RED DEER, Alta. — Alberta’s United Conservative Party delegates voted Sunday for balanced budgets and an end to the carbon tax, but there were fireworks after they also OK’d a controversial motion affecting gay children in schools.
Delegates at the party’s founding policy convention voted 57 per cent in favour of a motion to have parents told when their child is involved in any subject of a religious or sexual nature, including after-school social clubs like gay-straight alliances.
They passed the motion despite pleas from three UCP caucus members to scuttle it because it was fundamentally wrong and politically perilous.
“This is about outing gay kids,” UCP caucus whip Ric McIver said at the speaker’s microphone as some delegates hooted and shouted at him, forcing the moderator to intervene.
“This is about making kids feel unsafe. They can’t join a club.
“You know what folks, you may disagree with some people in the room with people being gay, but they are gay. They need to be safe. We cannot out kids that are in a club (designed) to protect themselves.”
Gay-straight alliances have been a lightning rod issue in Alberta in recent years given their location at the intersection of education, religion, students’ rights, parents’ rights and human rights.
The alliances are social clubs set up by students to help LGBTQ children feel welcome and to lessen any chance of bullying.
Advocates say such clubs are critical to kids’ well-being and to keep them from self-harm. But they say some parents would be hostile to their children joining, and that by notifying parents, children would not take the risk to sign up.
Alberta’s NDP have cast GSAs as a barometer of tolerance versus intolerance of gay and minority rights and have passed a bill specifically forbidding schools from notifying parents about GSA participation.
Prior to the UCP vote, McIver also told delegates they court political disaster.
“(If) you want to be called the ‘lake of fire’ party, this is your opportunity. Don’t be called the ‘lake of fire’ party, I’m begging you,” he said.
“This will really severely hurt our chances of winning.”
“Lake of fire” refers to the experience of the old Wildrose party, which joined the Progressive Conservatives last year to create the UCP under Leader Jason Kenney.
In the 2012 election, Wildrose blew a late lead in the polls in part because party leader Danielle Smith refused to sanction a candidate who penned an anti-gay blog urging homosexuals to repent or face eternal damnation in hell’s “lake of fire.”
Jason Nixon, the UCP house leader, took to the microphone to say Alberta’s education laws already direct that parents be notified when sex education is taught.
“Let’s stop taking the NDP’s bait and let’s get ready to form the next government,” said Nixon.
Leela Aheer, the UCP deputy leader, added: “When we’re talking about freedoms, that means all people’s freedoms. That means making sure that children have safe spaces in schools.”
Proponents of the motion, however, told delegates the LGBTQ issue is a red herring.
“This is about parental rights. The only societies and governments that trample on parental rights are totalitarian ones,” Calgary delegate John Carpay told the crowd.
“Parental rights are a cornerstone of the free society.”
Spruce Grove pastor Brian Coldwell added: “This is about fundamental God-given rights, and governments and activists cannot have more authority over their children than parents.
“It’s not about anti-gay. It’s about fundamental God-given freedoms.”
The final vote was 562 to 429.
NDP Education Minister David Eggen told reporters the decision shows the UCP is not ready to be a big-tent party.
“I’m clearly offended and disturbed about their position in regard to GSAs,” said Eggen.
“We’ve worked very hard to create a safe and caring environment for students here in the province.
“Just by passing this today they’ve made (it) a more dangerous and unsafe place for kids in schools. That uncertainty, that sense of outing kids if they choose to join a GSA, that’s completely unacceptable.”
Kenney has said he would like to have parents notified when a child joins GSAs unless notification could bring harm to the child. However he has not clarified how teachers would be able to safely assess such risk and the Alberta Teachers’ Association has said it does not seek such responsibility.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press