Some of the loudest voices speaking up during a Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association’s (RMCLA) hearing Jan. 27, in response to Bill 10, were those of students.
The hearing, organized by the RMCLA at the University of Calgary, heard from a series of individuals and groups on Bill 10, which was introduced by the Prentice government to give school boards in Alberta the power to reject students’ requests to form a gay-straight alliances (GSA).
The government subsequently withdrew the bill, after an outcry by supporters of GSAs.
Premier Jim Prentice said the government needed more time to consult Albertans on the GSA issue.
The debate over the bill has pitted parents and school boards against students and others who support the right of students to form GSAs.
One student made it clear at the hearing that he and his peers won’t back down on the issue.
Austin Bender, the president of his high school’s GSA and a recipient of the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award, told the hearing panel he first learned about GSAs through his trip to Camp FYrefly, a leadership retreat for LGBTQ youth held in Calgary and other cities.
Bender explained that when he started in the eleventh grade, he managed to start a GSA with the support of administration at his school, Springbank Community High.
“I wanted to take on the role of an activist GSA, so every meeting we would talk about an issue going on in the school, whether it was about LGBTQ awareness or otherwise,” said Bender.
“[A GSA] would be great in my school, because people just don’t understand what is going on.”
Bender also touched on the fact that GSAs provide a safe place for students and help to educate against homophobia.
“The most fundamental thing that I think the GSA has provided at Springbank is a safe place for those kids that don’t have a safe place,” said Bender.
“Since I have started this, you don’t hear people saying, ‘That’s so gay,’ or calling people fags anymore because they know that it is wrong, and they understand what kind of connotation that holds.”
Bender added that teachers in his school don’t hear homophobic slurs anymore, because of how the GSA has changed the culture of the school.
Essentially, Bender finds GSAs to be absolutely beneficial.
“We will compile a report to be prepared by March 3 to be sent to Premier Prentice – Kelly Ernst
“GSAs have no downside. They reduce bullying, not only for LGBTQ students, but also for allied or straight-identified students, and they make the teachers feel safer,” said Bender.
“If people can’t see that [GSAs] are doing great things, where are they looking?
“I don’t get it,” he said.
RMCLA president Kelly Ernst said that approximately 140 people registered for the hearing in Calgary. Another session was held Jan. 29 in Edmonton, and was attended by provincial Education Minister Gordon Dirks.
Ernst said the association planned to report its findings to the government.
“We will compile a report to be prepared by March 3, to be sent to Premier Prentice.”