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Privacy commissioner issues advisory on GSAs

Last Updated Jun 19, 2019 at 7:21 am PDT

A man holds a flag on a hockey stick during the Pride parade in Toronto, Sunday, June 25, 2017. The first court challenge to an Alberta law that bars schools from telling parents when their children join gay-straight alliances carries some echoes of the debate over legalizing same-sex marriage more than a decade ago, according to one LGBTQ advocate. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

EDMONTON (660 NEWS) – As debate rolls on about gay-straight alliances in Alberta schools, the province’s privacy commissioner has chimed in.

In an advisory issued on Tuesday by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta states “the disclosure of any personal information, including someone’s membership in a voluntary student organization, must be in accordance with Alberta’s access and privacy laws.”

This comes as the provincial government moves forward on reforming the education system with Bill 8.

Critics say a problem with the bill is it removes a specific clause that principals can only say a GSA exists, and not inform parents about who is a member of the club.

However, the government has said the legislation will still prevent school employees from disclosing whether a student is in a club, like a GSA.

Commissioner Jill Clayton writes in a statement that she has been following the debate for some time, and felt it was necessary to clear up details on Alberta’s privacy laws.

Clayton hopes the advisory can help inform both school boards and students on the issue.

Doctor Kristopher Wells, who specializes in sexual and gender minority youth at MacEwan University, believes the advisory is helpful.

“I think the privacy commissioner was needing to ensure the public fully understood that students have privacy rights in schools and they do apply to gay-straight alliances,” he said. “I think it was very necessary given the current minister of education’s responses. There is a great deal of concern with this minister and their lack of support for LGBTQ youth.”

Despite the government’s assurances membership to GSAs would still remain private after the passage of Bill 8, Wells thinks removing that specific clause creates a troubling prospect.

“That would be outing the student without their consent or permission, and we know that can place LGBTQ youth in great harm.”

Further, it is crucial to keep schools and students well informed of the facts under the law.

“To remind schools that they have a positive duty to protect the privacy of students, and only under very limited circumstance are they allowed to violate that privacy requirement,” Wells added. “Young people, under the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, do have rights that are independent of their parents and public institutions like schools cannot violate those rights.”

Commissioner Clayton also said in her statement that “at the core of privacy laws is the ability to control one’s own information. It is often difficult to know what this means until you or someone you know is personally affected. It is my hope that with this advisory, school boards and private schools will better understand their obligations to student privacy in this regard.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education issued this statement in response to the advisory:

“Today‚Äôs statement from the Information and Privacy Commissioner confirms what our government has been saying all along. We have strong legislation in place which protects our students and this privacy legislation supersedes any other legislation, including the Education Act. Our government will have the most comprehensive statutory protections for LGBTQ2s+ students in Canada. Students will continue to be protected.”