Canada: Mayor says controversial gay-straight clubs bill 'makes us look like hillbillies'

Calgary's mayor has attacked a controversial gay rights bill before the provincial legislature, saying passing it would draw "international attention toward what kinds of hillbillies we are".

The bill was introduced by the ruling Tories to counter a private member's bill tabled by Liberal Laurie Blakeman, which would have given students in Alberta schools the right to set up friendship clubs where gay and straight pupils can meet.

There are already 94 so-called gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in schools in Alberta's major cities of Calgary and Edmonton but none in rural or faith-based schools, the Toronto Star reports.

The Tory bill would have encouraged the establishment of GSAs but would have left the final decision to schools and school boards.

The original version said that if schools refused to set up GSAs, students could take their case to the courts. An amendment then stated that the Government would set up the clubs if schools refused.

But critics have claimed the bill does nothing to tackle homophobia and that forcing students to set up GSAs off school grounds would be akin to the enforced racial segregation that existed in the US until the middle of the 20th century.

The bill has been put "on hold" by Alberta premier Jim Prentice, who said he wants to hear more from all sides after an increasingly divisive debate.

In a speech to Calgary's chamber of commerce, mayor Naheed Nenshi said the city is "the absolute epitome of meritocracy, of multiculturalism, of pluralism, of support and of success" and the bill would have only reinforced negative stereotypes about Alberta.

"Two weeks ago, a member of the legislative assembly got up and proposed a bill that said any kid in school can set up a club and suddenly our provincial legislators - in a time when the price of oil is dropping, in a time when our infrastructure needs are extraordinary, in a time when we have urban and regional issues that we've got to get more done on - spent two weeks talking about what club a kid in school can join or not," he added.

"How ridiculous is that? How additionally ridiculous is it that we know that these clubs help kids stay safe?"

He praised Prentice for "putting the brakes" on the bill.

"By saying not all rights are absolute, the government seemed to be saying that our children don’t have the right to be safe. That’s not right. That’s not fair," Mayor Nenshi said.

"If we say that we live in a city where we were thinking it would be OK for a 15-year-old to appear before a judge to ask the judge if the 15-year-old can start a club in his school that no one would be forced to belong to, well folks, that would the Scopes Monkey Trial of Alberta.

"We would end up having international attention toward what kinds of hillbillies we are. None of us need that."