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Alberta Jason Kenney defends plan to roll back part of Alberta’s law on gay-straight alliances

United Conservative Leader Jason Kenney, seen here on March 22, 2019, released an education platform this week that included repealing a law passed in 2017 by the NDP and reverting to legislation from the final days of former premier Jim Prentice’s government.

CANDACE ELLIOTT/Reuters

The United Conservative Party’s promise to repeal legislation that prohibits Alberta teachers from informing parents when a student joins a gay-straight alliance has revived the debate about the peer-support groups.

UCP Leader Jason Kenney released an education platform this week that included repealing a law passed in 2017 by the NDP and reverting to legislation from the final days of former premier Jim Prentice’s government.

While both laws protect students’ right to start gay-straight alliances, or GSAs, the change would remove provisions that banned teachers and principals from informing parents if a student joins one of the clubs. Mr. Kenney said the UCP’s policy would still offer strong protections for GSA clubs.

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The UCP proposal drew criticism from the New Democrats, who used it as another example in their push to cast Mr. Kenney as an extreme social conservative.

Mr. Kenney said the UCP proposal protects students while ensuring teachers and principals can keep parents in the loop if necessary.

“We think it’s important for kids who might be facing bullying or pressure at home because of their sexuality or other reasons to have peer support,” he told reporters in Edmonton after a campaign event.

“However, we think that using the blunt instrument of the law to tell a teacher that under no circumstances can they communicate with parents is not a moderate approach."

Mr. Kenney said both public and private schools would be required to allow students to start GSAs, as they are now. He suggested parents would only be informed in rare cases, such those involving students with “unique emotional and mental-health challenges.”

Protections for gay-straight alliances became a liability for Mr. Prentice’s Progressive Conservative government, which initially proposed legislation that would have allowed schools to block GSAs. Mr. Prentice’s government reversed course and changed the legislation to make GSAs mandatory when students ask for them.

The NDP passed its legislation in the fall of 2017, arguing that some schools were using loopholes to delay or block the creation of GSA clubs. Nearly the entire UCP caucus voted against the bill.

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Religious school boards objected to both pieces of legislation and a group of 25 schools is challenging the NDP law in court.

Anne McGrath, a senior adviser to Premier Rachel Notley and the NDP’s candidate in Calgary-Varsity, called on Mr. Kenney to reverse his position.

“This is a debate that’s in the past in Alberta, this is something that has been settled with widespread support,” she told reporters at her campaign office. “This is not where Albertans are. Alberta is a modern, diverse, progressive province that supports the rights of all minority groups.”

Serena Shaw, president of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association, which had previously warned of “unintended consequences" from the NDP law, said the province’s publicly funded Catholic school boards are all in compliance with the current law and she wouldn’t expect that to change.

“I think we would just continue with status quo,” Ms. Shaw said in an interview.

The Alberta Teachers’ Association said that Mr. Kenney’s proposal could lead to teachers being pressed to disclose when a student joins one of the groups. President Greg Jeffery said the association, which represents the majority of Alberta’s teachers and school principals, has received no complaints from parents about GSAs.

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Kristopher Wells, an associate professor in the faculty of health and community studies at MacEwan University in Edmonton, pointed to a study from the University of British Columbia, with data gathered in 2008, that showed students were half as likely to have suicidal thoughts in schools that had GSAs. Heterosexual boys were also half as likely to attempt suicide.

While students would still be allowed to form the clubs under Mr. Kenney’s plan, administrators would be able to obstruct the creation of the groups and make joining them difficult, Dr. Wells said.

“We’ll see changes to LGBTQ-inclusive policies,” he said. “What we’ll see is a huge step backwards for supporting some of the most vulnerable students in our schools today.”

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