Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's new government is being accused of rolling back protections for LGBTQ kids.
The new United Conservative Party government, which defeated the NDP in April, has introduced legislation that would change the rules for Gay-Straight Alliances, and has disbanded a working group tasked with making recommendations on how to ban conversion therapy, a debunked practice that aims to “cure” gay people, in the province. Publicly, though, UCP ministers insist they want to protect GSAs, and are against conversion therapy.
“The legislation that they’re introducing [regarding GSAs] is an attack on LGBTQ kids, and not progressing with the working group, again, is an attack on the community,” said NDP MLA Nicole Goehring, co-chair of the working group on banning conversion therapy. “If they were serious and meant what they were saying, they wouldn’t be doing these things in government.”
She said the fact this is happening during Pride month is “a slap in the face” to the Alberta LGBTQ community.
However, Steve Buick, press secretary to the health minister, said Wednesday conversion therapy can’t be provided by any regulated health professional in the province. “As a health service, it doesn’t exist.”
He said he understands the discussion has moved on to unregulated providers of conversion therapy, but he doesn’t think that could be banned. “We don’t want gay people subjected to any kind of pressure in relation to their gender identity, of course we don’t. The issue is, what can you legislate? So far, we don’t know of a viable option to legislate the range of private behaviours people are really talking about.”
GSAs are student-led groups that promote welcoming school environments for LGBTQ students. On June 5, the UCP introduced a new bill that would prevent school principals from immediately granting students the right to form gay-straight alliances, and could stop them from using the words "queer" or "gay" in group names. The move follows protests by thousands of students from 90 schools across the province who feared Kenney would attack GSAs.
Conversion therapy is a harmful practice that unsuccessfully attempts to change LGBTQ people’s sexual orientations to straight, a traumatic experience for many who go through it. Despite Kenney saying during the election that the UCP would "keep an open mind" to an NDP bill aiming to ban conversion therapy, the Edmonton Journal reported on May 27 that the NDP working group was being disbanded, according to an email from Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro’s press secretary Steve Buick. Following the report, Shandro refused to answer reporters’ questions about the status of the working group.
Goering says her working group formed in February under the NDP government and was given five months to report back to the health minister. It had formal terms of reference and supports including remuneration for travel costs. But now she says the group has been defunded.
On June 7, Health Minister Tyler Shandro wrote her an email saying “our government opposes the coercive practice of conversion therapy” and assuring her he would fully consider her recommendations, but he also called the working group “informal.”
Goehring said she doesn’t believe the health minister will take the recommendations seriously, pointing to previous comments from Buick questioning whether conversion therapy is happening in the province.
Goehring said the practice “absolutely” is happening and current legislation is not preventing it. It would be “devastating” to the community if it’s not banned, she said. “We had over 200 people coming to the legislature to plead with the minister that the working group continue and a ban actually occur.”
To NDP MLA Janis Irwin, who is gay, it’s troubling to see these changes during Pride month.
She previously worked as a teacher and administrator in rural Alberta. On the job, she witnessed LGBTQ+ students struggling and being called homophobic slurs. GSAs are important lifelines to those students, she said.
Bill 8, introduced by Education Minister Adrian LaGrange, proposes changes to the Education Act, including GSAs. If it passes under the UCP majority government, it would come into effect September 1. The main change is that principals would no longer have to “immediately” permit students to form GSAs; they can delay approval, potentially indefinitely. LGBTQ advocates worry that many provincial school boards will abandon GSAs if they don’t have to approve them.
Irwin said Bill 8 is “looking more like an act to destroy Gay-Straight Alliances.”
“We know that GSAs save lives, so for that young person who’s struggling in their school right now, having to wait for a GSA to be implemented, having to wait for a safe space, is extremely troubling,” she said.
“I worry for any students who are going back to school in the fall knowing that they may not have their identities recognized and they may not be supported,” Irwin said. “And we have a lot of research to demonstrate that LGBTQ [people] have higher rates of homelessness and of dropping out, so you can see that the unintended consequences could be quite severe.”
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