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Resolving DifferencesResolving Differences

Resolving Differences

The official founding general meeting of Alberta’s new United Conservative Party sparked friction over a resolution pitting parental rights against the LGBT community. But Convivium contributor Jason West writes the moment could become a catalyst for social conservatives and social progressives to put differences aside and work in good faith for common sense change.

Jason West
6 minute read

At the beginning of May, the United Conservative Party of Alberta held its founding Annual General Meeting. A historic 2600 members gathered to approve a constitution, pass policy and elect a board of directors. This marked the next step in a remarkable marathon of successes for its leader Jason Kenney. Unsurprisingly the media coverage of the event has focused predominantly on one controversial motion, Resolution 30, which would require schools to notify parents if their children join peer groups that discuss topics of a religious or sexual nature.

This event, and the aftermath to come, affects me in many ways. I am a father of six children, one of whom recently went to a GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) meeting to support a gay friend. I’m also the President of a Catholic College and have fairly traditional Catholic beliefs on moral issues that many in our society would find strongly conservative. Additionally, I was appointed by Jason Kenney as a Progressive Conservative legacy party member to the interim policy committee for the United Conservative Party, which oversaw the process leading up the AGM. While I speak only for myself and not for my Church or political party, as someone engaged in political life, a person of faith, an educational leader, and a parent I think there is much to be said about Resolution 30, and how faith might be brought to bear on this issue of public concern in a more productive way. 

To understand the heated nature of the UCP debate, it is important to be aware of manner in which Alberta’s current NDP government has used this issue in its attempts to brand Kenney and the new party as irresponsible and dangerous. Since taking office, they have strengthened the requirement for mandatory GSA’s, and passed legislation to prevent parents from being notified in all but exceptional cases. They have also antagonized parental right activists by approving a guide for gender in schools that included such suggestions as phasing out gendered sports teams, not using the term “parents”, and replacing gendered pro-nouns with fabricated terms, as well as a long list of other recommendations that are beyond the mainstream. Further concerns were raised when a GSA website funded by the provincial government was found to have links to pages with explicit sexual content. All of these actions have galvanized people who feel that the current government’s approach is too invasive and intrudes on parental authority. 

In this climate it is not surprising that Resolution 30 has been taken to be an attempt by social conservatives to require schools to notify parents when their children attend GSAs or, as those opposing the motion put it, it is an attempt to out gay kids. The actual text says nothing of the sort. Rather, it seeks to “reinstate parental opt-in consent for any subjects of a religious or sexual nature, including enrollment in extracurricular activities/clubs or distribution of any instructional materials/resources related to these topics.”

As Jason Kenney has pointed out, the motion is confusing. There never has been a requirement for parental “opt-in consent” for religious and sexual education in Alberta. Presumably, what the drafters intend to refer to are provisions made in Bill 44, section 9 by the Stelmach government in 2009 requiring parents to be informed when religious or sexual curriculum is covered. Bill 44 also mandated that a parent’s written request to withdraw a child from these subjects be respected. This was an opt-out model, with a requirement for notification, not an opt-in model. 

While Bill 44 was controversial at the time, the requirement for consent, is hardly extreme in itself. It will remain controversial to those who want mandatory Sex Ed for all, but in the context of Alberta politics it is more or less the status quo. What is controversial today is that this is extended to extracurricular activities and clubs, code for GSAs according to journalists. 

However, it is not obvious this is the case. Leading parental rights activist Theresa Ng has leveled official complaints against inaccurate media coverage, arguing that GSAs are billed as social clubs to reduce bullying, not clubs to deliver Sex Ed curriculum. In her view, Resolution 30 would not be applicable to GSAs so long as their activities stick to their stated purpose. Accordingly, the Resolution is not aimed at outing gay kids, but ensuring that clubs don’t become a way to circumvent a parent’s right of oversight for Sex Ed curriculum. 

Unfortunately, this means Resolution 30 is caught in the midst of competing values. For the LGBT community, the safety of vulnerable youth trumps every other concern. For others, the value of Resolution 30 consists in asserting that a UCP government would reverse the disturbing tendency of Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP to extend State control over how children are raised at the expense of parental involvement and oversight. 

So long as the problem is posed in this way, the overarching narrative is not one of either Conservative faction, but that of the NDP. In the immediate aftermath of the decision, party members unhappy with the approval of Resolution 30 took to Twitter vowing to organize to have it revoked at the next AGM scheduled for Edmonton in February, 2019. 

For many reasons this would be a disaster, the most obvious being that the 2019 AGM will take place on the cusp of the next election. If social progressives just try to have resolution 30 overturned, we can be sure that social conservative activists will organize to defend it. In this scenario, the only winner is the NDP. The vote is likely to be close, and even in the unlikely case that Resolution 30 is removed from the policy book, a result in the 50 per cent range won’t show meaningful support for the LGBT community. 

In facing this conundrum, it is time for social conservatives and social progressives in the UCP to set aside passions and come together to find solutions. UCP leader Jason Kenney has suggested that Resolution 30 is badly worded. Given the media coverage and confusion over its meaning, he is right. Instead of going to war in February, leaders on both sides of the question should be uniting in a common effort to find better wording for a new resolution that the vast majority of delegates could support. 

Social conservatives and people of faith care deeply about the safety of all children. For virtually all of these people their views on sexual morality and parental rights don’t lead them to think we need to ‘pray away the gay’ or pressure young adults to reject their own identity. The vast majority of parents love their children far more profoundly than the government ever will, and are quite capable of responsibly embracing and supporting children who mature in ways different from what they might have originally expected or hoped.

A resolution both sides could support would need to be one that both respects legitimate concerns many parents have with the NDP’s presumption that the government knows better than them what is best for their own children. It would also have to show an unconditional regard for the safety of LGBT youth.

In addressing these issues the UCP needs to be bold and creative. Beyond reworking Resolution 30, it needs to come forward with some positive policies that address the genuine concerns of the LGBT community. In this area people of faith within the Conservative party ought to be taking a supportive role in this process. Whatever one’s view on sexual morality, discrimination and abuse of LGBT persons is profoundly unjust. 

Furthermore, disproportionate incidents of depression, suicide, and homelessness in the LGBT community are issues that people of all political parties should be addressing. If there is something to be ashamed of about the 2018 AGM, it is the fact that with some 1300 member-submitted policies not one of them addressed these issues. Surely even the most optimistic GSA supporter doesn’t expect them to solve all these problems. We need to be more imaginative and get past the ‘us versus them’ mentality that the media narrative around Resolution 30 promotes. There is no reason in the world why people of good will who stood up to oppose each other on this motion can’t come together to build meaningful change. 

Of course it is not for a middle-aged straight Catholic family man to dictate what these solutions should be. But social conservatives like myself can play a helpful role in this dialogue, by assisting LGBT members to find policies that address their concerns in ways that make partners out of people whom they may otherwise alienate.

At the 2018 UCP AGM, booths for the activist groups Parents for Choice in Education and the pro-life Wilberforce Project stood beside the LGBTory booth.  Perhaps the time has come for these communities to stand together in bringing forward policy so that in February instead of a battle over Resolution 30 that nobody will win, the UCP passes a set of common sense policies to help fix the problems LGBT citizens face that virtually everyone can support.

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Jason West

Jason West is President of Newman Theological College in Edmonton where he also teaches philosophy and is the author of How to Become a Rational Animal (Justin Press).

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