Braid: As Smith's rules erupt on national stage, it's the kids who feel the pain

Smith says she loves these kids. But such declarations don’t mean much when they only highlight your difference

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Think of the children. Imagine the pain of gay and transgender kids as they once again find themselves under the alien eye of government.

That should be the first thought for politicians as Premier Danielle’s Smith new rules burst onto the national stage.

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This is the most complex, overarching legislation on transgender treatment, sex health education and parental rights ever offered to the people of a province.

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But children are at the heart of it — gay and transgender children, among the most anguished and misunderstood people in our society.

And one more time, many will feel abnormal, threatened and even persecuted.

Smith says she loves these kids. But such declarations don’t mean much when they only highlight your difference.

To a gay teenager, these fine words can sound like “you are a problem, but we still love you anyway.”

In Alberta it wasn’t so long ago that mention of these issues came with a political caution — don’t let the talk get so hot that it terrifies the very kids at the core of it.

That’s exactly what’s happening now. Smith’s measures quickly became a partisan brawl, with condemnation from Ottawa and threats of legal action under the Charter.

We’ve fallen a long way down the rabbit hole since 2014-15, when gay-straight alliances in schools were a major issue in Alberta.

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The events over those few months remain a heartwarming example of what can happen when politicians think of the children first.

First, Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman brought in a bill requiring schools to allow these gay-straight clubs if students asked for them.

It alarmed some parents from the start. But there was also a great deal of public support for the alliances.

The PC government of Premier Jim Prentice responded with its own bill, which did not mandate the clubs but allowed students to request them and appeal if they were refused, ultimately to the courts.

That was widely derided. The PCs were agonizing over some way to allow the clubs without offending authorities, including the Catholic Church.

Stuck without answers, Prentice decided to suspend the bill for consultations.

The premier sent his education minister, Gordon Dirks, on a provincial tour of schools. Dirks spoke to many people, especially LGBTQ+ students.

This is some of what the minister told the legislature on March 10, 2015.

Rally to save GSAs at the Alberta Legislature in 2019
FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators rally against Bill 8, the Education Amendment Act, during the Rally to Save Gay-Straight Alliances at the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton, on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. Ian Kucerak/Postmedia

“In my travels around the province I talked with numerous students who are directly affected by gay-straight alliances,” Dirks said.

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“If you could have joined me in these conversations, Mr. Speaker, you would have heard students talking about the taunting, mocking and bullying they have suffered because of their sexual orientation.

“You would hear them speak of parents who don’t understand them, of online bullying and of suicidal thoughts.

“They told me, sometimes in tears, how alone and helpless they have felt when caring friends and sympathetic teachers are not around them.

“But when I asked them, tell me about your GSAs, their faces brightened, and with animated voices they would tell me about their GSA, how it helped them feel safe at school and how they now felt valued, respected and welcomed.

“Mr. Speaker, even if you talked to no one else on this matter except students, you would quickly come to the conclusion that GSAs are all about providing groups of gay and straight students with safe, caring, respectful, welcoming and inclusive spaces at our schools.”

Dirks introduced a bill to allow the alliances without conditions. Any group of kids who asked for one could get it.

Gordon Dirks and Jim Prentice in 2014
Then-Calgary-Elbow MLA Gordon Dirks, left, and then-Alberta Premier Jim Prentice greet supporters during a swearing-in ceremony at the Alberta Legislature Building in Edmonton, Alta., on Monday, Nov. 17, 2014. Codie McLachlan/Postmedia

That was remarkable enough. But then, Prentice and Dirks both praised Blakeman, a partisan opponent, for setting them on the right path. “I’m overjoyed,” she said.

There were tears at the legislature that day. Politicians showed they could come together on these very difficult issues by putting the pain of children above their politics.

I hope that spirit will be reborn today, but somehow doubt it.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

X: @DonBraid

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