Thousands of students protest UCP's GSA plan with Alberta-wide walkout

Thousands of Alberta students — carrying signs like "Hey, Kenney, leave us alone: The Gays" and "Are your tax cuts more important than queer youth?" — walked out of their classes Friday morning to protest the new UCP government's position on gay-straight alliances.

Advocates say parental notification could lead to dangerous situations at home

Thousands of Alberta students walked out of their classes Friday in protest of the new United Conservative Party government's position on gay-straight alliances in a student-led, provincewide effort that spans nearly 90 schools. (Tiphanie Roquette/Radio-Canada/CBC)

Thousands of Alberta students — carrying signs like "Hey, Kenney, leave us alone: The Gays" and "Are your tax cuts more important than queer youth?" — walked out of their classes Friday morning to protest the new UCP government's position on gay-straight alliances (GSAs). 

The United Conservative Party intends to overturn a law that prohibits schools from telling parents when their child joins a GSA. However, Premier Jason Kenney repeated Friday that his party's plan would maintain "the strongest legal protection for gay-straight alliances in the country."

The student-led protests spanned about 90 schools across the province, with participating teens stepping out of their classrooms at 9:30 a.m. MT for 20 minutes.  Many schools saw dozens to hundreds of students walk out — despite snow falling in Edmonton, Fort McMurray and other parts of northern Alberta.

  • Scroll through the blog below to see tweets, photos and video from the protests around the province:

LGBTQ rights advocates say notifying parents who do not approve of their child's sexuality could lead to suicides and dangerous situations at home. The risk of being outed, they say, would deter kids from joining clubs and finding support.

"We think that this is a problem because in some cases parents might not be very accepting of their child and it could pose a danger to their child. This is not to say that all parents are going to do this but there are definitely some," Grade 10 student Aimee told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"Additionally, we believe that it should be up to the child themselves of when they want to come out and how they want to come out."

Many schools saw dozens to hundreds of students, many carrying signs of protest, walk out despite snow falling in Edmonton, Fort McMurray and other parts of northern Alberta. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Many students, like Alyssa Gabriel, echoed that message. Gabriel, who is gay, studies in Edmonton, and although her parents are supportive, she marched for her friends.

"I have a lot of gay friends who think the GSA is very important to them, and it's their little safe space and they have homophobic parents," Gabriel said.

"But now with this [proposed] rule, it's not like a safe space anymore. They can't be there anymore 'cause they don't want to tell their parents they're gay because they might get kicked out."

Alyssa Gabriel, a student in Edmonton, says her parents are very supportive of her. However, she says she has friends who haven't been so lucky and can't come out to their parents. (CBC)

Protesters held signs with slogans, such as, "Hey, Kenney, leave us alone — The Gays," "Are your tax cuts more important than queer youth?" and "It's my choice, not yours. #KeepOurSafeSpacesSafe."

Sean Ruhland, one of hundreds of students who marched at William Aberhart High School in northwest Calgary, said his school's GSA was helpful when he came to terms with his identity as a gay transgender man.

Student Sean Ruhland says he's protesting to help future students, as he is graduating this year. (Nelly Alberola/Radio-Canada)

He's graduating this year and said he wanted to protect other students' ability to come out to their parents on their own time.

"[The UCP] do not care. They do not care about youth, they do not care about future generations," Ruhland told Radio-Canada. "And they simply do not care about the quality of education in schools."

Not every school had large turnouts, though.

At Bishop Grandin High School in southwest Calgary, for example, fewer than 10 people took part.

One student told CBC they felt the walkout wasn't well-advertised, or worse, they worried that other students didn't care.

Only a few protested at Wheatland Crossing School but one student, Grant Carson, wrote on social media, "Our voice matters. Even in a small school."

Only a few students protested Friday at Wheatland Crossing School in Standard, but they say their voices are important, too. (Grant Carson)

Other Albertans honked their car horns while passing protesters or shared their support of the students by posting on social media. Members of MacDougall Church in Edmonton marched to support students at Allendale School, as well.

Students protest outside Western Canada High School in Calgary. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Former NDP education minister David Eggen attended the protest at Victoria School of the Arts in Edmonton, where students chanted, "Save our GSAs," and "Hey, Jason, leave our kids alone."

"Jason Kenney and his caucus seem bound and determined to out gay kids, to remove that safe place, that safe sanctuary," Eggen told reporters. "We're here to stand together to oppose that and to stop him."

MLA Sarah Hoffman, former NDP health minister, attended at Ross Sheppard School in Edmonton, where about 50 students protested.

Dozens of students from two high schools marched through central Fort McMurray. (Dawson White)

Student organizers said they kept it short so students could take a stand without missing much class time and encouraged people to seek parental permission as some schools said they would count it as an unexcused absence.

'They are fearful'

Teacher Kevin McBean, who is the GSA faculty sponsor at M.E. LaZerte School in Edmonton, says his school's club is a social space for kids to discuss social issues, watch movies and make pizza.

"Certainly many of my students aren't necessarily out to their parents, or if they are, it's already a rather contentious issue at home," McBean said in advance of the protests.

Zach Yeung, a student at M.E. Lazerte School, will be part of Friday's walkout. Kevin McBean is the faculty sponsor for the school's GSA. (Ariel Fournier/CBC)

"The GSA provides them with a space where they can be themselves and just connect with other people, and so I think they are fearful that these kinds of policies could hurt them."

UCP promises 'strongest legal protection' in country for GSAs

Legislation came into effect under the previous NDP government  in 2017 that protects the establishment of gay-straight alliance, or GSA, school groups. The law also prohibits schools from telling parents when their child joins the group.

The UCP, which was sworn in on Tuesday after winning the recent provincial election, plans to give Alberta schools the discretion to inform parents of their child's participation in a GSA.

That announcement has been criticized by LGBT advocates, school administrators and teachers across Alberta, and sparked protests in Calgary and Edmonton during the election campaign.

Upon Kenney's victory, the students organized the mass protest.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, shown on election night after the UCP won the provincial election, says: 'We're keeping our election commitment, which is to modernize the Education Act in Alberta and to maintain the strongest legal protection for gay-straight alliances in the country.' (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Kenney has said he would replace the NDP's Bill 24 with the seven-year-old Education Act — in essence removing some legal protections for Alberta LGBTQ students and school staff.

The Education Act, proposed under the former Progressive Conservative Party, does not have the change the NDP passed, including:

  • The requirement for school principals to grant student requests for GSAs.
  • The requirement for private schools to have public policies on protecting LGBTQ students.

Kenney has said that the UCP's proposed Education Act would still protect GSAs,

At an Edmonton event in March, he said that parents would only be notified by school staff of their child's involvement in rare cases — a position he reiterated when reached Friday.

"We're keeping our election commitment, which is to modernize the Education Act in Alberta and to maintain the strongest legal protection for gay-straight alliances in the country," Kenney said ahead of the rally.

"It's great to see young people taking an active interest in issues. I'd suggest better for them to do rallies or protests after school hours and not during them. We want to make sure young people are actually learning in class instead of doing politics."

University of Calgary political scientist Melanee Thomas said on Twitter that she felt students had to protest during school hours as many take long bus rides to get home at the end of the day.

"Goal is to be inclusive," she Tweeted.

Schools where students protested

The following schools are among those with students participating:

  • A.E. Cross School (Calgary).
  • Alternative High School (Calgary).
  • Allendale School (Edmonton).
  • Altadore School (Calgary).
  • Archbishop O'Leary High School (Edmonton).
  • Ardrossan Junior Senior High (Ardossan, east of Sherwood Park).
  • Balmoral School (Calgary).
  • Beaumont Composite High School (Beaumont).
  • Bert Church High School (Airdrie).
  • Bev Facey Community High (Sherwood Park).
  • Bishop Carroll High School (Calgary).
  • Bishop David Motiuk Catholic (Edmonton).
  • Bishop Grandin High School (Calgary).
  • Bob Edwards Junior High School (Calgary).
  • Branton Junior High School (Calgary).
  • Calgary Academy.
  • Calgary Arts Academy.
  • Canmore Collegiate High School (Canmore).
  • Captain Nichola Goddard School (Calgary).
  • Centennial High School (Calgary).
  • Central Memorial High School (Calgary).
  • Charles Spencer High School (Grande Prairie).
  • Chestermere High School (Chestermere).
  • Chinook High School (Lethbridge).
  • Clover Bar Junior High (Sherwood Park).
  • Connect Charter School (Calgary).
  • Crescent Heights High School (Calgary).
  • David Thomas King School (Edmonton).
  • Dr. E.P. Scarlett High School (Calgary).
  • Eastglen High School (Edmonton).
  • Eastview Middle School (Red Deer).
  • École Broxton Park School (Spuce Grove).
  • École McTavish Public High School (Fort McMurray).
  • Elboya School (Calgary).
  • Ernest Manning High School (Calgary).
  • F.E. Osborne Junior High School (Calgary).
  • Florence Hallock School (Edmonton).
  • Fort Saskatchewan High School (Fort Saskatchewan).
  • Foundations for the Future Charter Academy, High School Campus (Calgary).
  • Gateway Christian School (Red Deer).
  • Gilbert Paterson Middle School (Lethbridge).
  • Henry Wise Wood High School (Calgary).
  • Holy Trinity Catholic High School (Edmonton).
  • Hunting Hills High School (Red Deer).
  • Ivor Dent School (Edmonton).
  • J.E. Lapointe School (Beaumont).
  • Jasper Place High School (Edmonton).
  • Joane Cardinal-Schubert High School (Calgary).
  • Johnny Bright School (Edmonton).
  • Kim Hung School (Edmonton).
  • Lacombe Composite High School (Lacombe).
  • Langevin School (Calgary).
  • Lester B. Pearson High School (Calgary).
  • Lillian Osborne High School (Edmonton).
  • Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School (Red Deer).
  • Louis St. Laurent Catholic Junior/Senior High School (Edmonton).
  • M.E. LaZerte High School (Edmonton).
  • Mary Butterworth Junior High School (Edmonton).
  • Master's Academy and College (Calgary)
  • Notre Dame High School (Calgary).
  • Parkview Junior High School (Edmonton).
  • Peter Lougheed School (Calgary).
  • Queen Elizabeth High School (Calgary).
  • École Ross Sheppard High School (Edmonton).
  • Rundle College (Calgary).
  • Salisbury Composite High School (Sherwood Park).
  • Samuel W. Shaw School (Calgary).
  • Senator Joyce Fairbairn Middle School (Lethbridge).
  • Sherwood School (Calgary).
  • Sir John A. Macdonald Junior High School (Calgary).
  • Spruce Grove Composite High School.
  • St Mary's School (Medicine Hat).
  • St. Francis High School (Calgary). 
  • St. Francis Junior High School (Lethbridge).
  • St. Francis Xavier High School (Edmonton).
  • St. Joseph Catholic High School (Edmonton).
  • St. Timothy School (Cochrane).
  • Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School (Okotoks). 
  • Sturgeon Composite High School (Sturgeon County).
  • Thomas B. Riley School (Calgary).
  • Vernon Barford Junior High School (Edmonton).
  • Victoria School of the Arts (Edmonton).
  • Warburg School (Warburg).
  • Wheatland Crossing School. (Standard)
  • W.H. Croxford High School (Airdrie).
  • W.P. Wagner High School (Edmonton).
  • Western Canada High School (Calgary).
  • West Island College (Calgary).
  • Westlawn School (Edmonton).
  • Westminster School (Edmonton).
  • Westmount Charter School (Calgary).
  • Westwood Community High School (Fort McMurray).
  • William Aberhart High School (Calgary).
  • Winston Churchill High School (Lethbridge).

With files from Nelly Alberola, Jennifer Lee, Helen Pike, Calgary Eyeopener, CBC Edmonton