The Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association (RMCLA) has released its final report on public consultations regarding legislation for gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in schools in Alberta. It can be seen at:
On December 4, 2014 Premier Jim Prentice of Alberta suspended passionate public and Assembly debate on bills addressing the formation of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in Alberta schools. At the time, he stated unequivocally that public consultation on the issue would occur before legislative debate continued and before any new legislation was tabled on the matter.
The Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association (RMCLA) initiated independent, non‑partisan public consultations to elicit input from Albertans on the issue of Gay‑Straight Alliances, and created a process to seek input from all Albertans — including those both against and for the formation of GSAs in Alberta schools, whether public, separate, charter or private.
Gay-Straight Alliances are voluntary student-centered school clubs open to all students. As with chess, math and knitting clubs, forming, attending, and participating in GSAs is entirely voluntary: There is no mandatory attendance required of any student; it is a club open to all students.
The RMCLA consultation process, which commenced in December 2014 and ended in February 2015, included public hearings held in Calgary and Edmonton at the end of January 2015 for which over 180 people registered to attend. The public consultations produced responses from a broad cross-section of Albertans. RMCLA also received summaries and recommendations from 9 panellists who presided over the hearings in Calgary and Edmonton. During the public hearings the panellists heard from 19 presenters in Calgary and 18 in Edmonton, and considered a broad range of research, legal, and public commentary when drafting their summaries and recommendations.
A separate opinion poll conducted by RMCLA attracted responses from 2,838 Albertans, 628 of whom gave qualitative comments on GSAs, both for and against. Of these, a matched data set was created to reflect the demographics of Alberta and ensure a representative sample, and this resulted in a matched data set of 1,355 Albertans.
The findings of RMCLA’s public consultations on GSAs indicate that Bill 202 and Bill 10 should be withdrawn, and that new legislation should be introduced regarding GSAs based on a few fundamental principles including the need to:
- Respect for the dignity and worth of all individuals,
- Respect for the right of a denominational school to teach or otherwise prescribe religious instruction or exercise,
- Protect minors from abuse, whether physical, psychological or emotional,
- Uphold fundamental freedoms and human rights, with limitations of those freedoms being subject to a “high bar” test consistent with the principles established by the Supreme Court of Canada and other Courts in relation to section 1 of the Charter,
- Recognize and uphold the mature minor doctrine, such that mature minors are included and given decision-making options for important life decision, including the choice of whether or not to participate in GSAs, and
- Require that school authorities allow GSAs in any school in Alberta, and on school property, when permission to form a GSA is requested by students of that school, and
- Stress the voluntary nature of the formation of GSAs (i.e., ‘when requested by a student of the school’) and the voluntary nature of participation in GSAs, including the right that students may choose not to participate.
The public consultation process revealed that there are no deleterious effects upon religious rights, parental rights or authority, or upon separate school privileges in having GSAs held in any school (including public, separate, charter or private), despite pre-emptive allegations to the contrary (for which none of the presenters offered substantiation).
The fear of loss of rights and actual loss of rights are two distinctly different matters, and the research and public consultation process made it evident that GSAs do not undermine or hinder rights. On the contrary, contributors to RMCLA’s public consultations made it abundantly clear that GSAs enhance rights of association, assembly, expression, religion and conscience for those who voluntarily choose to participate in GSAs. Furthermore, input to the RMCLA public consultations revealed that there are no significant deleterious effects upon the right of association, assembly, expression, religious and conscience for those individuals who attend schools where GSAs exist, but choose not to participate therein.
If any real conflict does exist, then it appears to be the manner in which opposing views about rights and various contentious topics are expressed, rather than in the actual subject matter of the objection. Opening debate in schools, and offering guidance about how to express differing views in a way that respects others’ viewpoints — rather than prohibiting debate about particular subjects — was seen to be in the best interests of students and the province’s duty to protect children.
Given the above, RMCLA recommends the simplest revisions possible to the following statutes be considered in drafting new legislation with respect to the topic of GSAs.
In the Alberta Human Rights Act:
- Add the words “gender identity” as a prohibited ground for discrimination,
- Remove Section 11.1 (the opt-out clause),
- Do not move section 11.1 to any other statute, and do not reposition it to or recreate it within any other legislation, and
- Repeal Section 3 of the Alberta Human Rights Act entirely or, at the very least, repeal subsections 3(1)(b) and 3(2).
In the Alberta Bill of Rights:
- Add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to section 1, and
- Do not add “parental rights” or “parental authority” or equivalent language to the list of rights in this Act or the Alberta Human Rights Act.
In the Education Act:
- Require that all school Boards and other authorities allow GSAs in any school in Alberta that is accredited or otherwise authorized to operate under the School Act (or the Education Act once proclaimed) when permission to form a GSA is requested by a students of any such school;
- Where a school or board refuses or fails in its obligations to establish or permit the establishment of a GSA pursuant to the legislation that school board or school must immediately report that fact to the Minister. The Minister, or the Minister’s designate, would then be obliged to ensure that, acting in the best interest of the requesting student or students, an appropriate club or program is established.
- Permit GSAs to use the name “Gay-Straight Alliance” as part of club names or another name that may include the word “gay” or the word “lesbian”. In other respects students and school administration should be required to work collaboratively to choose respectful and appropriate names for school clubs based on the nature and purpose of such clubs.
- Ensure GSAs are formed on, and their activities are permitted within, the school property that the students requesting the GSA attend; and
- No additional appeal clause is necessary. Where any appeal is authorized in relation to GSAs or any GSA related decision, the obligation and the cost of any such appeal must be placed on schools or boards that wish to make applications to a court.
- Ensure that all schools have codes of conduct that are consistent with both the Alberta Bill of Rights and the Alberta Human Rights Act.
- We also recommend the development of respectful debate and respectful disagreement programs, to be delivered both as part of the regular school curricula and through the auspices of the Alberta Human Rights Commission and other agents of civil society.