Education minister walks back earlier statement on Alberta GSA protections

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange says a statement released late last week about privacy protections for Alberta students in gay-straight alliances relative to those in other provinces did not signal a change in her government’s position.

LaGrange issued a statement at 4:43 p.m. on Friday saying “Alberta will have among the most comprehensive statutory protections for gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in Canada.”

For the last couple of weeks, the government has insisted Alberta would have the strongest legislation in Canada, even with the changes proposed in Bill 8, so the revision in wording was noted by people who have been following the issue closely. 

When questioned by reporters on her way into Monday’s question period, the minister said nothing has changed.

“I believe (it) means one and the same thing,” she said. “We are amongst the strongest in all of Canada, and I believe, and I know, we will be the strongest once this amendment act goes through.”

LaGrange’s statement was issued two days after the NDP Official Opposition released information suggesting protections for students in GSAs were stronger in British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia.

Calgary-Mountain View NDP MLA Kathleen Ganley said LaGrange’s characterization of Bill 8 in her statement on Friday was a shift in the United Conservative government’s position.

“That is a substantially different statement and it shows further that this government has not been truthful about the bill and about its harmful impacts on our youth,” she said.

Bill 8 amends the Education Act, which was passed but not proclaimed by the Progressive Conservative government that preceded the NDP majority elected in 2015.

The new act does not have the Bill 24 protections enacted by the NDP in the fall of 2017, which made it illegal for teachers to tell a parent if a child has joined a GSA, to prevent students from being outed before they were comfortable discussing their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The amended Education Act, introduced by the new UCP government, removes a provision compelling principals to “immediately” approve a GSA once students ask for one. Schools that drag their feet on such approvals face no penalties.

LaGrange and the government have insisted these changes still provide the best privacy protections in Canada. The NDP said the UCP is making these changes to placate social conservatives who dislike the idea of children taking part in gay-straight alliances without their permission or knowledge.

LaGrange said the relevant privacy legislation — the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act for publicly funded schools and the Personal Information Protection Act for private schools — would protect students from being outed to their parents.  

Rakhi Pancholi, the NDP MLA for Edmonton-Whitemud, is a lawyer who led the drafting the Education Act while working for the Alberta government from 2008 to 2013. She also worked for Alberta school boards, and said privacy legislation doesn’t offer the protections LaGrange claims they do.

“Yes, FOIP and PIPA exist, but parents have a right to their children’s personal information under those acts,” Pancholi said.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said LaGrange appears to be walking back her statements after flip-flopping on Friday.

She said the larger issue is that Premier Jason Kenney and some of his cabinet ministers are not being clear about legislation they are introducing in the legislature.

“Albertans may or may not agree with what this government is doing but they should be able to expect that they are getting the truth and the straight information from the government,” Notley said.

“Presumably they are proud of their record and their plan. Why not be honest about it?”

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