Parents for Choice in Education: A look into the powerful and politically connected group that wants to out LGBTQ students

Just who is this hardcore social conservative special interest group and why do they hate GSAs so much?

o-JASON-KENNEY-570square.jpgThe shadowy advocacy group behind Jason Kenney’s efforts to out students who join gay straight alliances or GSAs has a name. 

It’s the innocuously titled Parents for Choice in Education and for years this group has fought against GSAs and for the right to out students who join GSAs. Lucky for them they found the perfect social conservative vessel in Jason Kenney to try and mainstream their hard core social conservative beliefs.

GSAs are student led, after school support clubs where LGBTQ youth and their friends and allies can hang out and be in a safe space. The research literature on GSAs shows that they reduce suicide risk for all students in schools that have them. Parents for Choice in Education and various other hard core social conservatives hate them. Who knew that hanging out after school, eating pizza and talking about Snapchat in a safe space was  “hostile to the teachings of Christianity, Islam, Orthodox Judaism, and other religions.

So who are Parents for Choice? The Alberta chapter (there’s also a group with a similar name and mandate in Utah) was founded five years ago by Garnett Genuis, now a Conservative MP for Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan. Genuis received an endorsement from the extremist anti-abortion organization the Campaign Life Coalition in the 2015 campaign.

The “non-partisan and non-religious” group is the organization who brought this outing issue to Kenney's attention. It did it through its survey of PC leadership candidates back in December 2016. Though they frame it as mandatory parental consent for all student organizations and clubs instead of outing LGBTQ students, this survey set the stage for the eventual Jason Kenney blow-up on GSAs. That’s the one where he told the Calgary Herald editorial board that schools should inform the parents of students who join GSAs. A sort of reverse snitch line for vulnerable and at-risk LGBTQ youth and their allies. That position was loudly and quickly denounced by students, educators and experts. When and if a student decides to come out or even tell their parents that they have LGBTQ friends should be up to them and not a lifelong politician and ardent social conservative like Jason Kenney.

And the hardcore social conservative connections to Parents for Choice run deep.

  • Jojo Ruba who founded the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical reform, a well known anti-abortion group, is a director with Parents for Choice. The federal government is looking at shutting down summer job grants for the extremist group that has compared abortion to the Holocaust.
  • maxresdefaultGREEN.jpgReverend Brian Coldwell is also a director. He's also in charge of two private Christian schools and he says he “has a duty to protect the flock of God” by not allowing GSAs or as he describes it “gay activists” who will confuse and corrupt children into the publicly funded private schools he runs. Coldwell is also in an ongoing legal battle with Alberta’s education minister over whether the schools he runs have to allow GSAs.
  • Greg Downing, who ran for the Christian Heritage Party in the 2015 federal election, is also a director. Downing is also a former RCMP member who was suspended from the force in July 2010, shortly after being charged with uttering threats. He was later convicted. During his trial Downing’s ex-wife testified “he threatened to throw her out the window during a heated argument.

Just how PCE is funded isn’t clear. They appear to rely heavily on individual donors, using your typical scare tactics like “Children are endangered in Alberta schools,” or “Children Face Risks in Alberta schools: Please donate” to get supporters to open their wallets.

We do know the group has the support, although it’s not clear how much of it is financial, of some well connected religious organizations. The Association for Reformed Political Action Canada, a group encouraging Reformed Christians to take political action with a biblical perspective, is pushing PCE’s message on its website and Concerned Christians Canada has been running a Repeal Bill 10 campaign since February.

John Carpay, president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a registered charity, is also a huge supporter of PCE having written about GSAs and has frequently spoken at public rallies hosted by PCE. Carpay ran for the Wildrose Party in the 2012 election and in 1994 wrote an article for the National Post criticizing then Premier Ralph Klein for not using the notwithstanding clause to block the Supreme Court decision forcing the province to protect homosexual people from discrimination. Carpay’s arguments and actions are slightly more nuanced today but are still overwhelmingly focused on anti-LGBTQ activism.  

The ideology or worldview of GSAs is not neutral,” he wrote in 2015, “and is not compatible with the teachings of most religions about human sexuality.”

“By imposing ideological clubs and activities on every school, Bill 10 removes the right of parents to have a meaningful say about the culture, character and learning environment of the schools that their children attend.”

This is, of course, both a drastic misreading of the law and a fundamental misunderstanding of what GSAs are and what they do. 

PCE and those who support them are unlikely to change their minds on GSAs. They seem quite comfortable fighting the government and the public and rolling the dice with PC leader Jason Kenney, his allies within the Wildrose and their friends within the religious right. These associations, though comfortable, certainly do lessen the group’s credibility as being non-partisan and non-religious.

But beyond this group’s “credibility” their biggest disservice to Albertans is their narrow, divisive and toxic opinion on GSAs and the real and negative effect it is having on LGBTQ youth in our province. Parents for Choice in Education definitely helps a narrow subset of social conservative activists feel pleased with themselves but they're certainly not helping vulnerable and at-risk LGBTQ youth. There is a reason that LGBTQ youth are homeless and attempt and commit suicide at such high rates compared to straight kids - it's because of the work of groups like Parents for Choice in Education.