Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Revenge of Bill 10

Nation, with (as many as) 4 hours of time in the Legislative Assembly remaining for the introduction, debate, and voting on a Bill 10 that has been rumoured to be a "page one re-write" - not a moment too soon, I might add - it's worth re-examining how we got to this strange place in the Bill's history.

Government Bills pass. Almost always. The only time that Bills put forward by the Government of Alberta don't pass through the Legislature is when they are so fundamentally flawed that even the Cabinet can't support them. Being a Minister responsible for that kind of Bill will probably earn you a "not ready for prime time" label, and a trip to the back benches the next time there's a cabinet shuffle.

In Bill 10, the Tories brought forward a Bill - through a former junior cabinet minister who had been responsible for, among other items, preventing bullying in schools - intended to address the issue of LGBTQ teens being bullied in school. The solution, the government was well-advised, was to make "Gay/Straight Alliances" available to kids. The research was clear that kids with access to the supportive environment of a club in their school where they could be themselves and be surrounded by peers who accepted them were less likely to suffer from depression and less likely to attempt self-harm.

Let's be real, folks: Being a teenager sucks in a lot of important ways. You're oily. Your arms and legs don't really work properly. At least for the first half of your teenage years, you can't drive. You're always hungry. You start to smell funny. Your taste in music goes off the deep end, and your parents mysteriously turn into completely unreasonable and ignorant people (they'll grow out of it when you hit your twenties). For many of us, if you can think back that far, it REALLY sucked. I was a teen in the 90's. Hypercolour shirts were a choice that still haunt much of my generation to this day. Imagine how much worse it would be if the people around you considered you defective, dirty or lesser because of something you didn't choose.

Yes, I know there are people who maintain, despite all evidence to the contrary, that being gay is, in fact, a choice. That's an academic argument that I'm not prepared to have today - my focus isn't on settling the debate around the nature of human sexual identity and attraction. It's about helping kids feel safe at school - which is a more urgent need at the moment.

Now, you may recall that Bill 10 was brought forward by the Government in response to Laurie Blakeman's Bill 202, which would have made it mandatory for schools to allow GSA's when students asked for them.

In a move that can't really be described as anything but crass political gamesmanship, Bill 10 was introduced - because if you're going to do the right thing as a Legislature, you should be able to brag about how it was your government's idea. Bill 10 effectively killed Bill 202, as it dealt with the same issue. When the GSA's were set up, people wouldn't be thanking the Liberal opposition - they'd be thanking the government. And really, what good is a majority if you can't use it to crush your opponents?

The government's Bill 10 added another wrinkle, though: It gave kids a prescribed recourse in the event that a school elected not to allow the requested GSA (Bill 10, unlike Bill 202, didn't make approval of the GSA mandatory - an effort to protect the government from blowback among more socially conservative populations). If a school or school district didn't approve the GSA, the kids could - wait for it - take their school to court. Yep. Hire a lawyer (budget for $300 an hour, minimum - time to add a few more blocks to that paper route!) and put on your best khakis, you're going in front of a judge to hear your school's lawyer talk about why you shouldn't be allowed to form a club with your fellow students.

The outcry was entirely predictable, entirely justified, and entirely avoidable.

In the aftermath, the Wildrose opposition (remember them, from wayyy back in 2014?) tried to amend Bill 10, to no avail. The amendment to the Bill that DID pass was brought in by the government, and took out the provision that allowed kids to take their rejected case for a GSA to court. Instead, the Education Minister would mandate that a GSA had to be set up when kids asked for one - even if the school said no.

Awesome. Except for the small print...

... if the school said "no", the GSA would be set up somewhere off of school grounds.

So if you need the support of your peer group in a safe setting, and your school has decided not to allow you to have the club on school ground, you've got to walk 5 blocks to the YMCA after school, or hop on the bus to go into the closest town. The A/V club gets a space in the school, but you don't.

The justification for this, we were told, was that the government had to show respect for the beliefs of religious schools who were teaching students a certain moral code. It wouldn't do to impose secular beliefs on a religious school if they were contrary to the deeply-held personal beliefs of the school board, the teachers, the parents, or the students.

Riiiiight. Like the science curriculum in Alberta, which clearly states that "the Earth is over 3 Billion years old. Unless you believe it's only 6,000 years old based on your religion's teachings. In which case, please notify your instructor, and we'll accept either answer." 

The reality, of course, is that the science curriculum makes no such allowance for personal belief. You can still believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old if you choose. That's absolutely your right. But if you give that answer on your science diploma exam, you will be marked as giving an incorrect answer.

And here's where the real problem with that most recent incarnation of the Bill asserts itself: We're not talking about curriculum, here. It's not mandatory for all students to JOIN a GSA. It's up to them whether they want to join it. Nobody's forcing your child to do anything. And if no students in the school request one, the government isn't going to force a deeply religious teacher to sit alone in a classroom at lunchtime with a sign overhead in rainbow colours, supervising an empty room just in case a curious student wanders in.

The fear that a VERY small minority of people seems to have is that the presence of a GSA in a religious school will result in proselytizing about the virtues and benefits of the gay lifestyle. That if there's a GSA in the school, some of "those kids" might trick "MY kid" into being "a gay".

I don't really have a pithy remark to add in response to that fear, because I can't operate on that level of stupidity.

What I CAN add, though, is this: Bill 202, and what I HOPE to see in the "new, improved" Bill 10, would neither force your kids to join a GSA, nor force you to accept LGBTQ kids as equal. If you have your mind made up that these are just confused, sinful kids who haven't been raised properly, you have every right to continue thinking that. You can even teach your kids that value, in your own home. Nobody's denying you that. But when your kid goes to school and picks on some other kid (because intolerance in the name of "helping that kid see the light and saving him/her" is something your kid has learned at home), that bullied kid has a place in the school he can go to be supported and feel safe.

Because while you retain the right to be as supportive or as non-supportive of the LGBTQ minority as you want to at home, our publicly-funded institutions do not have that option. The public employee at your local employment office can't refuse service to coloured people because they believe them to be inferior. The public employee who answers your 9-1-1 call can't hang up on you because your last name is of English origin, and they're from Ireland. And the public employees who are entrusted with teaching but moreover with PROTECTING our children for 40 hours every week can't refuse to give kids a place in the school where they can at the very least support each OTHER.

The education minister has given indications in recent days that the changes to Bill 10 will restore what 2 failed attempts have tried to balance with parental or conscience rights for school districts, and that any kid who WANTS a GSA in their school, will GET a GSA in their school. If this is in fact the case, I hope they give Laurie Blakeman a chance to hang her name - or the name of her mother, to whom Bill 202 was dedicated - onto the Bill somehow as it passes into law. Without Blakeman's work on this issue, it's not clear whether it would ever have come up in the Legislature.

What is clear, though, is this: 82.5% of Albertans favour GSA's in public schools. 77.1% favour them in Catholic schools. This is basically as close to consensus as you can get on a social issue that hasn't been codified for generations.

The time has arrived to get on the right side of history with the third attempt at Bill 10. I hope this cabinet and this government do the right thing. And if school trustees have a problem with following a law designed to protect the kids in their care, I encourage them to either stop taking tax dollars to fund their schools, or to step down and run for the board of the local private school.

Because in my Alberta, we don't publicly fund organizations who put theology ahead of protecting children.

The science is settled. GSA's save lives. Now let our kids have them.