Thursday, December 4, 2014

As New Pressure Mounts Alberta Government Amends Gay Law

The Alberta government is amending its bill dealing with gay support groups for students in the face of stiff pressure from critics and even from some in its own caucus. | Walter Bibikow via Getty Images
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press
The Alberta government, facing mounting resistance on a controversial bill, put forward an amendment Wednesday that opponents say could effectively segregate some gay schoolkids who want to form support clubs.

The amendment stipulates that if a school disallows a gay-straight alliance, the government would create one for students, though it does not say whether that would take place in school or somewhere off-site.

Opposition politicians, in an emotional sitting of the house, called that a revival of the reviled "separate but equal" Jim Crow laws used more than a generation ago in the U.S. to segregate and degrade African-Americans.

"It's institutionalized apartheid of gay students," NDP critic Brian Mason told the legislature in a heated, passionate debate that continued into the evening.

PC backbencher Sandra Jansen, who brought the amendment forward, lashed back.

"Our end goal here is very simple," she said. "We are trying to make sure that every child in every school in this province has the opportunity to take part in a (gay-straight alliance).

"To go to a place where you bring up terms like segregation is very unhelpful to this conversation."

The amendment was introduced by the PCs to try to recapture the political initiative on an issue that is growing to symbolize how Alberta views and treats homosexuals.

Gay-straight alliances are after-school clubs made up of gay students and their classmates to help gay students feel welcome and to prevent them from being abused and bullied. Statistics in other jurisdictions show the rate of suicide among gay youth drops significantly when a school has a GSA.

GSAs operate with no problem in many public schools in Edmonton and Calgary, but there has been fierce resistance to them from officials in faith-based and rural schools.

The Tories, facing an opposition private member's bill this session that would order all schools to set up GSAs if students wish them, replaced it this week with Bill 10.

Bill 10 does not give students the right to set up the GSAs but instead leaves the final decision to the school and school board, with ultimate recourse to the courts.

That has led to a firestorm of criticism, splintering the ranks of Tory supporters and leading to Wednesday's amendment that was so hastily written, it wasn't ready when debate began.

Premier Jim Prentice, who is away this week, has allowed his caucus members to vote their conscience, and on Wednesday the ranks of dissenters grew.

Thomas Lukaszuk said Bill 10 has become one of the defining moments in the province's history and a chance for politicians to tell the world what Alberta stands for.

PC backbencher Doug Griffiths said schools are there to teach, not judge.

"There is no way I would accept a school board of any religious background or non-religious background to dictate to my sons whether or not they’re allowed to partner with gay students to set up a gay-straight alliance," said Griffiths.

Calgary PC backbencher Jason Luan compared Bill 10 to anti-Chinese discrimination laws and urged his fellow members to be on "the right side of history."

The bill has been criticized by other Tories outside the chamber and by members of the public.

Josh Traptow, the president of the Calgary-Bow PC association, resigned Wednesday in protest of Bill 10.

The Tories have been skewered on social media as backward hillbillies. One cartoon has gone viral depicting the inside of a descending airplane. The captain, over the intercom, welcomes passengers to Alberta "where the local time is 1963."

In Calgary, Stampeders star running back Jon Cornish said as a victim of racial discrimination, he can't abide any legislation that separates and diminishes people.

Cornish told reporters that the Canada he knows is better than Bill 10.

"Canada is a progressive, thoughtful nation," he said. "Stuff like (Bill 10) I think is just an anomaly in our overall progress."

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