11/27/2014 06:08 EST | Updated 01/27/2015 05:59 EST

Prentice Promises New Bill To Protect LGBT Students

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EDMONTON - Alberta Premier Jim Prentice says he will bring in legislation to balance the rights of gays with the rights of parents to bring clarity to an issue bedevilling and dividing legislators.

"This issue has, for far too long, been divisive — in my view, unnecessarily divisive," Prentice told reporters Thursday.

"I believe that the vast majority of Albertans share certain fundamental beliefs and values.

"But during this debate, those values have been manipulated and placed into conflict with one another for political reasons."

Prentice was referring to a private member's bill put forward by Liberal Laurie Blakeman that has reopened a polarizing issue over how Alberta's political parties view the LGBTQ community.

Blakeman's bill would amend Alberta's Human Rights Act to no longer allow parents to pull students out of class when sexual orientation is discussed.

Her bill would also force schools to allow students to set up gay-straight alliances.

Gay-straight alliances are peer support networks that serve as safe havens for gay youth who are being ostracized and bullied due to their sexuality. Studies suggest the alliances help reduce youth suicide.

Prentice had previously promised a free vote on Blakeman's bill but had refused to say how he would vote.

But with reports circulating earlier Thursday of a sharp rift in the Tory caucus over Blakeman's bill, Prentice called a news conference to announce his own legislation.

The bill, which is being written now and will be announced next week, will give students recourse to the school board should a school refuse to allow them to set up a gay-straight alliance, said Prentice.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley noted that students already have that right and that the legislation would change little.

"They've done nothing," she said.

After Prentice's news conference, staff in his office confirmed that the bill will also remove the section in the Alberta Human Rights Act that allows parents to pull children out of class when homosexuality is discussed.

However, the effect of such a change was unclear, as Prentice also promised "to establish within the Alberta Bill of Rights a clause that cements the rights of parents to make informed decisions about the education of their children."

Blakeman said she wants to see the bill, saying the Tories traditionally promise one thing while couching it in broad legal language to allow for the opposite.

"I'm sure they will have a back door to allow parents to opt out of this," said Blakeman. "Why don't (the Tories) have the courage of their convictions?"

The issue divided the legislature in the spring when Liberal Kent Hehr brought forward a non-binding motion to allow gay-straight alliances in schools.

A coalition of Wildrose and Tory members joined ranks to defeat the bill, which was supported by other Tories as well as the Liberals and NDP.

Those against the motion said they didn't want to tie the hands of schools, which must already provide safe, caring learning environments.

But the vote reignited long-standing criticisms that the Tories and Wildrose are bigoted.

Kris Wells, with the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, said while Prentice's proposed changes to gay-straight alliances don't go far enough, removing sexual orientation as a grounds for pulling a student out of class would be a major step forward.

"It's maybe a field goal, but not touchdown," said Wells.

Wells said the change would also erase one of the ironies of the entire debate.

In recent weeks, Prentice has repeatedly said he considers voting for same-sex marriage as a Conservative MP in 2005 to be one of his proudest moments in politics and a symbol of his commitment to equality and progressivism.

But under the current Alberta government, students can be pulled out of class by their parents to avoid being exposed to one of Prentice's crowning achievements.

"That was the whole paradox," said Wells.


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