3 min

Gay-straight alliances will be debated in Belleville

ONTARIO ELECTION / Out lesbian challenging minister of education in conservative riding

NDP candidate Sherry Hayes is running in Prince Edward-Hastings. Credit: (Hayes/NDP)

In the riding of Prince Edward-Hastings, just east of Toronto, NDP candidate Sherry Hayes is facing off against Ontario’s education minister, Leona Dombrowsky, and she’s expecting gay-straight alliances (GSA) to be a lightning-rod issue at the upcoming debates.

“GSAs are near and dear to my heart,” Hayes says. “My daughter, who is now in Grade 12, started a GSA at her [public] school this year, which is unheard of.”

Hayes is an out-and-proud lesbian running in a “very conservative area.”

NDP candidate Sherry Hayes is running in Prince Edward-Hastings.(Hayes/NDP)

“I’m out, but in terms of the rest of the riding, I don’t know if people know,” she admits. “I honestly couldn’t tell you if it’s a topic of conversation or not. People aren’t going to say anything to my face. I wish they would; that would make it a lot easier to deal with.”

Originally from the Georgian Bay area, the 47-year-old moved to the riding about 10 years ago, from Toronto. She is married, and her partner is a primary school teacher.

Hayes, a manager of transportation for Community Care, is also running against Progressive Conservative Todd Smith, a local radio news director. The Belleville area riding has been a PC stronghold since 2004, when Daryl Kramp unseated Liberal Lyle Vanclief, who had held the seat since 1988.

The race is already heating up, Hayes says. “In this election, I think anything can happen.”

Eight all-candidates' meetings have been lined up. Although none of the debates are scheduled to focus on education, Hayes expects some discussion on GSAs and faith-based schools. She says the MPP has a lot to answer for.

Dombrowsky, who has remained virtually silent since the issue broke in January, has said she will not force Catholic schools to allow GSAs.

“[Dombrowsky] toes the party line, big time. She doesn’t speak out on controversial things, and from what I’ve heard, she is often nowhere to be found,” Hayes says.

Hayes says Premier Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals have failed Ontario students when it comes to positive messages about inclusivity, diversity and sexuality. The sex education curriculum was also handled “very poorly.”

The NDP has been very clear on GSAs. Education critic Rosario Marchese has said repeatedly that, if the NDP forms the government, students in all schools will be allowed to start GSAs. But Marchese has always dodged the follow-up question: what will the NDP do to hold Catholic school boards accountable?

The Liberals promised in June that students could start “LGBT support groups.” That promise is now being blatantly ignored by Catholic boards, which say students can have general equity groups only.

“You can’t have a group of school boards just deciding not to do something that’s been mandated by the Ministry of Education,” Hayes says. “[The equity and inclusive education policy] is not something they can just opt out of.”

So, how will the NDP ensure accountability?

Hayes doesn’t have an answer, but she says it’s time all parties started talking seriously about the problems inherent in having two publicly funded school boards.

“This is an amazing opportunity to have a discussion on this issue,” she says. “Right now there’s no discussion. It’s not just about gay-straight alliances. There are other things being taught within the Catholic curriculum that could certainly be viewed as oppressive and discriminatory.”

“It’s perhaps time to talk about the separate school board. I’m not sure where people will stand on that. It’s certainly a controversial issue, but discussion is always good.”

Along with putting queer issues in the spotlight, Hayes says she will be focusing on the economy, jobs, poverty, unemployment, youth, an education funding formula, seniors, healthcare and the environment.

“This area has a lot of poverty, and seniors are falling through the cracks,” she says. “Wind turbines are a big issue here, so I am expecting some lively discussion. People want to feel they have a voice in their community. It’s not so much the wind turbine. It’s that they feel it’s being forced on them.”