3 min

GSA activists turn attention to defunding Catholic school system

Voices of students are hard to ignore: Trottier

Credit: Marcus McCann
UPDATE: May 12 – St. Joseph Catholic Secondary School principal Frances Jacques pulled student Leanne Iskander aside May 12 to demand she contact Xtra so the story be corrected to state there is no gay-straight alliance (GSA) at the school. Iskander is the founder of the “unofficial” GSA. “[The principal] said that we don’t have a GSA at our school and therefore that is inaccurate,” Iskander says.

May 11 – The debate around Ontario Catholic separate school boards’ refusal to allow their students to form gay-straight alliance discussion groups has been raging for months. But Justin Trottier, executive director of the Centre for Inquiry (CFI), says his panel discussion this Friday night won’t be adding to it.

“We’ve invited school board members to come and debate in the past,” he says. “We’ve tried to be friendly.”

But the invitations have never been accepted. So, for Friday’s discussion and Q & A (part of CFI’s ongoing Voices of Reason series), Trottier says, “We’ve decided we’re not going to waste our time.”

The Centre for Inquiry will take the discussion in a different direction — away from pressuring Catholic school administrators to allow GSAs.
Instead, the panel will discuss “the appropriate moves going forward” to dissolving Ontario’s separate school system, in place since the 1867 Constitution Act and later guaranteed in the 1982 Constitution Act to Roman Catholics in Ontario.
Obviously, it’s an uphill battle. CFI was first established in January 2007 as a meeting place for Ontario’s non-religious, humanist and free-thought communities and has, Trottier says, “long held the position that government has no business funding separate religious schools…They create financial waste, they’re unfair to other groups who don’t get such funding, and ultimately, religious instruction is the responsibility of parents and churches.”
Trottier’s panel will include Green MP candidate Mark Daye, Queer Ontario member Casey Oraa, St Joseph Catholic Secondary School student (and lone founder of a GSA) Leanne Iskander, Xtra news reporter Andrea Houston and activist Justin Stayshyn. Houston and Stayshyn began investigating claims by Halton board officials that some Ontario Catholic schools already had GSAs by calling every single Catholic school board in Ontario. Stayshyn got a brief, telling and, so far, only comment from Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario general secretary Lou Piovesan, who said, “I’m not going to argue with you.”
“There is no other side to this story,” says Houston, who has been working on the GSA issue since January. “Queer youth in publicly funded schools are being bullied and they are asking for help, but their educators are turning their backs… Gay students are singled out and called ‘sinful and immoral,’ and Catholic educators see nothing wrong with this.”
Queer Ontario representative Casey Oraa says the biggest shock in this conflict between discussion and dogma is “the willful inaction by Dalton McGuinty and the Ministry of Education. They’ve got a policy (PPM 145) that explicitly supports GSAs for students in all public schools, yet they refuse to support it.”
For Houston, “it’s the unapologetic homophobia from Catholic parents, trustees and Catholic educators. They don’t seem to understand how offensive what they say actually is.”
Houston says it’s the presence of Iskander on Friday’s panel that will inspire most: “I’m not sure I would have had the courage at 16 years old to take on the school board, the Catholic Church and the province,” she says, while Oraa praises Iskander for achieving the “small victory” of an upcoming anti-homophobia event at St Joseph’s in early June. 
“How would that work?” he asks. “A student can say they are being bullied for being gay but not talk about being gay? Explain that one to me.”
The Catholic bishops, Houston says, “want to avoid anything too ‘gay’ sounding or that signifies an activist group. Even Rainbow Alliance, the name the St Joe’s students chose, was refused. So while there have been glimmers of progress, it mostly feels we go in circles.”
Which is why, Trottier insists, a single school system in Ontario is an idea whose time has come. While the CFI has long been documenting abuses — bullying of students, refusals to allow same-sex dates at proms, banning of books like The Golden Compass — these have been largely, Trottier says, “abstract issues to the public, but now the faces and voices of these youngsters are harder to ignore.”
Catholic school boards vs gay-straight alliances
Panel and audience Q & A
Centre for Inquiry, 216 Beverley St (just south of College and St George)
Friday, May 13 at 7pm