Imagine you’re a timid 14-year-old boy from a religious family living in small-town Alberta. Lately, you’ve been feeling that you’re different from the other kids in class. Maybe you can’t stop thinking about the cute guy in your math class. Maybe you don’t feel at all right in your clothes and your own body, and you don’t know if there’s anyone you can talk to.
One day on the way to homeroom, you see a poster for the gay-straight alliance that the principal of your Catholic school has been forced to set up under threat of penalty from the Ministry of Education. You check out your first meeting.
What you don’t know is that the group’s faculty advisor took attendance and handed a list of GSA members to the principal, who then called your parents to inform them that their son is attending the school’s queer club. When you arrive home, your parents grill you about your sexual orientation and gender identity. Maybe they even threaten to hurt you, or abandon you.
That’s the alarming situation Alberta’s NDP government is trying to prevent with Bill 24, An Act to Support Gay-Straight Alliances, which passed final reading on Nov 15, 2017.
The latest chapter in the fight for gay-straight alliances in Canadian schools goes back to 2011, when Xtra broke the story of the Mississauga Catholic school board that forbade GSAs. Thanks in part to dogged reporting on the brave kids who took on their principal and school board to fight for their right to form a school club, Ontario passed Canada’s first law requiring schools to allow GSAs, the 2012 Accepting Schools Act.
Manitoba followed in 2013 with Bill 18, billed as comprehensive anti-bullying legislation that required schools to allow GSAs if demanded.
Then Alberta passed its first attempt to require student-requested GSAs in schools in 2015. No other province has enacted a law around gay-straight alliances.
But all three laws left gaps in the protections they set out to provide.
While principals in those provinces are now required to allow GSAs, nothing in the laws prevents them from requiring parental permission for students to attend, for example.
Anti-gay principals found in some cases they could still throw up obstacles to make the GSA experience uncomfortable for students. One principal of a Christian school near Edmonton declared, for example, that his school does not support the club’s activities or existence even if the school is required to allow it by law.
And despite the law, one school board in Manitoba has even somehow maintained a “no promo homo” policy that forbids any discussion of homosexuality in elementary and middle school classrooms without parental notice and permission. That effectively makes GSAs impossible in middle schools.
After students and parents complained about Manitoba’s Hanover School Division last year, local trustees publicly compared allowing discussion of LGBT issues in classrooms to the horrors of the residential school system that stole Indigenous children from their families and subjected many of them to years of abuse.
In its coverage of a Hanover school board meeting in 2016, The Carillon, a Manitoba weekly, also quoted one elected trustee — a self-declared “health care professional” — suggesting that sex education programs in Toronto are linked to an increased risk of cancer.
The cowardly provincial government responded that it hoped the matter could be resolved locally. A frustrated parent whose child experienced bullying in a Hanover school has had to resort to filing a human rights complaint to try to overturn these policies.
A few other provinces — Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador, and New Brunswick — have policies in their Ministries of Education that support gay-straight alliances, but no clear legislation on the issue. Policies are generally weaker than legislation, and can be easily withdrawn by a new government. Kids in these provinces have fewer avenues to fight recalcitrant principals who don’t support GSAs.
And while British Columbia was once at the forefront in the push to establish LGBT-inclusive curriculum policies, notably through the long-fought Corren case, it hasn’t passed any law to specifically require schools to establish gay-straight alliances when students demand them.
An updated policy issued last year mandates school boards to create codes of conduct that note the prohibited grounds of discrimination under the BC Human Rights Code, but says nothing specific about gay-straight alliances. Earlier this year, Xtra found that 10 percent of the province’s school districts had flouted even this low standard by refusing to file new policies by the deadline — though some of them have since complied.
Which brings us back to Alberta.
GSAs were brought back into focus in the province because parents and principals uncomfortable with GSAs recently found their champion in Jason Kenney, the leader of the new United Conservative Party (UCP), which is now the opposition in Alberta’s legislature. The former Harper Cabinet minister ran for party leader on a platform that included requiring schools to notify parents if their children joined a gay-straight alliance. He later walked that back to suggest that schools could use their judgement but that parents should be notified.
When Kenney won the leadership, the NDP quickly maneuvered to put the issue on top of the legislative agenda by introducing Bill 24. The recently passed law closes the gap in the previous act by forbidding schools from notifying parents that their children are participating in a GSA or other voluntary extracurricular activity. It also clarifies that principals must allow students to use the name “gay-straight alliance” or “queer-straight alliance” if the students want to.
There’s an obvious element of wedge politics being played here. The bill mostly played well to public opinion and forced the UCP to deal with a topic that sharply differentiates it from the NDP — despite Kenney’s protests that his comments were a non-issue, the UCP voted as a bloc against the bill.
But political maneuvering aside, it’s also good education policy to close the gaps that can make schools risky places for queer kids.
It also places Alberta at the forefront when it comes to legislation to protect gay kids in schools.
The ability to establish and join a gay-straight alliance is fundamental to the freedom of assembly and expression that all Canadians enjoy under the Charter of Rights. For struggling queer kids, exercising this right can literally save their lives.
We owe it to them to ensure that schools are welcoming, inclusive and safe. It’s time all provinces updated their laws to require schools to be LGBT-friendly spaces. That includes requiring schools to allow gay-straight alliances when requested, respecting students’ privacy and autonomy, establishing mandatory anti-bullying policies that specifically ban homophobic and transphobic bullying, and implementing inclusive school curricula.
When it comes to protecting LGBT students, provincial governments still have homework to do.