Reaction in Red Deer to the debate around a bill that could segregate, but still permit, student led gay-straight alliances has ranged from exasperation to a willingness to work with the now paused proposal.
After weeks of fierce debate and a contentious amendment Wednesday night, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice said Thursday debate around the bill would be on hold until after the holiday season. He stressed the need for further consultation with parents, school boards and constituents.
Tony Jeglum, co-chair of the Central Alberta Pride Society, didn’t come out until long after he had left high school in 1998. He said having a gay-straight alliance club in school would have helped him.
“How can we be having this conversation in 2014?” questioned Jeglum. “It boggles the mind.”
The Progressive Conservative government drafted Bill 10 in response to a private member bill from Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, of Edmonton-Centre.
Blakeman’s bill would have required all school boards to develop policies to support students who want to establish gay-straight alliance activities or organizations.
The most recent version of Bill 10, after an amendment was passed on Wednesday night, makes students appeal to the education minister if a school board refuses to support a gay-straight alliance. At that point, the government would create one for students but the club would not be mandated to be on school grounds.
“It’s honestly a lot of shock. You’d think this issue would have been settled years ago,” said Jeglum. “By and large, we have every conceivable right, privilege and responsibility heterosexual people have.
“I’m quite disappointed.”
Bill 10 was on the order paper for third reading on Thursday, but the legislature adjourned before any discussion could occur.
In 2000, Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School became the first high school in Alberta to have gay-straight alliance when a subcommittee of the school’s Students and Teachers Opposing Prejudice organization was formed to discuss sexual orientation discrimination.
Red Deer Public School District trustee board chair Bev Manning said there was a request made at Lindsay Thurber to develop a gay-straight alliance and students are working with the principal on getting it organized.
“We believe in the acceptance and inclusion of all of our students,” said Manning, adding there is no opposition from the board to the creation of a gay-straight alliance.
Paul Mason, Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools superintendent of schools, has been following the debate the past few weeks.
“We will work with the legislation as best we can to follow through on the mandate of the legislation,” said Mason.
“Student groups that support a safe and caring environment, through their activities they demonstrate an understanding and respect for all students, yes we can engage in that conversation. If a student group was to limit participation based on ethnic or racial backgrounds, or abilities or disabilities, sexual orientation, we would have to seriously examine that request.”
Mason said he is unaware and hasn’t heard of any attempt to start a gay-straight alliance in the Red Deer Catholic district.
Conservative MLAs Cal Dallas (Red Deer South) and Kerry Towle (Innisfail-Sylvan Lake) voted in favour of the amendment .
Mary-Anne Jablonski, PC MLA for Red Deer North, said she supports bill 10, but felt it was worth pausing the process to listen to voters at this point.
“I think we’re doing the right thing by pausing and making sure we get it right,” said Jablonski. “Of course I support adding sexual orientation to the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination and of course I support enshrining the rights of parents.
“I support gay-straight alliances within schools, but at the same time I want to hear what parents have to say.”
Towle, who joined the Conservatives from Wildrose last week, tweeted on Thursday that she will not support Bill 10. “I was in favour of the amendment as I hoped it could help — however I will not be supporting Bill 10.”
Wildrose’s Rod Fox (Lacombe-Ponoka) and independent Joe Anglin (Rocky Mountain House-Rimbey) were the only Central Alberta MLAs to vote against the amendment to Bill 10.
In the legislature on Wednesday evening, Anglin called the amendment separate but equal and compared it to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“It’s promoting a philosophy of equal but separate and I’m not going to support that. There is no such thing in my view,” said Anglin.
Fox said the PC government voted against all Wildrose amendments to the bill, which included anti-bullying strategies.
“Without some sort of anti-bullying strategy or alternative, I felt the government’s amendment failed to achieve what the bill originally intended to do, which is protect all students in schools,” said Fox. “The government should have taken more time. They now need to go back to the drawing board and get this legislation right.”
But the broader issue for Anglin is the positives that gay straight alliances hold for students, specifically when it comes to dealing with teen suicide rates.
A study by the University of British Columbia in 2008 showed that the odds of teens having suicidal thoughts were reduced by half in schools that have such groups in place.
“The discussion here is these groups reduce discrimination, but more importantly have a proven record of reducing teenage suicide,” said Anglin.
“If we’re talking about this core value of reducing the teen suicide rate, I’m all for that. To not address the issue or to avoid it or by silence perpetuate it.”
Jeglum said history will decide which politician is on the right side of this issue and it will be interesting to look back five years from now and see who “felt it that important to say no — no, you kids you can’t have a group like that. You can’t have a group with the name gay in it, but you can have a diversity group. So long as it doesn’t actually say gay then it is OK.”