by Tristan Turner
Liberal MLA Kent Hehr introduced Motion 503 to the floor of the Legislative Assembly Apr. 7. The non-binding motion would have supported students wanting to start a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in their school, a group that creates a safe space for students that are both in and outside of the LGBTQ community to discuss how to make their school more inclusive, and how to help each other with issues they may be experiencing. These groups have been proven to reduce feelings of isolation and instances of both bullying and teen suicide. Despite the proven effectiveness of GSAs, Motion 503 was defeated 31-19. The entire Wildrose caucus present for the tabling of the motion voted against it, and twice as many PCs voted against the bill than voted for it.
Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson was one of the many PC MLAs who voted against the motion. The Minister defended his position by saying the question before him was not whether he supported GSAs but whether or not to legislate one in every school. Johnson’s response and those of his colleagues show that he does not fundamentally understand the nature of the motion. Not only would the motion be non-binding, it also requested that legislation be introduced that required “all school boards to develop policies to support students who want to lead and establish gay-straight alliance activities and organizations,” not require the existence of GSAs without students’ request.
MLA Rob Anderson (Airdrie) was among the more vocal opponents and said in a radio debate that elected school boards and local schools are best positioned to create anti-bullying strategies that fit their particular situation. Anderson went on to say a GSA might be a perfect fit in a public school for curbing bullying but a Catholic school or a faith-based school might want a different strategy.
Regardless of whether it is a public or separate school, creating an environment that allows students to support each other and prevent bullying is always a good strategy. There is a lack of evidence to show GSAs are not effective in ‘faith-based’ schools and saying that we should allow school boards to be able to decline a student’s requests to create a healthier and safer school environment is disturbing. While Anderson and the other MLAs, including our own MLA Maureen Kubinec, who voted down the motion claim they care about ending bullying, they have shown they will allow thousands of students across the province to study in school environments that are less safe because of the beliefs of socially conservative school board members.
The bottom line is students in and near our community will be hurt as a result of this motion not being passed. In an interview with CTV Edmonton, an anonymous mother of a child who was enrolled in the Greater St. Albert Catholic School system – a school division that includes Notre Dame Elementary School, Georges H. Primeau and Morinville Community High School – said her son was barred from creating a GSA in his school after the school board disapproved of it. School division Superintendent David Keohane confirmed the mother’s reports, saying the board did not believe a person feels whole and feels that they can be completely embraced in society for who they are by addressing that student in isolation.
Mr. Keohane doesn’t seem to understand the fundamental purpose of GSAs – to engage all members of the school community in a collaborative group that supports a safer and more welcoming school environment. GSAs do not isolate students; they are a place for all students to become involved. With his comments, Keohane has shown that he doesn’t allow for the creation of GSAs in his school system despite not clearly understanding the hard facts about how they operate. It is a mindset that necessitates motions like Motion 503, and it is the children of our community that will bear the price of the Assembly’s inability to pass the motion.
A 2011 national survey revealed 53 per cent of LGBTQ students reported feeling unsafe at school, and 70 per cent reported hearing homophobic language daily in school. As well, three-quarters of transsexual youth reported being verbally abused in the same survey. Around 300 Canadian teenagers commit suicide each year. For each teen suicide it is said there are 10 to 100 unsuccessful attempts. LGBTQ youth are among the most likely to commit suicide according to Health Canada.
Interim Premier Dave Hancock said in question period on Apr. 8 that “It is absolutely against the law for people to allow bullying or to promote bullying in our schools.” By not supporting this motion, and ignoring the bullying of LGBTQ students in schools like Morinville Community High School, there are 31 MLAs that should be in handcuffs if we are to take Hancock’s statement seriously. Thirty-one of our MLA’s have misrepresented their province by not actively acting to ensure that in the 21st Century, all of our students have the opportunity to work towards a safer and more compassionate learning environment. Once again, our two conservative parties show they are unwilling to support legislation that will ensure the safety and happiness of Alberta’s most vulnerable citizens.