By Pamela Krause & Hilary Mutch
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Two-spirit ("LGBTQ2+") youth are some of the most vulnerable members of our community. Studies have repeatedly shown that these youth face unique challenges, including an enhanced risk of bullying, depression, suicide, and homelessness. Gay-Straight Alliances ("GSAs") — student groups aimed at fostering safety and support of LGBTQ2+ students — are a direct response to this unfortunate reality. Studies further show that GSAs significantly ameliorate the difficulties facing LGBTQ2+ youth and contribute to a more inclusive school environment.
GSAs have a proud and interesting history in Alberta. The first GSA was formed in this province in the 1990s in Red Deer, when two brave students approached their teacher to explore ways to make their school safer for members of LGBTQ2+ community.
Then, in 2014, the Alberta Government passed Bill 10 (An Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect Our Children). Bill 10 requires schools in Alberta to allow students, upon request, to establish clubs or activities that "promote a welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment that respects diversity and fosters a sense of belonging." Bill 10 also allows students to name the club a GSA or queer-straight alliance.
In 2017, the Alberta Government — led by a different political party — passed Bill 24 (An Act to Support Gay-Straight Alliances). Bill 24 requires schools to establish GSAs "immediately" if a student requests one, as many students faced lengthy delays from their school administration after asking for a GSA. Bill 24 also extends the protections of Bill 10 to publicly-funded independent schools. Further, Bill 24 precludes schools from informing parents about their child's participation in a GSA without the child's consent. By doing so, Bill 24 recognizes the sensitive and deeply personal nature of sexual orientation and gender identity, and the risks that arise when students are not allowed to come out to their families in their own time and in their own way.
In April of last year, a group of parents and largely faith-based schools filed a constitutional challenge to Bill 10 and Bill 24. The applicants argue that the GSA legislation infringes their religious freedom to teach their children that same-sex relationships are sinful and that gender is solely determined by one's sex at birth. The applicants further argue that the prohibition on disclosing a child's participation in a GSA without the child's consent infringes parental rights. In addition to seeking a declaration that the GSA legislation is unconstitutional, the applicants sought an injunction to temporarily restrain the legislation pending the judicial determination of its constitutionality.
When we heard about the legal challenge to the GSA legislation, we grew concerned that no one in the courtroom would be there to directly represent the students who attend and benefit from GSAs. As a result, we sought leave to intervene on behalf of the Centre for Sexuality (the "Centre"), the organization where we work. The Centre is a not-for-profit organization that aims to improve and normalize sexual health in Alberta by providing evidence-informed, inclusive, and non-judgmental sexual and reproductive health programs and services. The Centre routinely works with LGBTQ2+ youth in a variety of channels, including through our work with the Calgary and area GSA Network — a group of schools, teachers, students, and community organizations that strive to create safe spaces for LGBTQ2+ students and staff. Through the GSA Network, the Centre has worked with literally hundreds of GSA participants.
In recognition of the Centre's expertise regarding GSAs and their impact on youth, the Centre was granted leave in the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta and the Court of Appeal of Alberta. Although the applicants submitted to the Court that GSAs are "ideological sex clubs" that cause harm to students, the Centre submitted evidence about the tremendously positive impact GSAs have had in our experience working in Alberta schools. The Court accepted our evidence. In dismissing the applicants' request for an injunction, the Court of Queen's Bench wrote, "The effect on LGBTQ2+ students in granting an injunction, which would result in both the loss of supportive GSAs in their schools and send the message that their diverse identities are less worthy of protection, would be considerably more harmful than temporarily limiting a parents right to know and make decisions about their child's involvement in a GSA" (PT v Alberta, 2018 ABQB 496 at para 41). The Court of Appeal affirmed this decision and wrote the following (PT v Alberta, 2019 ABCA 158 at para 77):
The chambers judge found that the evidence adduced by the respondent and the Calgary Sexual Health Centre [now the Centre for Sexuality] showed that the presence of GSAs in schools, and the safe and supportive climate they are intended to provide, result in positive effects for LGBTQ2+ and other students. These benefits include providing youth with the ability to come to terms with their sexuality and gender identity, an enhanced ability to share this information with their families, improved school performance, an increased sense of safety and belonging, and enhanced psychological well-being […]In our view, the chambers judge reasonably concluded that these benefits constitute the presumed good of the legislation.
Since the injunction proceedings, we continue to gather information about the impact of GSAs in Alberta schools. For example, in April of this year, we surveyed the Alberta schools at which the Centre provides support for GSAs. Of the approximately 50 schools that responded to the survey, roughly 70% indicated that Bill 24 has had a positive impact on their GSA (the remaining schools indicated Bill 24 had no discernable impact on the GSA). The results of the survey also showed that 2016 and 2017 were the years in which the most GSAs were started amongst the respondent schools. This did not surprise us, as these years are close to the passage of Bill 24. In our experience, we have seen the number and vitality of GSAs that the Centre works with increase significantly over the past few years.
One teacher respondent to the survey wrote that "the attendance of [GSA] meetings went up from 2 to 24 in 2017 [after Bill 24 was passed]. Student privacy is crucial to students' ability to participate." Another teacher wrote that "Bill 24 has helped to ensure the continuation of our GSA. The student privacy provision created a safer environment for our students and our numbers for our GSA have grown since this time." Yet another teacher simply wrote that Bill 24 "allowed us to exist."
Clearly, Bill 10 and Bill 24 have had a significantly positive impact on GSAs and LGBTQ2+ youth in Alberta.
Sadly, the new Alberta Government has passed legislation to roll back many of the protections contained in Bill 24. As a result of this legislative change, we expect that the applicants will drop their legal challenge and the GSA litigation in Alberta will come to a close, at least in its current form.
However, we should be proud as Albertans that two consecutive provincial governments — each led by two different political parties — passed legislation (Bill 10 and Bill 24) intended to improve the lives of LGBTQ2+ youth. We should also be proud that both the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta and the Court of Appeal of Alberta dismissed the applicants' injunction application and did not capitulate to the applicants' fear mongering and misinformation.
Although the most recent repeal of Bill 24 is an unfortunate development, we must still work to support and encourage GSAs and other similar groups in our schools. After all, the evidence is clear (and it was accepted by our courts) that GSAs ameliorate the difficulties facing LGBTQ2+ youth and literally save lives.
Pam Krause is the President/CEO of the Centre for Sexuality (formerly the Calgary Sexual Health Centre), the only non-profit organization in Calgary that provides comprehensive sexual health education programs & services to people across the lifespan. It is recognized as a leader for implementing innovative sexual health programs with meaningful results.
Hilary Mutch (she/her) is the LGBTQ2S+ Community Engagement Coordinator at the Centre for Sexuality in Calgary. She coordinates the Calgary GSA Network and Camp fYrefly Calgary, an overnight retreat for LGBTQ2S+ youth. She was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, and holds a B.A. from McGill University.