Manitoba's education minister says homophobia is present among members of the opposition Tories who are critical of Bill 18, the NDP government's anti-bullying bill.

Nancy Allan had strong words on Thursday for Progressive Conservative MLAs who have criticized Bill 18, which would require all schools in Manitoba to accommodate student anti-bullying clubs, including gay-straight alliances.

Allan told CBC News the Tories are speaking out against Bill 18 "because they just don't like it," and had this to say about the MLAs who sit across from her in the legislature.

"Some of the members across the way, quite frankly, I would have to say — there is still homophobia in our society, and I'm seeing it across the way," she said.

Religious groups and some faith-based schools oppose Bill 18, arguing that it infringes on religious freedoms. City councillors in Steinbach, Man., have been asking the province to review the bill.

Minister's remark 'tasteless,' says critic

The proposed legislation has also been criticized by the provincial Tories and federal Conservative MP Vic Toews.

Responding to Allan's remarks on Thursday, Progressive Conservative education critic Kelvin Goertzen said, "The minister's comments are tasteless and without merit. They also constitute a form of bullying."

Goertzen said Bill 18 has no teeth and won't protect children.

"In a year from now, we're still going to be doing interviews about kids being bullied and who are going to different schools to find safety, because this bill won't improve their safety," he said.

But Allan accused the Tories of being out of touch with the reality students face today.

"Unfortunately, there are some opposition members across the way that don't like this legislation. They don't want to see gay-straight alliances in schools. They don't understand how important this is," she said.

The Tories are planning to introduce amendments to the bill, but Goertzen would not specify what kind of changes they want to see.

School divisions back bill

Meanwhile, some of Manitoba's largest school divisions are showing their support for Bill 18.

Officials with the Brandon School Division and the Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg say they believe the legislation will help students feel safer.

"We took a very strong stand on it because we believe that if there's anything we can do to make the whole school experience better, safer, more secure for kids, they're going to learn more," said Mark Sefton, the Brandon division's board chair.

Seven Oaks superintendent Brian O'Leary said schools in his divisions already have support groups for gay students.

"If we don't focus on kids that are the targets of racist remarks — or kids that are targets of homophobic remarks — and name those behaviours and go after them, then we won't succeed in making schools safe places," he said.

"We know that one of the most targeted groups of students are kids who are homosexual or questioning their sexuality or even appear to be, and that one of the most common insults kids use is homophobic insults," he added.

The Manitoba government says along with Seven Oaks and Brandon, the following school divisions and organizations are supporting Bill 18:

  • Interlake School Division.
  • Winnipeg School Division.
  • Louis Riel School Division.
  • Red River Valley School Division.
  • Manitoba School Boards Association.
  • Manitoba Association of School Superintendents.
  • Manitoba Association of Parent Councils.
  • Manitoba Teachers' Society.
  • Canadian Federation of Students.