EDMONTON – Alberta Premier Jim Prentice has put on hold a bill that triggered widespread scorn and outrage among critics who saw it as opening the door to segregation of young homosexuals.
Prentice said the mistakes are his to bear.
“I accept personal responsibility for that as the premier,” Prentice told reporters at a hastily called legislature conference moments after he and his Progressive Conservative caucus met Thursday.
“I’m most disturbed that our gay and lesbian youth are caught in the middle of a very divisive debate. This they didn’t ask for, and for the most part these are young people trying to find their way in life and in our province.”
Prentice said while Bill 10 remains on the books he wants to hear more from all sides before proceeding with it. He wouldn’t say if or when the bill would be back.
“Many Albertans have expressed the view that this should not be done in haste,” he said.
The bill was due for third and final reading following three days of frenzied and emotional debate over whether students should have the automatic right to set up gay-straight alliances in their schools.
Gay-straight alliances are after-school clubs made up of gay students and their classmates to help gay students feel welcome and to prevent them from being abused and bullied.
According to the Journal of Research on Adolescence, the rate of suicide among gay youth drops significantly when a school has a GSA.
There are 94 such clubs in schools in Edmonton and Calgary but none in rural areas or faith-based schools. Catholic school officials have resisted the clubs, saying they already have supports to make all kids feel included.
It has been a long-running and polarizing issue in Alberta.
In the spring, the Tories were criticized as bigoted when some of their members joined forces with the opposition Wildrose party to kill a motion urging schools to adopt gay-straight alliances.
The issue resurfaced in the current legislature session when Liberal Laurie Blakeman brought forward a private member’s bill to mandate all schools accept GSAs.
Prentice, in response, brought in Bill 10 on Monday, knocking Blakeman’s bill off the Order paper because it was similar subject matter.
It was a bid to recapture the political initiative.
Instead it blew up in the Tories’ face.
In its original form, Bill 10 gave the final say for GSAs to the school boards and told students to go to court if they wanted to challenge it. Prentice said this was the best way to balance the rights of kids, schools and parents.
When public outrage grew on social media and elsewhere, the Tories on Wednesday passed an amendment allowing the government to set up GSAs at unwilling schools, but with the option of putting the clubs off school grounds.
Critics pounced on the amendment as institutionalized segregation of gays akin to “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws used to debase African-Americans more than a generation ago.
The anger mounted. Tory party members and executives quit or called the bill out while a handful of PC MLAs voted against it. Calgary Stampeders star running back Jon Cornish labelled the bill a blot on an otherwise progressive nation.
A protest rally was staged earlier Thursday in Calgary.
National TV star Rick Mercer mocked a recent comment from Prentice that “rights are never absolute.” Mercer, on Twitter, said that should be Alberta’s new licence plate slogan.
A cartoon that went viral welcomed incoming airline passengers to Alberta, “where the local time is 1963.”
Blakeman said Prentice’s pullback was a victory for a modern province.
“Once again, Albertans have shown when something is really meaningful to them, they will make themselves heard,” said Blakeman.
“(But) I’m not willing to let go of this one until we know that we have looked after getting peer support groups for at-risk groups.”
NDP Leader Rachel Notley said despite Prentice’s claims that he is a progressive leader running a progressive caucus, Bill 10 has pulled back the veil.
“There’s probably no Albertan who has been following this debate who believes for one minute that the majority of the people in that PC caucus are progressive,” said Notley.
“They were very emphatically prepared to move forward with a segregating piece of legislation the likes of which we haven’t seen for decades.
“And the only reason they didn’t was the people of Alberta stood up and said it was unacceptable.
“I’m very proud to be from Alberta right now.”