Tag Archives: Alberta Government

A History of GSAs in Alberta

{Here is a timely post written by our colleagues, Nancy and Shawn, from the University of Calgary. As Alberta grapples with Bill 24: An Act to Support Gay-Straight Alliances it is useful to consider the historical context of GSAs here. This essay was published last week on ActiveHistory.ca and is reprinted with their permission. – Kevin}

Sex Ed, Gay-Straight Alliances, and the Alberta Curriculum

GSAs Save Lives

Protesters demonstrate in favour of gay-straight alliances at the Alberta legislature on Dec. 4, 2014. Codie McLachlan / Edmonton Journal

Shawn W. Brackett and Nancy Janovicek

The Alberta government is engaged in a six-year comprehensive overhaul of the K-12 school curriculum, the first major reform in thirty years. In response to calls for consultation with stakeholders, the Council of Catholic School Superintendents of Alberta (CCSSA) has proposed an alternate sex education program that reflects Catholic teachings. Inclusion and diversity are core principles of education policy in Alberta, which now recognizes the need to protect the rights of students on the basis of gender expression, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Minister of Education David Eggen has rejected the CCSSA proposal, insisting that the government will not accept curriculum that is not inclusive of LGBTQ2S students.[i]

Critics of separate school boards have asked why public dollars are supporting schools that prioritize religious values over the obligation to defend the rights of all youth.[ii] In 1905, Alberta agreed to separate schools that would protect French-language rights because most Francophones sent their children to Catholic schools. Governments have funded separate schools under the agreement that they could include religious instruction, but that such material would be in addition to (but not in replacement of) a unified curriculum. In the current debate about protecting religious rights in the school system, social conservative groups have invoked parents’ rights to push back against Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) and inclusive lessons on human sexuality. Implicit in the demand by LGBTQ2S students for recognition of their identities is a call for Alberta Education to maintain its historical position in defence of minority rights more broadly.

Alberta Public and Separate School Boards: Historical Context

Schooling has always been an expression of community values and aspirations. The place of minority groups in a schooling process designed for majoritarian purposes has naturally come up for discussion and compromise throughout the history of the province. Since Alberta was part of the North-West Territories, politicians and communities have navigated complex relationships among public schools, separate schools, and government, and how those relationships expressed themselves in curriculum. In the context of a country that has experienced significant legal and social divisions along ethno-religious and linguistic lines, it is useful to explore how Alberta has approached schooling. Understanding the long-term constitutional and social factors that led to the province’s unique system will inform current discussions about educational reform, student rights, and community values.

Ironically, national issues have characterized a provincial responsibility. The British North America Act (BNA Act) of 1867 reserved educational authority to the provinces, but Parliament was intimately involved in crafting legislation that established the provinces. Politicians in Ottawa debated the Alberta Act of 1905 and, after entrance into Confederation, the Legislative Assembly of Alberta passed laws in the midst of vociferous debate in Manitoba and Ontario over linguistic and religious rights in schools. At the turn of the twentieth century legislatures, citizens, and churches struggled to reach a compromise about schooling because it represented, in many ways, the future of minority rights in Canada.

Alberta has always linked curriculum with public funds, inheriting the framework of its schooling system from that of the North-West Territories. The School Ordinance of 1892 abolished what had been a dual confessional approach with two systems of Protestant and Catholic schools teaching distinct curricula in favour of a single system of funding and curriculum delivered by public schools and separate schools.[iii] Public schools tended to represent the religion of the majority—in most cases Protestant Christians—but admitted students of any faith.  Separate schools were established when and where sufficient members of the Christian minority existed and successfully petitioned the government.[iv] Parents had the right to establish separate schools under certain conditions, but they did not have the right to opt out of the provincial curriculum. All public and separate school boards had to operate under the same system of funding, teacher certification, and curriculum set by the province. Because the BNA Act and Alberta Act entrenched the educational system of a province at time of Confederation, schooling as it existed in 1905 has largely persisted to this day—with the notable exception of the expansion of services and programs for other minority groups in schooling.

Despite the common convention of treating public school boards as part of one “system” and the separate school boards as part of a distinct “system,” the province has historically asserted its right to maintain a single system following a unified curriculum because both public and separate schools are fully funded by public tax dollars. Alberta has permitted the establishment of private schools since 1967, but those institutions are only eligible for financial support if they teach the approved curriculum.[v] Representatives of separate schools have generally agreed with provincial control of curriculum. Historian Amy von Heyking notes that in 1943, Catholic bishops expressed ambivalence toward the province’s implementation of a progressive education model, but ultimately avoided taking a strong stance by highlighting that the province had responsibility for crafting curriculum.[vi] The Cameron Commission of 1959 studied the institutions, participants, and issues of education in Alberta with an eye toward evaluating progressive education. Catholic Bishops took this opportunity to more forcefully make requests for Catholic versions of textbooks and provincially-approved Catholic teacher-training institutions.[vii] The Commission did not respond to either request.

In the late 1980s, the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association recommended the inclusion of a statement in the preamble of the proposed School Act that would recognize the equal status of Catholic education with the public system. Their recommendation was accepted by the Education Caucus Committee and the preamble to the School Act referenced the school system’s “two equal dimensions, the public schools and the separate schools.”[viii] This clause remains in effect today.[ix] Though Alberta’s approach to schooling has endured occasional challenge, it remains fundamentally the same in 2017 as it was in 1905: a system that protects the rights of minority groups.

Sex Ed, Gay-Straight Alliances, and Parents’ Rights

The current debate about GSAs and inclusive sex ed programs pits LGBTQ2S rights against religious freedom. The CCSSA proposal for an alternate sex ed curriculum builds on a movement that demands protection of parents’ right to make decisions about their children’s education. In 2009, social conservatives introduced amendments to the Alberta Bill of Rights that required school boards to give written notice to parents when material on sexuality would be taught so they could remove their children from class. The parental rights clause was introduced in the same bill that recognized discrimination based on sexual orientation.[x] Student demands for GSAs were supported by two Liberal motions in 2014; both were defeated. Bill 10 An Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect our Children, a Progressive Conservative attempt to strike a balance between students’ rights, parental authority, and religious freedom, was controversial because it gave school boards the final say on GSAs. The initial bill allowed school boards to deny GSAs. Amendments to the bill would have given the Minister of Education the authority to approve a student group’s request to form a GSA if a school board rejected it, but the club would not have met on school grounds. Students and LGBTQ2S activists were outraged by the suggestion that students could fight school board decisions in civil court. The government delayed the vote on the bill.[xi]

Since coming to power in 2015, the NDP government has advocated for GSAs. Section 16.1 of the Alberta School Act stipulates that principals must support students who want to form a GSA and in 2015, the Ministry of Education instructed all schools to submit LGBTQ policies. A 2016 Alberta Health Services report found that only 58 per cent of publicly-funded schools had developed a policy.[xii] Facing opposition from parents and politicians who argue that parents have a right to know if their children belong to a GSA, Minister Eggen has recently proposed an amendment to the School Act to ensure students’ right to establish GSAs and to protect the privacy of those who join them.[xiii] Eggen defended the government’s position that separate schools follow policy: “If you are receiving public money the law should apply to those schools just the same as any other.”[xiv]

The Alberta government has not yet released a draft of the new curriculum. The CCSSA proposals rest on the presumption that the new curriculum will “promote” lifestyles and gender identities that do not follow Catholic values. The CCSSA identifies teaching outcomes that would be “problematic”, including “homosexual relationships and/or lifestyles” and “‘gender’ or ‘gender identity’ as disassociated from biological sex.” Jason Kenney, the newly-elected leader of the United Conservative Party, has stated, “it’s not for me or the premier to dictate to the Catholic education system how it teaches Catholic values.”[xv] The historical record proves Kenney wrong. Despite assertions to the contrary, the School Act has protected religious instruction, but on the condition that publicly-funded schools – both public and separate – teach the same curriculum.

The debates about GSAs and inclusive sex ed curricula are playing out on the backs of an extremely vulnerable community. Recent studies estimate that 25-40 per cent of homeless youth in Canada identify as LGBTQ2S. Family rejection is a major reason why many leave home.[xvi]For Want of a Home: Experiences of LGBTQ2S Homelessness in Wild Rose Country, a 2015 video presented by Safe Accommodations for Queer Edmonton Youth, documents some experiences of queer youth who became homeless after they came out to their families. The filmmakers acknowledge that the video does not include Indigenous youth and LGBTQ2S people of colour who face greater risk due to systemic racism. One trans Indigenous youth who had agreed to participate in the project committed suicide before their interview. Students demanding GSAs insist that these peer support groups save lives. 

Anxiety about sex ed is not new. Parents’ and religious groups have been uncomfortable with the idea since it was proposed in the postwar period.[xvii] We know very little about how high school students engaged in past debates. Today, they are vocal and visible participants who demand a curriculum that recognizes LGBTQ2S identities. Monica Gugliotta, a Grade 11 student who left the Catholic school system after her school removed Pride decorations, explains the potential impact of the CCSSA proposals on students in Catholic schools: “If that happens then there will be discrimination against the LGBTQ community. If these teachings are [included] then that right of people being able to identify a different way, other than straight, is taken away.”[xviii]

Shawn W. Brackett is a PhD student at the University of Calgary. He specializes in the history of education in the North American West.

Nancy Janovicek is associate professor of history at the University of Calgary, where she teaches twentieth-century Canadian history and women’s and gender history. She is a board member of the Women’s Centre of Calgary and co-chair of its Social Policy Committee.

We acknowledge the traditional territories of the Blackfoot and the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta. These are the traditional territories of the Blackfoot and the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta. This includes the Siksika, the Piikuni, the Kainai, the Tsuut’ina and the Stoney Nakoda First Nations. The City of Calgary is also home to Metis Nation of Alberta, Region III.


[i] Andrea Huncar, “Alberta education minister rejects sex-education curriculum of Catholic schools,” CBC News, 23 October 2017.

[ii] Jessica Chin, “Alberta IDEA petition calls for Referendum on Abolishing Catholic Schools,” Huffington Post Canada, 10 October 2015.  

[iii] J. W. Chalmers, Schools of the Foothills Province: The Story of Public Education in Alberta (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967), 323 and Michael Bryn Kulmatycki, “Influences on the Rise of Catholic Education in Alberta: An Historical Study” (PhD dissertation, University of Calgary, 2009), 148-149.

[iv] Most often, the minority was Catholic, but several Protestant separate school boards have been established.

[v] In 2017, accredited private schools received 60% of the base funding rate of public and separate schools. Alberta Education, Funding Manual for School Authorities, 2017/2018 School Year (Edmonton: Alberta Education, 2017), 89 and 94. See also Alberta Education, “Private Schools in Alberta,” https://education.alberta.ca/private-schools/private-schools-in-alberta/, accessed 1 November 2017.

[vi] Amy von Heyking, Creating Citizens: History and Identity in Alberta’s Schools, 1905 to 1980 (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006), 97-98.

[vii] Michael Bryn Kulmatycki, “Influences on the Rise of Catholic Education in Alberta: An Historical Study” (PhD dissertation, University of Calgary, 2009), 150 and 194.

[viii] Robert Carney, “‘Hostility Unmasked’: Catholic Schooling in Territorial Alberta,” in Exploring Our Educational Past: Schooling in the North-West Territories and Alberta, ed. Nick Kach and Kas Mazurek (Calgary: Detselig, 1992), 17.

[ix] While the Education Act was passed and given royal assent in 2012, it has not been proclaimed. Janet French, “Education Minister David Eggen Would Rather Amend School Act than Finally Proclaim Education Act,” Edmonton Sun, 7 September 2017.

[x] “Alberta passes law allowing parents to pull kids out of class,” CBC News, 2 June 2009. The clause has been removed.

[xi] Justine Giavanetti, “What you need to know about Bill 10 and Alberta gay student’ rights,” Globe and Mail, 4 December 2014.

[xii]Andrea Hunkar, “Leaked report suggests one in five Alberta School Boards may lack LGBTQ policies, CBC News, 17 June 2017.

[xiii] “Alberta to outlaw outing of GSA students, education minister says,” CBC News 28 September 2017.  

[xiv] Dean Bennett, “Alberta NDP blasts Jason Kenney’s comments on outing children who join gay-straight alliances,” The Globe and Mail, 29 September 2017.

[xv] “Alberta Premier can’t Dictate School Sex Ed: Jason Kenney,” Huffington Post Canada, 26 October 2017.

[xvi] Alex Abramovich, A Focused Response to Prevent and End LGBTQ2S Youth Homelessness. Prepared for the Government of Alberta, 30 June 2015.

[xvii] Mary Louise Adams, “Sex at the Board or Keeping Children from Sexual Knowledge,” in Histories of Canadian Children and Youth, ed. Nancy Janovicek and Joy Parr (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2003), 291-304; The Trouble with Normal: Postwar Youth and the Making of Heterosexuality(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).

[xviii] Hunkar, “Alberta education minister rejects sex-education curriculum.”

Vriend vs. Alberta

In 1982 the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gave all Canadians equal rights “regardless of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.” However, the Charter was initially silent on sexual orientation.  It was not until November 1989 when the Federal Court of Canada first accepted sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Charter. It ruled that Timothy Veysey, a gay prison inmate in Ontario had the right to conjugal visits with his same-sex partner.

Up until then, Canadian Courts had mostly manifested a double-standard in discrimination cases. Discrimination based on race or religion, for example, was clearly defined and remedied. Homosexuality, on the other hand, was up for debate whether it could be a protected ground at all. Judges either deferred to society’s objection to homosexuality, based on diffuse religious grounds: “rebutting a millennium of moral teaching ” or punted it back to legislators to decide.

In December 1987, Delwin Vriend began working for King’s College: A Christian Liberal Arts College in Edmonton. Throughout his employment, he was given positive evaluations, salary increases and promotions for his work performance. On February 20th, 1990 in conversation with the President of the College, Delwin was asked about his sexual orientation. He disclosed he was gay. Causing much anguish and hand-wringing, the College developed a position statement on homosexuality which was adopted by its Board of Governors on January 11th, 1991. Shortly after that, the College asked Vriend to voluntarily resign – he would be paid 3 months severance. He declined and was fired.

{Read the King’s College Memo of Jan 14, 1991, communicating its position statement on homosexuality: here. Source Library and Archives Canada}

Within weeks, Gay and Lesbian Awareness (GALA), an Edmonton-based civil rights organization, began organizing actions to “respond to this dreadful and unacceptable firing.” With Delwin’s support, they set up a “Delwin Vriend Defense Fund” to assist with legal costs, and began soliciting donations from the community.

In June of that year, Vriend and GALA tried to file a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission on the grounds that his employer discriminated against him due to his sexual orientation. The Commission gave Vriend a pass explaining he could not make a claim because the Individual Rights Protection Act (IRPA) did not include sexual orientation as a protected ground.

In early 1994, GALA wrote to their sister organization, the Calgary Lesbian and Gay Political Action Guild (CLAGPAG) seeking moral and financial support to sue the Government of Alberta. They need $6,000 more dollars to take the case to the Court of Queen’s Bench.

Financial support rolled in and on April 13th, 1994, Judge Anne Russell decisively ruled that Alberta’s human rights law was inconsistent with the Charter of Rights. In her decision, she wrote: “Regardless of whether there was any intent to discriminate, the effect of the decision to deny homosexuals recognition under the legislation is to reinforce negative stereotyping and prejudice thereby perpetuating and implicitly condoning its occurrence.” The Alberta Human Rights Commission would now have to investigate discrimination cases based on sexual orientation.

On May 5th, the Government of Alberta appealed Russell’s decision and asked the courts to freeze the Human Rights Commission’s new mandate.

The Alberta Court of Appeal ruled 2-1 in favour of the Government, against Vriend, on February 23, 1996. Justice John McClung made national headlines with the sensational phrasing he used in his decision, including the number of times he used the word “morality.” He was bold enough to invoke both sodomy and a link to serial killers Dahmer, Bernardo, and Olsen. He wrote: “I am unable to conclude that it was a forbidden, let alone a reversible legislative response, for the province of Alberta to step back from the validation of homosexual relations, including sodomy, as a protected and fundamental right, thereby, ‘rebutting a millennium of moral teaching.'”

This mobilized Alberta’s gay community into action like no other court case had before. Fundraising efforts redoubled, and there were cheers heard when on March 6, 1996, Vriend decided to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada which agreed to hear the case. Garden parties, garage sales, collection plates at gay bars – there were solicitations for the Delwin Vriend Defense Fund seemingly everywhere.

On November 4th, 1997, the Supreme Court hearings began. The Court heard from 17 interveners including provincial governments, religious organizations and civil liberties groups. Alberta Premier Ralph Klein pandering to his socially conservative base threatened to invoke the notwithstanding clause (section 33 of the Charter) in order to override any defeat the Court might deliver. The entire country appeared to be hooked on the Court Case and vitriol filled newspapers and airwaves.

Then on the morning of April 2, 1998, the Supreme Court was about to deliver its verdict. Vriend recalled: “I remember standing outside the door of the lawyer’s office in Edmonton, just after nine o’clock in the morning. I just couldn’t bring myself to step inside. Then I heard the cheers from inside the office, and I just started crying.”


Victorious Vriend at a News Scrum on April 2nd, 1998: Source CBC News Edmonton

The Supreme Court minced Appeal Justice McClung’s previous legal arguments and ruled unanimously in favour of Vriend. They wrote that the exclusion of homosexuals from Alberta’s Individual Rights Protection Act was a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

They further wrote: “the exclusion from the IRPA’s protection sends a message to all Albertans that it is permissible, and perhaps even acceptable, to discriminate against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation. Perhaps most important is the psychological harm which may ensue from this state of affairs. In excluding sexual orientation from the IRPA’s protection, the government has, in effect, stated that “all persons are equal in dignity and rights” except gay men and lesbians. Such a message, even if it is only implicit, must offend” Section 15 of the Charter.

At a press conference later that day Vriend said: “Shame on you, Ralph Klein, shame on you (Treasurer) Stockwell Day. You had until 7:45 this morning to do the right thing, and you demonstrated to the very end that you are not a government of the people. You are a government against the people. Haha, I win!” to the applause of supporters.

Vriend kiss

Delwin Vriend, right, gets a congratulatory kiss from partner Andrew Gagnon at a post-verdict rally at the Edmonton Legislature. [Photo Credit: The Canadian Press/Kevin Frayer]

Federal Justice Minister Anne McLellan said she was pleased with the judgment: “I believe profoundly that all Canadians, including Albertans, do not see it as appropriate to discriminate on the basis of someone’s sexual orientation.” The ruling immediately had a similar effect on Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories, the only two other jurisdictions that had not included sexual orientation in their human rights laws by then.

Many Calgarians were jubilant that night, filling gay bars to capacity. Local television journalists were doing live newsfeeds from the bars too, fervently trying to get a soundbite from joyous revellers.

Vriend, emotionally drained from the long unfolding court cases, would shortly thereafter move to Paris, France. He explained that he had had a lifetime’s fill of media attention, demonstrations, protests and hate mail.

The Vriend decision proved to be of great importance to future legal battles in Canada. It was specifically used to argue provincial cases against bans on same-sex marriage throughout Canada. Also, the decision shaped legal precedent concerning provincial and federal government relationships.

During the 10th Anniversary celebrations at Edmonton City Hall, the landmark decision was described as “Alberta’s Stonewall,” referencing the riots that sparked the gay liberation movement in New York in 1969.

Former Edmonton City Councillor, Michael Phair, who had been involved with the Delwin Vriend Defense Fund from the very beginning recalled: “I remember the immediate rally and goodwill with the verdict. People were very celebratory, but over the next few days, things began to darken substantially with the backlash. I and many others were caught in the maelstrom that occurred for about a week after the decision. Because I was an out public figure, there had been some death threats, and extra security had to be called in. It was not until Klein finally accepted the decision and said that he wouldn’t use the notwithstanding clause that things settled down.”

In 2013, Delwin Vriend travelled to Calgary and was honoured with the inaugural Chinook Fund Hero Award which is given annually by the Calgary Chinook Fund in thanks and recognition for outstanding contributions to the LGBTQ community and our history.


Pride and Pre-justice (a recap)

Proclaiming your gay pride in Calgary used to be hard. In previous years, homophobia and transphobia were actively practiced in our city. We had both an unsympathetic society and an unjust state. Here is the speediest of recaps.

1980 – Calgary gay activists host a national gay rights conference that ends in a controversial rally and march. Then Mayor Ross Alger and police Chief, Brian Sawyer are decidedly unsupportive.

1981 – Newly elected Calgary Mayor Ralph Klein proclaims he is a mayor for everyone including the gay community, then quickly distances himself from gays due to public outcry.

1987 –  Delegates from many of Calgary’s gay and lesbian organizations come together to form an umbrella organization called Project Pride Calgary. Inspired by the Stonewall Riots, they produce a Pride festival locally to celebrate community. Their first festival in 1988 includes a concert, workshops, a dance, and a family picnic – but no public rally or protest.

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1990 Pride Rally Poster

1990 – the Calgary Lesbian and Gay Political Action Guild (CLAGPAG), one of the Project Pride partners, organizes the first political rally, which they internally described as a media stunt. 140 people muster at the Old Y to pick up lone ranger masks, and then gather at the Boer War Statue in Central Memorial Park.

1991 – CLAGPAG more ambitiously, holds its first Pride Parade. 400 people at City Hall cheer gay Member of Parliament Svend Robinson, who gives an inspiring speech despite gloomy weather and even gloomier protesters, three of whom were arrested. 1991 is also the year Mayor Al Duerr famously proclaims gay pride week in Calgary but then denies future proclamations due to public pressure.

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Svend Robinson, June 16, 1991.  Photo: Luke Shwart

1998 – Vriend vs. Alberta. The Supreme Court decision forces Alberta to include sexual orientation as a prohibited ground for human rights discrimination. Alberta Premier Ralph Klein blusters, and stirs up his socially conservative base, but in the end capitulates.

2001 – Former Conservative Prime Minister, Joe Clark, agrees to be Calgary’s Pride Parade Marshall and solicits scorn from social conservatives everywhere, including the Westboro Baptist Church. “We might have a big crowd preaching against those fags up there Sunday,” Reverend Fred Phelps says from Topeka, Kansas but then fails to show up.

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Joe Clark, June 10, 2001.  Photo: Grant Neufeld

2002- Calgary Police raid Goliath’s Sauna, and charge operators and found-ins under antiquated bawdy house laws, provoking legal challenges from the gay community. (The Crown eventually drops charges in 2005 citing changing community standards)

2005 – Same-sex marriage becomes legal in Canada. The Alberta Government remains officially opposed and threatens to invoke the notwithstanding clause to negate the law in Alberta, but doesn’t.

2006 – Parade marchers tussle with protestors carrying signs “no pride in sodomy.” One marcher is arrested.  Police Chief Jack Beaton says publicly he disapproves of the protestors.

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2009 Pride Board Members, Dallas Barnes & Sam Casselman.  Photo: Kevin Allen

2009 – Pride Calgary moves the parade from June to the September long weekend, and transitions from a grassroots collective to an incorporated non-profit society.

2011 – Mayor Naheed Nenshi is the first Calgary mayor to march in our Pride Parade, and is parade marshall that year, making national headlines.

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Mayor Naheed Nenshi, September 4, 2011 Photo: Todd Korol, The Globe and Mail

2016 – Protestors are hard to find and politicians are seemingly everywhere – it has been an amazing journey.


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