A rural Alberta teachers' association is speaking out against the decision by MLAs earlier this week not to mandate support for gay-straight alliances in schools.

A motion to make gay-straight alliances mandatory in schools where students have requested one was shot down in the provincial legislature on Monday.

The Rocky View Teachers' Association says it's disappointed with the decision and will be donating to a summer camp for gay youth.

"We always try to work towards acceptance and everybody being equal and having equal opportunities," said Michelle Glavine, president of the teachers' union. "I really feel that politicians have missed the boat on this one."

The union will give $900 to Camp Fyrefly, a youth leadership retreat for sexual and gender minority students.

Camp Fyrefly is the only program of its kind in the country and holds sessions in Calgary, Edmonton and Regina.

Last year, 16-year-old Austin Bender attended one of the sessions. He says he had been bullied at school because people suspected he was gay.

But when school officials put him in touch with people at Camp Fyrefly, he decided to start a gay-straight alliance at his school.

"Through the camp I learned how to be more confident in myself, how to take change in the community and that's how I kind of started the GSA," Bender said. "I am openly gay in the school now. The GSA has given me enough confidence to be out in the school and knowing that there's a support group there, a lot of other students have come out of the closet as well."

More tolerance needed

The group focuses on discussing how to help people be more tolerant — and Bender says he has heard from teachers and school administrators about the positive impact it is having.

"I've had administration tell me that the language in the school itself has changed," he said.

"You don't hear people saying derogatory terms towards minority groups anymore. It's quite amazing."

As a student in Rocky View County, Bender says he's not happy with politicians for voting against the motion to support gay-straight alliances.

"I am very upset," he said. "I thought we were a very progressive province — as you could see during the Olympics when we were flying the Pride flag."

Tempers flare over defeat of motion

Since the motion was defeated, provincial politicians have been embroiled in debate over the issue.

In all, 22 members of the governing Progressive Conservative Party — including Education Minister Jeff Johnson — and nine Wildrose MLAs voted against the motion.

All members of the NDP and Liberal Party who showed up for the vote, as well as 12 PC MLAs, voted in support of it.

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman accused the Tories of having homophobes in their caucus during Wednesday's question period.

He later apologized and retracted the remark.

For Johnson, his decision to vote against the motion was based on the belief that school boards should make their own decisions.

"My stance is that we support GSAs — they're fantastic groups," he told the assembly on Wednesday. "But we also respect the autonomy of school boards.

"So before we go into setting up sweeping legislation to marginalize school boards and take away their autonomy then I think we need to work with the school boards to try and resolve it there first."

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story stated the motion was supported by all NDP and Liberal members, as well as 12 PC MLAs. It was actually supported by all NDP and LIberal members who showed up to vote, as well as 12 PC MLAs. We apologize for the lack of clarity.
    Apr 11, 2014 2:09 PM MT