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Alberta introduces amended Education Act; Opposition says LGBTQ kids at risk

Alberta premier Jason Kenney shakes hands with Adriana LaGrange, Minister of Education after being is sworn into office, in Edmonton on Tuesday April 30, 2019. Alberta is overhauling the framework rules of grade-school education for the first time in a generation, but the opposition NDP says it's just a cover to out gay kids and expose them to harm. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

EDMONTON — Alberta is overhauling its framework for grade-school education for the first time in a generation, but the Opposition says it’s just a cover to out gay kids and expose them to harm.

A bill introduced Wednesday by Education Minister Adriana LaGrange is meant to replace the 31-year-old School Act and governs everything from school attendance to district boundaries and trustee voting.

“It’s a piece of legislation that’s been in the works for a long, long time,” LaGrange said prior to tabling the legislation “to modernize the education system.”

The proposal does not include existing legal protections passed by the former NDP government for gay-straight alliances in schools, also known as GSAs.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said while the bill includes provisions for the alliances, it dilutes the rules to allow schools to delay setting up GSAs as well as gives them the opportunity to inform parents if their children join one.

In question period, Notley accused LaGrange of bowing to her personal views and the socially conservative interests of the United Conservative party.

“You know (that) as many as half of (the provincial school) boards will abandon GSAs, and you’re OK with it, because your values are more important than the safety of those kids. Why not just admit it?” Notley asked LaGrange.

LaGrange replied that the bill has the strongest GSA protections in Canada and that the province is committed to an inclusive, non-bullying environment in all schools.

“Students can ask to be part of (a GSA). The principal permits the GSA. The principal designates a staff liaison. And so on and so on. It is very well spelled out. There will be protections,” LaGrange said.

Gay-straight alliances are student-driven support clubs designed to help LGBTQ kids feel accepted. Advocates say they are critical to help them avoid being shunned or bullied, but suggest some won’t join if there’s even a remote chance of their parents being told.

The proposed legislation would allow parents to be told if not doing so would leave a child at risk of harm. LaGrange noted schools are also bound by privacy rules.

The bill is meant to replace Alberta’s 1988 School Act. A new Education Act was passed in the legislature in 2012, and amended in 2015, but was never proclaimed into law.

The UCP bill retains existing rules such as when a student is eligible for busing and a ban on schools charging parents extra for textbooks and instructional materials. It also lifts a cap on specialized charter schools.

LaGrange said the plan is to have the bill passed and implemented by Sept. 1 in time for the new school year.

The Alberta School Boards Association is urging LaGrange to hold off to give schools time to adapt, but LaGrange said the government is working to make it an easy fit.

“We’ve tried to mitigate all of those pieces that would have caused disruption,” she said.

“It should be fairly seamless.”

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press