4 min

Alberta’s gay-straight alliance reversal beats BC’s pink shirts

Jim Prentice had the courage to rethink then lead. Does Christy Clark?

BC Premier Christy Clark poses with a pink T-shirt and students in June 2012 as she unveils the province’s anti-bullying strategy. Credit: Jeremy Hainsworth

Even the National Post called it a “stunning about-face.”

In an unexpected move, Alberta’s Conservative government resurrected a bill they’d appropriated, gutted, then put on hold three months ago, fixed it and passed it with nearly unanimous support to launch the legislature’s spring session.

I don’t even know how BC launched its legislative session this year. I doubt it was half as impressive.

Alberta’s new Bill 10 directs all schools to support gay-straight alliances (GSAs) where students request them. The original bill, tabled last November by Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, started down the same path before being hijacked by a watered-down Conservative version that allowed schools to deny GSAs, then promised students they could seek remedy first through the courts then through the Ministry of Education who would find them a meeting space, albeit possibly in a nearby parking lot.

The bill descended into a swirl of controversy, pleasing neither the (primarily religious) school boards opposed to GSAs, nor the students who seek them.

“At present, there is clearly no consensus in Alberta on either the constitutionality or, indeed, the wisdom of the provincial government mandating gay-straight alliances in schools,” Alberta Premier Jim Prentice told a press conference Dec 4 as he put the bill on hold. “The issue was polarizing to begin with and has become even more so over the past several days.”

Fast-forward three months.

“We are all, I think, at the end of the day, concerned first and foremost with the safety of kids, of our children,” Prentice told reporters March 10, as his government reintroduced a significantly amended version of the bill. “I know from my perspective that [the public outcry] caused me to reflect on it and to say this is not going where it needs to go for the people of Alberta and for the children of this province.”

Of course, Prentice is hardly alone in his fall-back position to cherish the children. But his willingness to pause, regroup and seemingly sincerely reconsider whether the bill was headed in the right direction is refreshing.

Granted, he’s trying to extricate himself from a political nightmare that seems to have caught him off guard only months before an anticipated election. And no doubt his speech was specifically written to capture a nice mix of humility and leadership, fuelled by a genuine commitment to listen to the people. But it sounded good to me.

How many premiers pause to reconsider whether they’re going in the right direction then substantially redirect to lead not follow in a culture clash that pits gay expression against freedom of religion (and other conservative grounds to deny gay expression)?

The new Bill 10 not only makes GSAs mandatory in all schools where students request them, but sends a clear message to all students that they’re welcome to request them and that their request is worth honouring. It also repeals Section 11.1 of the Alberta Human Rights Act, which previously allowed parents to pull their kids from any classes on sexuality, sexual orientation and religion.

It’s “incredible,” says Spencer Chandra Herbert, a gay MLA in neighbouring BC. For Alberta to go from the perceived conservative, anti-gay capital of Canada to taking the lead in setting a new gay-friendly tone throughout its school system — it shows just how far activists have “moved the dial,” he says, applauding somewhat wistfully from this side of the Rockies.

And the status in BC? GSAs exist in many public schools in urban areas but they’re hardly enshrined in province-wide legislation mandating their support, and their status in the province’s independent and religious schools is hazy at best.

Education activists have been pushing the BC government for more than 12 years to pass legislation ordering all 60 public school districts to address homophobia and to develop comprehensive curriculum resources to add gay realities to a variety of classroom lessons.

Legislation to date? Zero. Mind you, a growing number of school districts, swayed by students and teachers pushing locally for change, have slowly passed their own policies to foster gay-friendlier environments. The most recent count shows 38 of BC’s 60 public school districts have, since 2003, passed anti-homophobia policies of varying strength — more than half but not yet two-thirds.

That’s not good enough, Chandra Herbert says. Kids are resilient, he says, but should we really leave them to fend for themselves in unwelcoming environments while we wait for progress, district by district, for 12 years and counting? “For me, that’s not adequate. I think we’ve got to treat this with urgency.”

“There’s no reason why we can’t be leaders right away,” he says, with another glance at Alberta.

“We’ve got to get beyond, ‘I wear a pink shirt so now we’ve solved bullying,’” he adds in a well-earned dig against BC Premier Christy Clark.

When asked if BC would follow Alberta’s explicitly gay-supportive lead, Clark told reporters March 11: “I think we have really focused on anti-bullying as a core of what we do. Kids can be bullied for all kinds of different reasons, and being gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender are, for sure, some of those primary reasons,” she said.

“I think the bigger picture is to say how do we create schools where everybody is respected and welcomed — everybody, regardless of whether or not they speak a different language at home, whether or not they practise publicly a different faith, whether or not they’re LGBT,” she continued. “I think we’re trying to find that balance that way here in British Columbia and I would argue we lead the world in that, in working to create safe schools where there’s a real climate of inclusion for all kids.”

Her answer is not without merit. I support fostering a climate where difference of all kind is celebrated in school rather than shunned. Think of the foundation that could lay for our society’s culture. But wouldn’t supporting students who have the courage to request a GSA anywhere in the province bring us closer to that goal?

Instead of simply focusing on bullying — and generic bullying at that — why not also tell all our school boards to support the youth who want to nurture alliances between gay and straight students across BC?

Rather than leaving BC in Alberta’s unanticipated dust.