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Alberta bill bolsters gay-straight alliances

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EDMONTON—Two weeks of stormy debate over sex, education, and the rights of students and parents were capped off yesterday when Alberta passed a bill that strengthens rules on gay-straight alliances in schools.

“It's about protecting some of the most vulnerable kids in our province,” Education minister David Eggen told the house prior to the vote on third and final reading of Bill 24.

"This bill would ensure that no student would be outed.

“We know that parents, of course, love and support their children . . . but we also know that some students feel safer and more comfortable talking about these issues with their peers,” Eggen said.

The bill passed by a vote of 42-23.

It closes loopholes Premier Rachel Notley's government said some schools were using to delay or deny students who tried to set up the peer support clubs.

The bill also makes it clear school officials cannot tell parents if their children are in a gay-straight alliance except in special circumstances, such as when a student is under direct threat of harm.

Thirty-eight members of the governing NDP caucus, including Notley, voted for the bill.

Twenty-two members of the 26-member United Conservative caucus voted against it.

Former Wildrose leader Brian Jean was not in the house nor was UCP member Leela Aheer.

Earlier yesterday, Aheer said she had concerns with the bill but would abstain from voting for or against it.

Aheer, in the house, castigated NDP members for suggesting that concerns with the bill equate to a broader intolerance toward LGBTQ youth.

“You can call all Conservative MLAs homophobic," she said. ”You can fearmonger that we're the enemy, [but that] is really not a logical answer to any of the questions that I've put forward.

Last week, United Conservative leader Jason Kenney spoke out against the bill. He said teachers who deem it necessary need to be allowed to tell parents a child is in a gay-straight alliance.

Alliance advocates and the NDP say that would be tantamount to outing a student and putting them at risk of family ostracism or even physical abuse.

The Alberta Teachers' Association has said it supports Bill 24.

Mark Smith, education critic for the United Conservatives, said the party supports the alliances as safe spaces for kids against bullying.

But he noted the party could not support the bill because of the importance of parental involvement in helping kids at risk.

“Highly-trained educators are in a much better position than politicians to exercise their discretion on whether it is in the best interests of a child to engage parents,” said Smith.

He also noted there is concern the bill will allow sex education to be taught in the peer groups without the legally-required parental notification.

“The NDP is trying to do indirectly what it cannot do directly, that is, teaching sensitive subjects that would normally require parental notification,” Smith argued.

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