Maneuver to derail Alberta gay-straight alliance bill shows Prentice Tories will tolerate bullying for political gain

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Laurie Blakeman, veteran Alberta Liberal MLA for Edmonton-Centre, flanked by a couple of her friends at the 2014 Edmonton Pride Parade. Below: Premier Jim Prentice and Education Minister Gordon Dirks.

By choosing yesterday to put the right of citizens to use their religious beliefs as an excuse for bigotry on the same level as the right of citizens not to be victims of bigotry, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice and his Progressive Conservative Government chose to tolerate, if not encourage, anti-gay bullying in schools.

Sorry, but that’s just the way it is.

No matter what’s in Mr. Prentice’s promised amendments to the Education Act, the Human Rights Act and the Alberta Bill of Rights – introduced in an unholy rush yesterday to derail Edmonton-Centre Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s snowballing private member’s bill that would have forced schools to permit students to organize gay-straight alliances – there just ain’t no way to square this circle.

Sometimes fundamental rights are in conflict. Those are the times we expect our politicians to earn their big salaries and make a decision. If they can’t, we have a Charter of Rights and judges to help them.

Mr. Prentice has chosen not to exert his leadership to do the right thing.

The right thing for Mr. Prentice to have done yesterday would have been to tell his PCs to say clearly the right to be free of bullying outweighs the right to bully in the name of religion by instructing his MLAs to vote for Bill 202 next week.

Because what Ms. Blakeman’s Bill 202 would have done was allow students at any school to organize gay-straight alliances to counter, through mutual support and moral suasion, the effects of bullying. Nothing more.

Note that Bill 202 would have in no way interfered with the right of anyone to decide any activity was a mortal sin, or to teach that to their children.

All it would have done is allow students morally support one another in the face of bullying and to speak up – in a safe environment – to respectfully disagree with some parents’ opinions, inevitably presented as facts derived from a Higher Authority, when they are communicated to other people’s children.

Well, Mr. Prentice and his Progressive Conservatives did make a decision.

Their decision is that the right to express religious beliefs that, ipso facto, encourage bullying and prejudice trumps the right to take reasonable non-violent measures against bullying and prejudice.

Why this happened is pretty obvious: they are on a crusade, if I may use that term, to win well-organized and politically active social-conservative voters back from the Wildrose Party, and if the price of that is a few students left defenceless in the face of bullying, well, they don’t care a fig! I guess we now know what conservatives think about “barbaric cultural practices” that originate in our own culture.

It can be inferred from what Mr. Prentice said yesterday afternoon that he and his caucus have decided parents will continue to have the right to pull their children out of school rather than see them instructed in the norms of decent behaviour our society expects from its citizens when they deal with other citizens. Only now they’ll have it through the Education Act, instead of the Human Rights Act.

It may even be possible – we don’t know yet because, by the sound of it, this legislation is still being composed on the fly – for parents to pull their kids out of school for fear of what they might hear if other kids are allowed to form a gay-straight alliance and speak up in defence of their rights.

And, excuse me, but Mr. Prentice’s claim that Ms. Blakeman’s bill manipulated citizens for political gain, somehow put fundamental beliefs in conflict with each another, was “unfair and unbalanced,” and involved “too important an issue to be reduced to a political game,” is deceptive baloney.

Resolving difficult conflicts in society is an important part of what politics do for us! I don’t know about you, but my Bullshit Detector starts to buzz when I hear successful politicians like Mr. Prentice complaining their political opponents are being too political. It means their opponents’ ideas are gaining traction.

With the caveat that – as likely intended – we don’t really know anything meaningful about the government’s plan yet, there were lots of signs of what the premier has in mind.

There’s the sop of putting protection for sexual minorities in the Alberta Bill of Rights. Constitutionally and practically, this means nothing. It’s just another provincial law that has no precedence over any other. Mr. Prentice is a lawyer. He understands this.

Anyway, just in case, he’ll also add a countervailing clause to the Bill of Rights guaranteeing parents have the right to “make informed decisions about the education of their children.” We all know what that’s code for.

There’s the promise students denied the right to form a gay-straight alliance will have “clear legal recourse” to appeal. Sounds good. But to whom? A school board? If so, it means nothing. And if to a court – how many students have the time and money to pursue a legal challenge?

And speaking of school boards, isn’t it interesting how the premier has suddenly seen the light about how school boards need the right to make their own decisions? Isn’t that a little rich coming from a government that has been stripping school boards of meaningful power for decades?

Finally, there’s the inclusion of other kinds of student clubs. Is this to open the door to equal resources for the kind of goofballs who perpetually whine without a shred of evidence that Canadian Christians are a persecuted minority? Sure sounds like it.

When the then-unelected Mr. Prentice appointed the still-unelected Gordon Dirks as his education minister, questions were asked by some observers about what impact Mr. Dirks’s beliefs as an evangelical pastor in a socially conservative religious denomination would have on the government’s education policy.

This was immediately greeted by screeches of “anti-Christian bigotry” from supporters of the Prentice Government’s rapprochement with the so-con right who were, I dare say, playing politics, manipulating citizens for political gain, and putting beliefs in conflict with each other.

Well, so be it. But yesterday’s developments illustrate why the impact of Mr. Dirks’s religious beliefs on the policies he brings forward is an important and legitimate question that needs to be asked and ought not to have been turned into a political game by the PCs.

Mr. Dirks was conspicuously absent from yesterday’s news conference, but his paw prints – judging from his past modus operandi – are all over it.

Very little that comes forward in the PC legislation when it appears next week is likely to do anything to protect LGBTQ students from bullying, and it may well have the opposite effect, but PC members will have something to point to when they claim they are dealing with a real social problem.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley hit the nail on the head yesterday in her assessment of this imbroglio, quoted in the Edmonton Journal: “Legislation exists in other provinces to allow GSAs. Their discomfort with it, I think, is indicative of a very strong element of social-conservatism that has returned to this PC party.”

Mr. Prentice, Mr. Dirks and the rest of the PCs have decided that there is no higher priority right now than winning social conservative votes, like those that apparently motivate new Tory MLA Ian Donovan’s neighbours in Little Bow.

I have no idea if that will do them any electoral harm, probably not, but I can tell you this: when the history of 2014 is written down, Mr. Prentice is going to have to wear this, as well he should.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.
Categories Alberta Politics