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ATA unwavering in support of gay-straight alliances

January 13, 2015 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor

Association ever wary of effects of Bill 10 on classroom instruction, president says

The Alberta Teachers’ Association will continue to support the formation of gay-straight alliances in schools and will be watchful for any potential "chilling effects" stemming from Bill 10, the government’s proposed approach to handling gay-straight alliances in schools.

The government has pledged to conduct consultations on the bill in the new year after facing considerable backlash following the bill’s introduction in the legislature on Dec. 1.

The Association, according to a policy developed in 2005, supports "the establishment of gay-straight alliance groups to create awareness and action that promotes the creation of safe learning environments for all students in Alberta high schools." The policy has since been reaffirmed three times, in 2008, 2011 and 2014.

"We’re very clear on our stand when it comes to Bill 10 and the support that we have for students," said Association President Mark Ramsankar. "There isn’t any grey area where we’re concerned."

The government introduced Bill 10, An Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect our Children, as a counter to Bill 202, the Safe and Inclusive Schools Statutes Amendment Act. This private member’s bill from Liberal Laurie Blakeman would have made it mandatory for schools to allow students to form gay-straight alliances if they wished.

Bill 10, by comparison, sought to create a legal framework whereby students could appeal to the school board if school officials refused to sanction a gay-straight alliance.

The bill also sought to enshrine within the Alberta Bill of Rights the rights of parents to make informed decisions respecting the education of their children. And, like Blakeman’s bill, it sought to repeal section 11.1 of the Alberta Human Rights Act, which requires schools to provide parents with prior notice if material primarily related to religion, sexuality or sexual orientation is to be discussed in class, and to let parents pull their children out of those discussions.

The concern for teachers, as it was with section 11.1, is the potential that these measures could stifle productive classroom discussions, Ramsankar said.

Since section 11.1 was introduced in Bill 44 in 2009, the Association worked with government to ensure that the potential chilling effect was minimized. As a result, the requirements for notification as outlined in the Guide to Education have been contained to a limited number of courses. The Association advises teachers that they should not feel restricted from discussing issues related to human sexuality or sexual orientation that come up incidentally in class.

As originally drafted, Bill 10 sought to address parental notification and the withdrawal of children from instruction on religion and human sexuality within the Education Act and the School Act. Ramsankar says this is better than having it in the Alberta Human Rights Act, but he is concerned that new discussions on parental rights could cause teachers to shy away from discussing such controversial issues.

"It’s the chilling effect on a classroom where you have to be looking over your shoulder or thinking whether or not you can go with a particular topic that the students are driving," Ramsankar said. "It’s that organic learning — that’s what makes it exciting, and if we lose that, that’ll be a problem."

The Association hasn’t been contacted to participate in consultations, Ramsankar said. While this may happen, it’s crucial that consultation take place with school jurisdictions, as they form policy that governs what occurs in schools.

"The bottom line is, they need input from the field," Ramsankar said. "That’s where the rubber’s going to hit the road." ❚

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