WINNIPEG - A rally to mark the annual International Day Against Homophobia took a political turn in Manitoba on Thursday, as hundreds chanted in favour of the province's controversial anti-bullying bill.
The crowd outside the legislature cheered as NDP Education Minister Nancy Allan promoted Bill 18 — a proposed law that would require schools to accommodate gay-straight alliance groups. Allan lashed out at critics who say the idea violates the religious freedom of faith-based schools.
"They do not understand the reality that our young people are facing in today's society and in our schools because they are out of touch," Allan told the crowd.
"We know that gay-straight alliances contribute to making our schools safer for all students, and they create a more inclusive school climate, and they save lives."
The debate over Bill 18 has become so acrimonious, Allan accused the opposition Progressive Conservatives in an interview with CBC last month of exhibiting homophobia.
Allan found lots of support in Thursday's crowd. Some students talked about their own experiences being bullied and establishing gay-straight alliances as a means of finding support.
Jennifer Howard, Manitoba's labour minister who is openly gay, called on the Tories to change their mind.
"If we could have every member of this legislature ... stand together in support of Bill 18, even if we don't think it's the most perfect piece of legislation ever put forward, that would send a tremendous message to our community that we stand together against fear, against bullying," Howard told the crowd.
The Tories have a list of criticisms of the bill. They oppose the fact that it promotes gay-straight alliance groups but not groups that might promote ethnic or religious equality. The Tories also argue the wording of the bill is so vague — its definition of bullying includes hurting someone's feelings — that it could make bullies out of everyone.
The Tories also say, and they're backed by some religious leaders, that private faith-based schools should not be forced to accept gay-straight alliances. Schools can prevent bullying while also continuing to teach their beliefs, Tory education critic Kelvin Goertzen has said.
The Tories have also pointed to the fact that the bill contains no specific penalty for bullying. School officials are left to decide what, if any, punishment should be handed out, based on codes of conduct developed by school divisions which vary across the province.
While Nova Scotia's NDP government has a bullying bill that allows that province's education minister to set down specific penalties, Allan said Manitoba is leaving the decision at the local level.
"Every situation is different and we will rely on the professionals in our system to figure out exactly what should happen to the bully. They're very, very good at this."
Bill 18 is scheduled to undergo public hearings in the coming weeks before being passed into law. The NDP government, which has a strong majority in the legislature, is not open to the changes suggested by the Tories, Allan said.