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Alberta politicians battle over LGBTQ student rights ahead of 2019 election

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Alberta Education Minister David Eggen

On Thursday, NDP Education Minister David Eggen warned that he could defund 28 religious private schools if they won't obey the law and implement diversity policies. UCP Leader Jason Kenney' also recently refused to expel a high-profile social conservative party member who compared pride flags with Nazi swastikas.

While these seem like separate stories, they are really one and the same.

Understanding this helps illustrate how radical social conservative activists, ideological dark money from corporate slush funds, extremist media outfits, and the fundamentalist religious school lobby are working with Kenney to embarrass the NDP Government and get the United Conservative Party elected in 2019.

At a news conference in Edmonton Wednesday, Eggen told reporters he has worked with 94 private schools to get them to comply with the provincial law that supports gay-straight alliances in schools, but that 28 refuse to cooperate.

The legislation, originally passed by the Progressive Conservative government of premier Jim Prentice and amended by the NDP to ensure students who join GSAs are not outed to their parents, has always been strongly resisted by the operators of many Alberta religious private schools.

Significantly, Eggen told the media Wednesday, he tried working with the 28 uncooperative schools to help them comply but "they stopped interacting with us for a while."

It's pretty obvious that this is intentional. There has appeared since mid-2016 to be a strategy by certain religious schools to force the government to enforce the law, presumably in hopes the NDP can then be portrayed as an ideological bully to its electoral disadvantage.

If the schools continue to defy the law, Eggen warned, taking away their subsidy of 70-per-cent of public school funding is a possibility. Significantly, though, he's leaving that off the table till after the provincial election expected next spring, which could well render the threat meaningless given Kenney's well known sympathy for social conservative bugbears, support for private religious schools, and current success in the polls.

Meanwhile, last Saturday lawyer John Carpay, a prominent social conservative warrior, was caught on tape comparing LGBTQ Pride flags to the banners of Nazism and Stalinism at a conference in Calgary put on by the far-right Rebel Media video blog. The inevitable cell-phone video soon appeared, and Carpay was immersed in the Lake of Fire, a feature of Alberta’s political geography.

It didn't help that, soon after, Albertans were reminded that Kenney once offensively compared Carpay to civil rights movement hero Rosa Parks, and an old recording surfaced in which the Opposition leader bragged about his efforts to defund abortions and oppose civil rights protections for LGBTQ people.

After that, there was no shortage of Albertans demanding that Kenney expel Carpay -- a friend, donor and longtime ally -- from UCP membership. Premier Notley chimed in, tweeting a demand that Kenney clearly condemn Carpay's views.

Carpay proffered a half-hearted apology. Kenney said his friend's views don't represent those of the UCP and tried to change the channel. Cornered, he reminded questioners Carpay had apologized. So far, the uproar refuses to die.

Despite his odious comparison, Carpay would be pretty hard for Kenney to dump. As blogger Dave Cournoyer pointed out, both are social conservative activists from Calgary who have run in the same circles for decades.

Carpay's controversial remark was made while he described the efforts of the so-called Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which he founded and runs, to use the courts to halt enforcement of legislation like Alberta’s GSA law.

The JCCF, in turn, is bankrolled by deep-pocketed right-wing funds like the Aureau Foundation and the Donner Canadian Foundation, with Rebel Media providing publicity and fund-raising opportunities.

Of course, short of another recording appearing, we'll probably never know exactly what Kenney has promised private religious school leaders behind closed doors, but it doesn't seem likely that it involves ensuring GSAs thrive in schools.

Meanwhile, shortly after a speech to the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, Kenney claimed it's not up to him to kick extremist members out of the UCP. "It's our board that deals with expulsions," the beleaguered UCP leader insisted.

"Decisions regarding membership revocation are made by the board as a whole, of which Jason Kenney is a voting member and obviously an influential voice," UCP President Erika Barootes supportively added in a message emailed to media.

Albertans may be puzzled by this change in Kenney's tune. Not so long ago, he was the Decider when it came to expelling misbehaving members.

Indeed, just two weeks ago, Kenney said of former party call centre leader Adam Strashok, who had been exposed as a white supremacist and participant in a business selling racist memorabilia, that "I have since instructed party officials to cancel Mr. Strashok’s membership." (Emphasis added,)

When it comes to disciplining members of Kenney's party, by the sound of it, it's a matter of different strokes for different blokes.

Image: David Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

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