require that all school boards support gay-straight alliances (GSAs).

“If kids want to start a GSA, and schools, principals or trustees say ‘no,’ that’s the end of it,” Blakeman explains. “I want to make it so if the kids ask, the schools will be required to support them in the same way they already support other clubs like yearbook clubs.”

The bill would also repeal Section 11.1 of the Alberta Human Rights Act, which allows parents to remove their children from classes on sexuality, sexual orientation and religion.

In 1998 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the omission of sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination in Alberta’s human rights legislation violated the equality provisions of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The government eventually added sexual orientation to the Alberta Human Rights Act in 2009 but also included the “opt out” clause.

“That’s really lingered and left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths,” Blakeman says. “Right now, you must give advance warning if a class is talking about sexuality, so that’s pretty wide open. It’s not just sexual health, but how do you discuss Oscar Wilde without discussing sexuality or sexual orientation? I propose to take that whole shebang out of the Human Rights Act.”

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley describes 11.1 as a scar on the Human Rights Act and an embarrassment to all Albertans.

“I don’t think choice is a value when you give people the choice to discriminate,” she says. “Discrimination should not be a choice. The fact of the matter is that neither the Alberta Human Rights Act or the Charter attribute different values to different protected grounds. There is no hierarchy of human rights in the Charter or the act.”

While she says that her caucus fully supports Blackman’s bill, she does not expect it to pass. The Liberals and NDP have only five and four seats respectively. The governing Progressive Conservatives have 57 seats, and the right-of-centre Wildrose Party has 17.

“I think a small number of people within Wildrose and Conservative caucuses will speak in favour of it, and those people will go off and attempt to build relationships with the LGBT community and the rest of Albertans who support them — the majority of Albertans, I suspect — but I think at the end of the day, the knuckle draggers will carry the vote. I hope I’m wrong,” Blakeman says.

In neighbouring British Columbia, Vancouver vice-principal James Chamberlain says parents cannot opt their children out of discussions about sexual orientation or sexuality in most classes.

“The only place they can opt out is under HACE [Health and Career Education], but they are required to teach the curriculum in an alternate manner and meet with the classroom teacher to show how the provincial learning outcomes were met,” he explains. “In the past, parents opted their children out because of religious or cultural objections. The Ministry of Education changed the alternate-delivery rule to prevent this. In reality, though, parents sometimes just keep their kids at home to avoid topics of a sensitive nature. It varies from school to school and district to district as to what happens in classrooms.”

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice and Wildrose leader Danielle Smith did not respond to Xtra’s requests for comment by posting time.