The most important work done by Ottawa queer group Jer’s Vision is in the schools. In the classrooms and the auditoriums, queer youth reach out to other queer youth to let them know they’re okay, that there is a world beyond high school, that gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people live self-actualizing lives as individuals and members of community.
Like the annual Pride Parade and the youth group at Pink Triangle Services, it’s fair to say that Jer’s Vision’s school program saves lives. And reduces the anguish of growing up queer in a world of homophobic parents, teachers and priests.
With a provincial election in Ontario now half over, their work ought to concentrate our minds. That’s because Jer’s Vision can only get permission from one of Ottawa’s four school boards for its youth to enter classrooms. That’s right: the English-language public-school system.
The other three school boards have repeatedly rejected their requests. So have all the religious schools in the area (quelle surprise!) and all but one of the other private schools.
So here we are, 140 years or so into funding the Catholic schools in this province and they still won’t allow queer youth to talk to other queer youth within their buildings. So much for the vehement argument made by the NDP in the 1980s — that by extending funding to cover the last grades of the Catholic system, it could be brought into line with modern values, knowledge and laws guaranteeing things like, oh, like human rights and evolution.
Truth is, the provincial education standards are not actually being enforced in the Catholic system. And the human-rights code sure isn’t. The Catholic system continues to be a remarkably hostile place for gay teachers. And many Catholic schools continue to be particularly hostile places for queer youth. Not that high schools anywhere are particularly noteworthy for embracing queer kids. And yet, it’s not always an emotionally devastating experience. Increasingly, youth report positive experiences at their schools and Gay-Straight Alliances are making gains throughout the system.
The public-school system, that is.
It’s certainly puzzling to see John Tory and the provincial Progressive Conservatives campaigning to expand public funding to all religious private schools. Surely, they can’t be blind to just how bigoted the Catholic system continues to be? It’s mind-boggling to see them frame the funding debate as one of “fairness.” Fairness for whom? Certainly not fairness for those of us who respect the equality sections of the Canadian Charter Of Rights And Freedoms.
Because the uncomfortable truth is that many of those same religious schools proudly preach a prejudiced, bigoted curriculum to their students. They teach them that their religion is the only true religion, or that their people are the chosen people of their god. Some of them teach that women are inferior to men. And that homosexuals are evil, seduced by the devil or some other such hateful claptrap.
Now, these schools are going to continue teaching this and they have a right to do so under the Charter’s rights to freedom of religion. I can live with that, because the Charter rightly aims to balance society’s freedoms.
But to teach it on the public dime is, well, to use the language of religion, just plain wrong. Let the parents who want to imbue their children with prejudice and bigotry pay through the nose to do so.
And to suggest that giving them tax money would help tame them into following provincial standards is laughable. It would merely create a powerful vested interest of religious schools that would defend their right to teach their own way; politicians would soon ensure that education ministry staff kept their distance. Proof of that is John Tory’s election comments that it would be okay if the schools taught their own substitute for evolution. He’s caved already and he’s not even in power.
Surely, we’ve got to vote to stop this. In the long run, we should follow Quebec and Newfoundland and remove the Catholic system, creating only a public system. For now, we need to defend the system from funding further bigotry disguised as religion.
By the way, if you’re sick of an electoral system in which rural areas dominate the agenda and cities are punished, vote yes in the referendum for Mixed Member Proportional. It’s not perfect — no system is — but it would better reflect how individuals vote and shift more power to the cities. That’s good enough for me.