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'Balancing' rights by making bigotry easier? The Prentice Government's Bill 10 is a disgrace

Laurie Blakeman

Last week, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice tried to frame Bill 10, the hastily cobbled-together response to Bill 202 that we'll get to read moments before it's introduced this week, as an effort to balance the rights of LGBTQ students with those of parents and school boards.

Bill 202, Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman's private member's bill, would require any school where students concluded there was a need for a gay-straight alliance to permit one to operate on school premises.

Bill 202 has become a hot issue among social-conservative MLAs in Prentice's so-called Progressive Conservative caucus, who are agitated and frightened at how it's been gathering all-party support. It's a concern to the premier’s strategic brain trust because they know voting against it would have made the PC caucus look like bigoted homophobes -- which, under the circumstances, might be a reasonable conclusion.

So Bill 10 was the premier's response, and it smacked of the same panic-driven lack of planning evident in his now nearly forgotten "term limits" fumble during last summer's leadership campaign, his only major misstep up to now.

The premier's claims about Bills 10 and 202 raise two serious questions:

1)    If students decide they need a gay-straight alliance at their school, how does this infringe on the rights of anyone else?

2)    What rights do anti-GSA school boards, school officials, parents and students have that need to be protected by legislation?

After all, no one would be forced to join a GSA under Bill 202, the legislation proposed by Blakeman, an Alberta Liberal. It's not even as if not joining a GSA would imply a student is homophobic or would require students to reveal sincerely held religious scruples. Not joining would indicate only that they had other interests, or for that matter no interests at all. "I'm too busy with the chess club," would suffice as an answer.

So perhaps Prentice could take the time this week when he introduces his new legislation with the misleading title of an Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect our Children to tell us just what rights the formation of a GSA would, or could, infringe upon. Where's the need for balance he talks about?

Certainly students' rights to free association, free assembly and free expression are being violated if they are not permitted to form a GSA, but we recognize that schools are not public places and, in the words of our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, may be places where it is necessary to impose "reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society."

So what is reasonable -- in this technical, legal and constitutional sense -- about denying children the right to form a GSA in the safe environs of their school? You tell us, Mr. Premier.

This segues naturally to Question 2: What rights are being protected here -- or, should we say, what "rights"?

Now, supporters of the premier's deceptively named and manipulatively introduced legislation are bound to say the right in question is freedom of conscience and religion, as guaranteed by Section 2 (a) of the Charter.

OK. So how is that right infringed by the existence of a GSA under a school's roof?

Does it infringe your freedom of conscience and religion if I decide to attend St. Matthew's Anglican Church, which is just down the street from my house in St. Albert, on Sunday morning? By the same token, how does it infringe your kid’s freedom of conscience and religion if my kid decides to join a GSA at her school? Or, for that matter, how does it infringe your freedom? Or that of the social-conservative school trustee you managed to elect? Or the school's sincerely religious principal?

The obvious answer is that it doesn't. You can believe whatever you wish and conduct yourself accordingly -- as long as it doesn't involve illegal behaviour, such as promoting hatred for an identifiable group.

But what, I can just hear some bright spark wondering, if your kid wants to join a GSA and you don't want him to? Well, then, I guess you've got a problem -- or, at least, your kid has a problem with you -- but it’s not a Charter problem.

So, sorry, it's not a question of your fundamental rights because it doesn't involve any of your fundamental rights -- though it may eventually become a question of your child's.

But if we're not protecting any of the fundamental rights mentioned in the Charter -- and we've dealt with them all in the preceding paragraphs -- what rights are we protecting?

The "right" to bully? Prentice and his caucus will huff and puff about this characterization and dismiss it as outrageous, but it's obvious just the same that this will be the impact of the bill he intends to introduce this week, and may as well be the intent of some or all of the social conservatives in his caucus.

We all just want the best for our kids, PC supporters will say. Well, sorry about that too, but that claim is demonstrably untrue and those social conservatives, not all, who demand Old Testament penalties for Bronze Age transgressions in 21st Century society prove that this is so.

So it's said here that, given the only legislative alternative, any Progressive Conservative MLA who wants to see Bill 202 dropped from the Legislative agenda on the obviously false grounds that Bill 10 will do the same thing, only better, is not doing what is needed to "protect our children." What’s more, they know it.

Bill 10 will permit bullying against LGBTQ young people to continue unabated in our schools. And not just, LGBTQ young people, by the way, but every kid who is made the victim of homophobic harassment regardless of the victim’s actual sexual preference.

Bill 10 will not just allow bullying and the promotion of hatred, but because of its completely bogus tilt toward the "right" of adults to preach hateful views, will actually encourage them.

Bill 10 will deny young people access to a safe and effective mechanism that research indicates prevents suicides, and which common sense strongly suggests will reduce persecution by schoolyard bullies and their adult enablers.

And for what? So that a weak PC caucus divided on this issue -- just like our society is divided on this issue -- can appear to be strong and to speak with one voice?

Bill 10 is nothing more than a face-saving, do-nothing, tactical legal manoeuvre to placate bigots in the PC caucus and among Alberta's electorate.

The Opposition needs to make these points when Bill 202 is debated today, as it should be during the limited time the House devotes to private business. If the government moves to kill Bill 202 on the grounds both bills address the same issue, the Opposition should argue they in fact have the opposite intent.

If we had a "Truth in Legislation Law," which arguably we should, Bill 10 would be called "an Act to Cynically make the Tories Look United When They're Really Divided While Encouraging Bigotry and Bullying and Putting Young People's Lives in Danger."

It's a disgrace.

And so, if you ask me, is any PC MLA who supports Premier Prentice's bait-and-switch tactic in which the government would replace a bill that could do some good with one that will do none, and may do harm.

You know who you are. And after the dust settles, so will everyone else.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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