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'We didn't give women half a vote': Ex-deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk shuns gay rights bill

Alberta's ruling Tories announced Tuesday they wouldn't force MLAs to vote along party lines on a controversial youth gay rights bill — and the party's former deputy premier and education minister said he couldn't stand behind the "incremental" measure.

Thomas Lukaszuk said he fully supports gay-straight alliances in schools and believes Bill 10, rolled out by Premier Jim Prentice Monday, passes the buck to school boards to make a "defining" decision on an important human rights matter.

He was the lone Tory to vote against a second reading of the bill Tuesday, but it passed 42-10. The bill will still require a third reading to pass.

The Tory bill preempted one from Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman that would have required school boards to support students hoping to launch a GSA in their school. Instead, Prentice said students would have the ability to appeal a school decision against such a group all the way to the Court of Queen’s Bench.

But Lukaszuk said he struggles to believe students would have the inclination – or financial means – to take such action and feels it would drag out for years, likely until after the student had graduated.

“I simply do not believe in incremental granting of human rights,” said Lukaszuk, who has kids enrolled in Catholic schools in Edmonton and St. Albert. “This bill is supposed to be a balance, some people refer to it as a field goal but not a touchdown . . . 50 years ago, we didn’t tell (Rosa Parks), ‘Well, OK, you no longer have to ride in the back of the bus, you can now move up to the middle of the bus.’

“We didn’t give women half a vote, we gave them a full vote during the suffrage debate.”

Government house leader Jonathan Denis told reporters the Progressive Conservative caucus would use its majority to limit debate on the bill.

Denis says it's important to hear debate, but added it can't go on “indefinitely.”

Catholic school boards, in particular, have come under fire amid the debate over GSAs. Tony Sykora of Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association said the boards his members represent have worked hard to develop an anti-bullying policy that identifies all forms of bullying, even ones that are directed at students who "identify as gay or have issues with gender identity."

“We don’t go out of our way to define the differences in (students),” said Sykora. “We believe everyone is valuable.”

John Carpay, a practising lawyer and president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, meanwhile, said concerns over whether students would actually have the ability to pursue the legal avenue offered by Prentice are valid.

Carpay said it took three years for a judge to render a decision on a matter involving pro-life advocates he represented who were slapped with non-academic misconduct sanctions for erecting graphic anti-abortion billboards on the school's campus.

"You can almost never proceed with litigation for less than $10,000 (and) it typically takes years," Carpay said.

But both Prentice and PC MLA Sandra Jansen, who has spoken publicly in the legislature in favour of GSAs, insisted Monday that Bill 10 was a positive move forward.

Jansen, specifically, said the province will continue to discuss the benefits of GSAs with school boards – data indicates there are currently 94 such clubs in Alberta.

“I believe at the end of the day we’re going to get to the point where there’s no school in the province that will refuse (the alliances),” she said.

Bill 10 also revokes the right of parents to pull their children out of class if sexual orientation is discussed, Jansen said.

Lukaszuk, meanwhile, said he wasn’t aware of any fellow Tories that wouldn’t be supporting his party’s bill.

He conceded that his stance will be opposed heavily by some, but said the issue boils down to a “matter of conscience.”

“You introduce taxes or lower taxes incrementally, but you don’t grant rights incrementally,” he said.

Lukaszuk lost out to Prentice earlier this year in the Tory leadership contest.

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