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GSAs at centre of legislative battle in Ontario

'Delay tactics' and political infighting threatens anti-bullying bill

Education Minister Laurel Broten says "political games" by the Progressive Conservatives threaten the passage of Bill 13. Credit: Andrea Houston
Members of the Ontario Gay-Straight Alliance Coalition say the Progressive Conservatives are threatening the passage of Bill 13 at Queen’s Park because it contains explicit protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans youth.

Education Minister Laurel Broten revealed similar frustration when she told media at an April 19 news conference that the PCs have used “delay tactics” throughout the past few weeks, during the bill’s second reading debate. Broten hoped to ensure Bill 13 — the Liberals’ Accepting Schools Act — reached committee before summer. 

“There is very real danger right now that Bill 13 won’t be passed before the end of June,” says Ontario GSA Coalition lawyer Doug Elliott. “I’m sure one of the issues in the Conservative caucus is the reference to the word gay.”

Broten agrees, noting the bill has been subjected to more than 10 hours of wasted debate time. She says the PCs are “playing games” by “ringing the bells” at Queen’s Park, a half-hour delay that happens each time an MPP moves to adjourn debate, which the PCs have done repeatedly.

MPPs have been debating two anti-bullying bills: Bill 13 and the Conservatives’ Bill 14, which does not mandate the creation of gay-straight alliances in all schools. Bill 13, however, would make it law that schools establish welcoming environments for queer youth and provide supports, such as GSAs, if requested by students. 

 

GSA Coalition member and Egale executive director Helen Kennedy says debate around Bill 13 has come at the expense of the queer community. “It’s the LGBT community that once again is being hung out to dry,” she says. “This is political grandstanding at its worst. There is no reason that both these bills can’t go to committee and get passed and implemented before the start of the school year.”

But delay tactics are not the only threat to Bill 13. There’s also a concerted effort by the Tories to distort the facts – which state that, according to Egale research, two thirds of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans youth feel unsafe at school. 

“The delays have everything to do with the LGBT component in Bill 13,” Kennedy says. “LGBT youth are at great risk of bullying and suicide, and they need explicit protections.”

Elliott also thinks “egos are getting in the way,” noting the PCs would rather see Bill 14 implemented with no help from the Liberals.

Behind the scenes, other groups are lobbying to ensure Bill 13 doesn’t pass in its current state. Religious groups — some of whom recently held a demonstration at Queen’s Park — continue to oppose it, labelling it radical. 

“There is nothing radical about protecting kids from bullying,” Broten says.

A key advisor on both bills is Ottawa Councillor Allan Hubley, whose son, Jamie, committed suicide in October 2011 after years of anti-gay bullying. Hubley has emerged as an anti-bullying advocate, but he has also been actively advising against GSAs.

During debate, PC MPP Lisa MacLeod and others repeatedly reference Jamie Hubley as inspiration for Bill 14. Yet the fact that Jamie was gay, and bullied because of his sexuality, is often glossed over.

“Those politicians are really taking advantage of a youth who committed suicide,” says Jeremy Dias, the founder and director of Jer’s Vision in Ottawa. “I think that’s shameful.”

Hubley, who says he supports merging the bills, thinks student clubs shouldn’t be too specific. “People are getting too hung up on the name.” He says, “The name ‘GSA’ labels kids.” 

However, Mississauga student Leanne Iskander, who has repeatedly been blocked from starting a GSA at her school, disagrees with Hubley. “It’s important that students can choose the name of the group,” Iskander says.

Hubley’s position even appears to contradict what his son Jamie wanted, which was a Rainbow Alliance, says Dias, adding that under Bill 14, Catholic schools could continue to deny a group called a Rainbow Alliance.

“I wish that Allan Hubley and Lisa MacLeod would go speak to students in a GSA and hear why GSAs are so important,” Dias says. “Right now we have politicians speaking for youth who have never actually spoken to any youth about this issue.”

Liberal MPP Glen Murray believes there is now “mounting evidence” that certain schools — Catholic and public — discriminate against queer youth. “It cannot be denied that there is a campaign to extinguish the word gay from some schools,” he says, noting this is why Bill 13 makes explicit mention of GSAs. 

Hubley, however, says this is a bad idea because it leaves out the “fat kids, skinny kids, short kids” and others, who are also being bullied. “When you name something, you exclude something else.

“Trying to make the bill about one small section of the school population is disadvantaging the other children to leave them exposed to the problems that are going on in schools,” Hubley continues. “You’re only concerned about the GSA piece. You don’t give a crap about the other kids . . . You’re only concerned about gay youth. I am concerned about all youth.”

This echoes the message coming from the Tories. MPP Elizabeth Witmer (Kitchener-Waterloo) told media on April 19 that the bill “shouldn’t focus on any one group.”

“Why would we single out any one group?” Witmer responded when asked if she would support language allowing GSAs in a merged bill. “We are focusing on all kids, whether they are fat or thin, from an ethnic community or their sexual orientation.”

When asked if she had consulted anyone from the queer community while drafting Bill 14, Witmer turned and walked away.

“[Witmer] should read the facts,” Kennedy says. “She would see how marginalized and victimized LGBT youth are within the school system; she wouldn’t be making statements like that.”

Hubley, referring to the Ontario GSA Coalition, recently told the Ottawa Sun that “groups are hijacking a process to enact a new anti-bullying law in Ontario.”

Meanwhile, Dias says Hubley’s advice is doing more harm than good. “If the bills merge, the worst-case scenario is the silencing of LGBTQ youth,” he says.

Ottawa Centre MPP Yasir Naqvi agrees. He has spoken to Hubley and explained the need for queer supports, urging him to get behind GSAs.

“I always understood Hubley’s position to be ‘let the kids decide,’” Naqvi says. “Bill 13 allows the kids to decide what to call their clubs . . . The Conservatives got to him.

“There is no denying that there is bullying taking place in our schools based on sexual orientation and gender. If we don’t address that head-on we are not getting at the real problems. That’s what Bill 13 is doing.”

Naqvi also expressed concern that the PCs are making a conscious effort to downplay the impact of bullying on queer youth, preferring instead to make the bullying about “all kids.” This is a red herring, Naqvi says.

“If you listen to the debate, there are very few references from their members about gay or lesbian children,” he says. “This is an effort to erase. We have to look at the evidence, and the evidence clearly demonstrates that children who are LGBT or come from LGBT families are a specific target. In many instances children are taking their lives because they come out of the closet and are not accepted.”

Broten vows to stand her ground when it comes to GSAs.

“I am very focused on ensuring the strong support that we have put in Bill 13 for student clubs, such as GSAs, is maintained,” she says. “That is a key distinction between the two bills.”

Bill 14 was sent to the standing committee on social policy, which met for the first time April 24. Second reading debate continues for Bill 13.