When grade 10 student Cassandra Vezina-Levesque and another friend decided to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at De La Salle, a French public school in Ottawa, they were initially rebuffed.
Vezina-Levesque, however, wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
“I wanted to start a support group at my school, and my principal wouldn’t let me,” she says. “So I got Jer’s Vision involved.”
With a lawyer for a mother, Vezina-Levesque she is aware enough of the law to challenge it. She questioned the principal’s assertion that there was a policy forbidding such clubs.
Jer’s Vision director Jeremy Dias says that Gay-Straight Alliances are still in their infancy with the city’s French public school board.
“We got an opportunity to speak to the superintendent and the principal, and as it turns out, the superintendent and the principal just said that they never had [anyone approach them] like this before,” says Dias. “There has been one Gay-Straight Alliance in the [French public] school board previously, but it’s a new principal, and a new school, and they’ve never really done it before.”
Dias also says that the principal and school board were concerned about community and parent reaction.
“They’ve had Gay-Straight Alliances, and it’s not worked out well because it wasn’t well planned out,” Dias says. “It ended up being a target for homophobia. They’ve heard of a number of cases where they’ve had interesting experiences, so they really wanted to make whatever happened at this school something more successful and long-term.”
To that end, a series of meetings have been set up between all of the parties involved, plus Jer’s Vision.
“I think the reason they were stalling was because they had no idea what a Gay-Straight Alliance is and does, and the other problem was that the students weren’t able to give that information either,” Dias says. “They didn’t really know — they’d heard of the idea, and they’d Googled it, and they didn’t know what the club would be doing. The school wanted to know, very practically, because they’re in a room and what do they do together? Is it a discussion group, is it something social, is it a party? So I think that was the immediate concern, and now that it’s demystified, they’re cautiously optimistic.”
Dias says that his group has proposed an education model, and it will likely be termed a “diversity club.”
Vezina-Levesque, who identifies as bisexual, says that the GSA is needed. De La Salle has no in-school support and, as an art school, there are a lot of queer students.
“Most students that I know, their parents aren’t very approving of their sexual orientation, so they won’t let them go to support groups out of school hours,” Vezina-Levesque says. “I decided we should do one during school hours so that everyone can benefit from it.”
Vezina-Levesque also says that another student at De La Salle had tried to start a GSA earlier in the year, but backed down when the principal nixed the proposal.
“I thought it was ridiculous because it was clearly discrimination on his part,” Vezina-Levesque says. “I’m not one to pass up the opportunity to speak up, and it’s very important to me because I’m part of the community — we have our own rights like everybody else out there, so I decided that if nobody’s going to stand up, then I’d better stand up.”
Dias says that in his discussions with the school, they weren’t aware of the incident.
Marcel Morin, the principal of De La Salle, only offered the following statement by email.
“Establishing an extracurricular activity is something that takes time and needs to follow proper protocol with the school and the school board. We have had our initial meeting in order to start this process but are still far from establishing a committee. Hopefully, everything can be set in motion for the upcoming 2009-2010 school year, but we need to make sure that we have a solid foundation. We unfortunately have no comment at this time.”
Vezina-Levesque will be around to see the group take shape over the next two years, and Jer’s Vision will be providing coaching to see it get off the ground.
As well, this incident has provided an opportunity for Jer’s Vision to make inroads with the Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario, who have expressed an interest in further activities, including workshops for teachers around diversity issues.
As for Vezina-Levesque, she retains a sense of skepticism.
“I’m really hoping the group will happen because we need one.”