After the “longest debate in the Alberta legislature’s history” last week, Bill 8, the Education Amendment Act, passed its third and final reading. Since its introduction by Premier Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party, Bill 8 has been highly contentious, and has provoked widespread criticism from both the Alberta NDP, and from members of the LGBTQ community and allies.
The controversy around Bill 8 is focused primarily on its removal of several protections for Gay Straight Alliances that the former NDP government enacted in 2017. Under the new law, principals will no longer have a time limit to grant students’ requests to create a GSA and to appoint a club advisor, and students will no longer be guaranteed the right to include words like “gay” and “queer” in their club names. Most prominently, though, Bill 8 removes protections for the privacy of students in GSAs—once enacted, teachers will no longer be prohibited from disclosing to parents if their children have joined a GSA.
Critics of Bill 8 have expressed concern that removing the explicit privacy protections for students in GSAs may result in LGBTQ students feeling less comfortable and safe seeking support and community through GSAs, for fear of being outed to their parents. The Alberta UCP maintains that Alberta will still have the strongest and most comprehensive protections for GSAs in the country, and that existing privacy legislation (the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act for public schools and the Personal Information Protection Act for private schools) will ensure that parents would only be notified of their child’s participation in a GSA in “extreme circumstances where there is a chance of harm.” However, such statements have done little to reassure the apprehensions of LGBTQ people and allies that the policy changes will not have negative impacts on LGBTQ students in schools. Since the introduction of Bill 8, several protests and student walkouts have taken place across the province, as critics have attempted to register their concern with the government over these policy changes.
Studies have shown that the presence of GSAs in schools helps prevent homophobic bullying and discrimination, and reduces suicidal ideation amongst LGBTQ students as well as straight students. Elizabeth Saewyc, professor at the University of British Columbia, explained that: “We know LGBTQ students are at higher risk for suicide, in part because they are more often targeted for bullying and discrimination. But heterosexual students can also be the target of homophobic bullying. When policies and supportive programs like GSAs are in place long enough to change the environment of the school, it’s better for students’ mental health, no matter what their orientation.”
Despite the demonstrated positive effects GSAs have in schools, the Alberta government has passed legislation undermining protections previously enacted to ensure that schools create GSAs in a timely manner, and do not disclose student participation to parents. These measures will likely impact the availability of supportive communities for LGBTQ youth at a critical time in their lives, and may discourage student participation in GSAs for fear of being outed to their families without warning or consent. LGBTQ students have the right to safe, supportive, and inclusive school environments, which the passage of Bill 8 may undermine their ability to realize.
This blog post was written by a CCLA summer law volunteer. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCLA
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