The political seas of in Alberta continue to be rough.
For the last two months, Jim Prentice has effectively set the political agenda in Alberta. Today he is in reactive mode. After slaying the Wildrose (Wild Woes?) dragon on the right, the Alberta Progressive Conservatives got a surprise flanking on the left, led by Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman and her successful introduction of Bill 202, a private members' bill that would provide protections for kids wanting to form gay-straight alliance (GSA) peer support groups in schools.
Although technicalities of parliamentary procedure will likely result in her bill disappearing, she has managed to force the PC government's hand on the issue and Prentice is scrambling this weekend to draft Bill 10, his party's own counter-legislation.
Before diving into the politics, let's get the scientific facts on the table:
- Being gay is not a choice and is, therefore, not a moral choice. Furthermore, gays cannot recruit and change a person's sexual orientation any more than a straight person can convert a gay person.
- LGBTQ youth are a higher risk of discrimination, abuse, bullying, and suicide.
- GSAs in schools are proven to reduce these harms in LGBTQ youth.
- School boards and schools with anti-homophobic policies reduce the suicide risk for both heterosexual and homosexual students.
- Sexual orientation "reparative" therapies have been discredited and are considered harmful.
Not only is this science; it is consistent with the majority of Canadians who see acceptance of gay and lesbian rights as a social value.
In an obviously very carefully worded statement at a recent news conference, Prentice appeared to be dancing on the head of a pin when he gave us a sketch of what he is proposing:
- To amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to explicitly include "sexual orientation as prohibited grounds for discrimination" and to "cement the right of parents to make informed decisions about their children's education".
- To move advance notification to parents requirements regarding discussions in classrooms of religion, sexual health, and sexual orientation from the Alberta Human Rights Act to the School Act and the Education Act.
- To create anti-bullying provisions that will have the "full force of law."
While we haven't seen the text of his proposed legislation -- and none of these broad sweeping policy proposals have had any public consultations -- will Prentice get it right? Or will his legislation be a veiled smokescreen of political compromise that provide loopholes that effectively support discrimination of LGBTQ youth?
Unfortunately, the early indications are not good.
On the surface, a school club is a school club. If a school's administration blocks the creation of a GSA, then it is discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Pure and simple.
Digging deeper, if an 11-year old wants to create a GSA in their elementary school, Prentice reassures them that they "will have clear legal recourse if a school attempts to stand in their way." Of course, they always had legal recourse, but the bigger problem is: why is Prentice putting the onus on 11-year olds to enforce his laws? Shouldn't the government be responsible for holding school boards and schools accountable? Shouldn't the government enforce its own laws?
What's worse, if we use as a yardstick the duration of the protracted gay discrimination legal battle the Alberta PC government ultimately lost at the Supreme Court against Delwin Vriend, this so-called "legal recourse" could take so long to resolve that the child pursuing it will have moved on to another junior high or high school, possibly graduated, or worse, have committed suicide. Case closed -- and coffin nailed shut -- for the PCs.
And there we have the veiled smokescreen: figuratively protect children with the law, but literally kill them with legal process.
If the "Lake of Fire" fiasco that cost the Wildrose the last election is any indication, Albertans overwhelmingly vote against a party that smells of promoting homophobia, so there is no need to seek a "safe middle ground" on this wedge issue. In fact, the "middle ground" is not so politically safe for right wing parties. In two years, it will be far less safe.
So why is Prentice talking tough but actually equivocating on an issue for which he clearly has overwhelming public support?
It is truly puzzling. The reality is that this is politics, so let's address the elephant in the room: religion, its propensity for enshrining in doctrine that homosexuality is immoral, and whether fully supporting LGBTQ youth will translate to lost votes that will cost the PCs the next general election.
Prentice seems to be afraid that a vocal minority will somehow get traction by crying encroachment on freedom of religion or arguing that parental rights have been infringed upon by the state imposing its values on our children.
NEWSFLASH: If you add "sexual orientation" to the Alberta Bill of Rights as prohibited grounds for discrimination, you have imposed this value on all Albertans, not just its children. In fact, the whole point of doing this is to target those individuals who do not hold this as a value.
Since the vast majority of Albertans support this, why would the government settle for half measures? And given that GSAs and anti-homophobic policies reduce harm for all students, why wouldn't all school boards actively embrace them?
Are they just afraid of having the debate about homosexuality versus religion? Where is the courage of their convictions?
The Edmonton Public School Board had the courage and faced the debate head on. When its explicitly anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic policy was proposed, religious groups and parents of gay kids alike made their respective cases. It came down on the side of protecting children over protecting religion and the result was a clear, unambiguous sexual orientation and gender identity policy. Edmonton Catholic Schools opted for the more wishy-washy, general "anti-bullying policy" as its compromise. (The gay and trans kids must just know that this means they are protected, too, right?) Today, there are about 50 GSAs in non-Catholic schools in Alberta and zero in Catholic schools.
Remember, too, that Catholic schools are publicly funded and that non-Catholic students also attend them. So then why do elected Catholic School Board Trustees fail to implement explicitly anti-homophobic policies that protect all children from harm? Why do elected Catholic School Board Trustees allow an effectively hostile environment for GSAs to persist? Is the unelected Archdiocese of Edmonton (which covers most of Alberta) putting pressure on Catholic School Board Trustees? If so, it should be open about it. Let's have that public debate with the church. It's public money, after all.
The Catholic church's position on homosexuality is as out of tune with science as was its position with Galileo and the Earth orbiting the sun. Although the Archdiocese of Edmonton does not explicitly say anything publicly on its website about opposing GSAs, the general tone towards them can be inferred from the Pastoral Letter to Young People, wherein the Catholic Church says "sexuality is a gift from God and a fundamental part of what makes us human" but then goes on to say that "persons who experience attraction to those of the same sex are also called to chastity" and that "homosexual acts are objectively wrong." (Oh really? I guess expressing sexuality is only a gift from God to straight people.)
The Catholic church is not only out of tune with science, its out of tune with its own membership:
While close to one in two Canadians viewed themselves as Roman Catholic, a majority were
exhibiting a pick and choose style that was readily evident in declining attendance, the selective
adoption of beliefs, practices, and values, and the widespread ignoring of church teachings in the
area of sexuality -- including sex outside marriage, birth control, abortion, and homosexuality.
The vast global scope of the Catholic Church pedophile rape and sexual abuse cases has appalled its own followers. The bottom line is that it no longer has the moral authority or the credibility to advocate for protection of children.
Elected Catholic School Trustees, on the other hand, have the legal responsibility to do so. If this brings elected trustees and Premier Prentice into conflict with religious authority, then let the debate begin. It is not just an election at stake; it is the well-being of all our children.