Edmonton

Education minister: students who want gay-straight alliances should have them

Alberta students who want gay-straight alliances in their schools should be allowed to have them, and be able to hold their meetings on school property, the province’s education minister says.

Education minister says students who want gay-striaght alliances at school should have them

Education minister Gordon Dirks, whose selection as education minister was initially criticized due to concerns over his evangelical Christian beliefs, talked to families about GSAs at a meeting in Edmonton Thursday night. (CBC)

Alberta students who want gay-straight alliances in their schools should be allowed to have them, and be able to hold their meetings on school property, the province’s education minister says.

Gordon Dirks attended a meeting in Edmonton on Thursday night hosted by a civil liberties group that wants to find out what the public thinks about legislation for GSAs.

Kelly Ernst, president of the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association, said his organization will review the information it gathers then pass it on to the province.

Dirks and a few other Tory MLAs, including former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith,  attended Thursday’s meeting. A similar meeting was held in Calgary on Tuesday.

“There are some important themes that are being repeated,” Dirks said. “And clearly, one of them is that children who desire a GSA should be able to have one. That certainly has been the position of myself and our government.”

“I’ve always felt that if there were going to be GSAs, then we should be able to have them on school property.”

In early December, the government introduced Bill 10 in response to a private member’s bill tabled by Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman.

The government bill, called the Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect our Children, would have allowed students prohibited from forming GSAs by their school boards to ask the Court of Queen’s Bench for a judicial review.

The bill touched off a firestorm of protest and was quickly put on hold.

"We will pull back. We will pause," Premier Jim Prentice said in December at a hastily arranged news conference. “I try to listen and I’ve certainly heard the voices of Albertans. I think it’s important that we get this right.”

Ernst said his civil liberties organization is trying to help the province by holding hearings to get feedback from Albertans about what they want new legislation to look like.

The group will gather recommendations on what type of legislation should go forward, then submit a report to the education minister, the justice minister, the premier and all the MLAs, Ernst said.

Asked about Bill 10, he said: “I think all Albertans were probably glad that it died. Because Ì don’t think it fit what Alberta wanted.”

The proposed Tory legislation, tabled in December, would have given students the option to appeal to the Court of Queen’s Bench if their school refused permission for an alliance.

Public outrage compelled the government to pass an amendment that would have first sent students to the education minister instead. Opposition members said the amendment simply made matters worse by forcing the alliances off school grounds, if the boards objected to them.

“Bill 10 has added to, rather than resolved these divisions,” Prentice said after the bill was put on hold. “And I accept personal responsibility for that as the premier. I’m most disturbed that our gay and lesbian youth are caught in the middle of a very divisive debate.”

Dirks said the debate continues and he wants to hear from all sides before the government drafts new legislation.

“It seems as if every segment of society has something important to say on this issue,” he said. “And I think the reason is because we all care very deeply about the safety of our children. We don’t want children to be bullied in any way. They need safe, caring, protective, respectful environments. That’s my goal as minister of education.”

He wouldn’t comment specifically about Bill 10.

Blakeman, who also attended the meeting, said she hopes Dirks and other members of the government will now see how important the issue is for students across Alberta.

“I hope the minister being here tonight, he will learn why this is so important. He has his own biases. But I need him to lift above that, as a minister, and understand why this is so critical.”

Blakeman noted the government hasn’t so far held its own public hearings on the issue.

“I’m glad to see him here,” she said, “because, frankly, I was pretty annoyed. The minister and the other MLAs here are riding on the coattails of Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association. So, they should be damn grateful.”

Kerry Maguire, consultant for Edmonton Public School Board for sexual orientation and gender identity, said it was “absolutely ridiculous” for the province to suggest that students could go to court to fight for their rights.

“The students who are wanting to start up a GSA, they might still be very unsure about themselves,” Maguire said. “This is a first step for them. And to be told, no, that they can’t do that, and to expect that that student will have the resources to be able to go to the board and try that way, and if they’re not successful … then to take them to court. I just don’t see that as ever being an option. It’s mind-boggling to me that that would ever be an option for students.”