Even though the Halton Catholic District School Board passed its equity policy on May 3, gay-straight alliances (GSA) are still forbidden. Also troubling for some is that discussions about what’s best for gay, lesbian and trans youth are happening right now at the provincial level behind closed doors, one trustee warns.
Tensions were high between trustee Paul Marai and board chair Alice Anne LeMay, who once again refused to answer direct questions about whether students will be allowed to form clubs focused on gay, lesbian and trans issues in September.
In April, the board chose to hold off on making a final decision on its equity and inclusive education policy. Marai says the board was “inundated” with feedback. Letters, phone calls and emails poured in from parents, clergy and community members that spoke against the policy, demanding that “sexual orientation” be removed from the “do not discriminate against” list and GSAs be banned from all schools because they “encourage students to identify their sexuality too soon.” Many others spoke in favour of the policy and GSAs, and Marai says, many others weren’t included at all.
The new policy directs students to form groups called SIDE (safety, inclusivity, diversity, equity) spaces, umbrella equity groups in which students can discuss social justice issues “with a Catholic perspective.” Groups with direct references to sexual orientation in which teens can talk specifically about gay, lesbian and trans issues are still banned.
But, Marai says, the SIDE spaces could be scrapped depending on what a new provincial committee decides. On April 15, the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association (OCSTA) and the Assembly of Catholic Bishops told Ontario Catholic school boards that a committee is being formed to finalize a “framework” to guide school clubs that address “bullying related to sexual orientation.”
In the meantime, Catholic schools are allowing students to form “anti-bullying clubs” only.
Nancy Kirby, president of the OCSTA, tells Xtra that GSAs remain banned at all Ontario Catholic schools because a GSA signals to students that the group is focused on activism.
“This whole process is so secretive,” Marai tells Xtra. “I’m a Catholic trustee and I can’t get an answer on this committee. There’s no application process for this, and that’s unfortunate. There’s no transparency. And it will affect the kids in the end.”
Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky declined to speak with Xtra again. It is now 120 days that Dombrowsky has been dodging Xtra’s requests.
Marai says he asked to sit on the committee but hasn’t been given an answer. He doesn’t know how the committee’s final decision will affect Catholic boards. The committee will meet throughout the summer.
“I have no idea what is going to happen,” he says. “[OCSTA and the bishops] came out with this memo on the 15th out of the blue, out of nowhere, and surprised everyone. Our equity and inclusive education policy was supposed to be passed a year ago. So to now come in at the last minute and change things, I just don’t understand. There was lots of time for public input. It’s a big question mark now. What we do know is GSAs will not be allowed.”
At the board meeting, Marai asked LeMay if any gay people will sit on the provincial committee. She referred the question to education director Michael Pautler, who didn’t have an answer.
“I think I would bring a much-needed voice, as the only gay Catholic trustee in the province,” he says. “If you are talking about setting up clubs to combat homophobia, you’d think there’s someone who is actually gay that’s on it.”
“I’ve heard no communication whatsoever back. I hope to play a constructive part of it, but as of right now I’ve been ignored.”
Both Marai and trustee Anthony Danko — two trustees who normally don’t see eye to eye on this issue — did agree on one point at the meeting: that the Catholic school community wants a final answer on this issue. “At the end of the day constituents want to know what the results are going to be, and we need to provide that for them,” Marai says.
Leanne Iskander, 16, founder of the unofficial St Joseph Catholic Secondary School GSA in Mississauga, also asked to be on the provincial committee. She says no one can give her a straight answer on this.
Sharon McMillan, OCSTA communications coordinator, says “There was never an open call for names to be submitted to the committee.”
Marai says he will keep trying to have his voice heard, Iskander too. “We need answers on this right away,” Marai says. “Decisions are being made and students are being affected. At the end of the day we need to keep the best interest of them at heart… I’m an optimistic person, but it’s difficult to see what will be different than what we have now.”
Once again, Marai expressed concern that this issue is putting Catholic school funding in serious jeopardy.
“We keep trying to ban this word [gay], and at the same time we are a publicly funded school system,” he says. “This issue is threatening the entire system. I want to strengthen the Catholic school system, but we’re not doing ourselves any favours by going against Canadian rights and law and culture. So I am very concerned this will be a major provincial election issue. This is not doing Catholic school boards any good.”
GSAs started making headlines in January after Xtra reported a ban on the student clubs by the Halton Catholic District School Board. Board chair LeMay told Xtra then that the board “doesn’t allow Nazi groups either. Gay-straight alliances are banned because they are not within the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
Xtra revealed in February that GSAs are forbidden at all Ontario Catholic schools.