Hundreds rally at Alberta legislature to protest GSA changes

Hundreds of people braved the pouring rain at the legislature Wednesday to show support for LGBTQ youth by protesting the Alberta government's proposed changes to the Education Act.

Bill 8, introduced on June 5, would remove certain protections for students in gay-straight alliances.

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 to their parents.

The amended Education Act would also remove a provision compelling principals to immediately approve a GSA once students ask for one.  

Lea Cheeseman, who was part of GSAs in high school, spoke at the protest.

"I really want to make sure that LGBTQ youth are protected and that they're not going to have their protections weakened," she said.

"Them not having that security and not having that legal assurance that they will 100 per cent be kept safe and that their fate may be left up to the discretion of … any official in their school is really, really scary for a lot of students."

Anna McMillan/CBC

She said being part of a GSA provided her with support from her peers, along with connections to valuable resources and services.

Members of the United Conservative Party government have repeatedly said protections for LGBTQ students in Alberta will be the strongest in Canada.

But Cheeseman worries LGBTQ students won't feel as comfortable joining GSAs if Bill 8 passes.

"I'm sure it would decrease attendance and participation in these clubs, which is really upsetting because then those students don't get that support," she said.

Maureen Adachi attended the protest to show her support as an ally.

She said she worries the proposed changes to the act would increase the likelihood of youth suicide.

"These kids have a voice. They don't have a vote," Adachi said. "They should be allowed to come out when they're ready, not when anybody else says they're ready."

Anna McMillan/CBC

NDP MLA for Highlands-Norwood Janis Irwin attended the protest, speaking out against what she called Bill H8.

"The government keeps telling us that … it's a distraction, it's a wedge issue," she said. "But you know what, to hundreds here and thousands that couldn't join us tonight, it's not a distraction. It's not a wedge issue. It's a very important issue."

Irwin said the NDP will debate the bill for as long as they have to.

"We'll keep fighting it in the legislature and clearly outside as well until they're willing to change their minds."