RED DEER, Alta. — Alberta's United Conservative rank and file slammed head-on into their boss at their founding policy conference Sunday over a controversial policy regarding gay schoolchildren.
Delegates voted 57 per cent to have parents told when their child is involved in any subject of a religious or sexual nature, including after-school social clubs like gay-straight alliances.
The issue sparked heated debate on the convention floor, and hours later party leader Jason Kenney told reporters he interpreted the resolution differently and won't implement it the way members see it.
"I will take the resolutions adopted today as important input, but I hold the pen on the platform," said Kenney.
He said policy has to work for the party but also for a province of four million people if the UCP becomes government in the 2019 election.
"Ultimately the leader is responsible for producing a balanced, winning platform. That's my intention," he said.
Gay-straight alliances have been a lightning rod issue in Alberta in recent years given their location at the intersection of education, religion, students' rights, parents' rights and human rights.
GSAs are social clubs set up by students to help LGBTQ children feel welcome and to lessen any chance of bullying.
Advocates say such clubs are critical to kids' well-being and to keep them from self-harm. But they say some parents would be hostile to their children joining and that by notifying parents, children would not take the risk to sign up and the GSAs would wither and die.
Delegates passed the motion by a count of 562 to 429 despite pleas from three senior UCP caucus members.
"This is about outing gay kids," UCP caucus whip Ric McIver said at the speaker's microphone as some delegates hooted and shouted at him.
"You know what folks, you may disagree with some people in the room with people being gay, but they are gay. They need to be safe. We cannot out kids that are in a club (designed) to protect themselves."
McIver also told delegates they court political disaster.
"(If) you want to be called the 'lake of fire' party, this is your opportunity. Don't be called the 'lake of fire' party, I'm begging you," he said.
"Lake of fire" refers to the experience of the old Wildrose party, which joined the Progressive Conservatives last year to create the UCP under Kenney.
In the 2012 election, Wildrose blew a late lead in the polls in part because party leader Danielle Smith refused to sanction a candidate who penned an anti-gay blog urging homosexuals to repent or face eternal damnation in hell's "lake of fire."
Proponents on the floor said it's a parental-rights issue.
"It's not about anti-gay. It's about fundamental God-given freedoms," said Spruce Grove pastor Brian Coldwell.
Kenney said it was a "poorly worded motion" and said the way he read it, it affirmed that the UCP simply upholds the current law that parents are notified if kids are taught issues of religion or sexuality.
"Let me be absolutely stone-cold clear: a United Conservative government will not be changing law or policy to require notification of parents when kids join GSAs. We will no do that. You can take that to the bank," said Kenney.
Kenney, however, reiterated he would like to have parents notified if joining a GSA could put a child at harm. GSA advocates say there is no sure way to know if a child would be put at risk. They have called it Kenney's backdoor method of killing GSAs by introducing doubt about when parents would be told.
Alberta's NDP have cast GSAs as a barometer of tolerance versus intolerance of gay and minority rights, and have passed a bill specifically forbidding schools from notifying parents about GSA participation.
NDP Education Minister David Eggen told reporters the decision shows the UCP is not ready to be a big-tent party.
"Just by passing this today they've made (it) a more dangerous and unsafe place for kids in schools. That uncertainty, that sense of outing kids if they choose to join a GSA, that's completely unacceptable," said Eggen.
The UCP also passed resolutions on a number of other issues, including ones for balanced budgets and ending the provincial carbon tax.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press
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