4 min

Halton Catholic school board imposes silent ban on GSAs

'People in Ontario should not have to pay for this discrimination': CFI

Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, Canadian Civil Liberties Association's equality program director. Credit: Andrea Houston

The Halton Catholic District School Board (HCDSB) is continuing to ban gay-straight alliances (GSA) at all area schools.

At the April 5 board meeting, trustees chose to hold off on making a final decision on the equity and inclusive education policy. The final vote is now expected at the next board meeting, in early May.

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.

Teachers and staff members involved in SIDE spaces will be trained in the Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students of Same-Sex Orientation, a document developed by bishops at the Institute for Catholic Education.

The document reads that “gay” is not an identity, gay sex is “immoral and sinful” and gay people ought to live a life of “chastity.” It is the primary document for instructing school administrators and teachers on homosexuality.

Before the motion, HCDSB trustee Paul Marai once again asked board chair Alice Anne LeMay if GSAs would be allowed if a student makes a request.

“Yes or no: if a student asks to start a GSA, will they be allowed?” he repeated. LeMay did not respond and instead passed on to HCDSB education directer Michael Pautler.

When pressed further, Pautler responded by saying, “It’s not our intention at this time to offer gay-straight alliances.”

HCDSB trustee Anthony Danko asked that the Pastoral Guidelines be explicitly included in the new policy to ensure no schools are able to circumvent the bishop’s directive and create a GSA.

“The Pastoral Guidelines are important and need to be recognized,” he said. “If the Pastoral Guidelines are not included, schools could subvert this policy.”

At one point, Marai asked to allow GSAs, but not one trustee spoke up to second the motion. “It’s important to see the hypocrisy of this policy. The only type of specific student group banned is a group for gay students.”

Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s (CCLA) equality program director, made a heartfelt plea to the board to allow GSAs. She pointed out that gay, lesbian and trans youth are four times more likely to commit suicide than their straight counterparts, and they are at a much higher risk of anti-gay bullying. Mendelsohn Aviv also reminded the board that students have the constitutional right to freedom of association, freedom of expression and equality.

“It looks like we’re going backwards now,” she said. “I’m very disappointed. This issue is not going away. Students are empowered. Students know their rights. Students want gay-positive groups in their schools, and they will fight for them.”

Mendelsohn Aviv told trustees that “not allowing the word ‘gay’ is sending a message to students that there is something wrong with that identity.”

“The board had the opportunity to take the lead on this issue,” she tells Xtra after the meeting. “I wish they had done right by their students… I can’t speculate if Catholic school boards are responding to some other body and if their hands are tied.”

Kevin Smith, board member at the Centre for Inquiry, says he blames the lack of action by Premier Dalton McGuinty and Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky. The policy is there, but it’s not being enforced.

“By McGuinty not saying anything about this when he had the chance, boards now have the freedom to dig in their heels and get away with this,” says Smith. “This is just another ban on GSAs. They will continue to get away with this. I’m sure the phone lines have been busy between the board and the bishops, whoever they are.

“The Pastoral Guidelines is disgusting. Any decent person who reads it will see that. Who are these bishops? They have no training in education. Why are they the authority on educational policy?”

Smith says the discrimination against gay, lesbian and trans youth calls into question public funding of Catholic education.
“People in Ontario should not have to pay for this,” he says. “This homophobia is costing taxpayers billions each year. The provincial election is right around the corner. It must be made an election issue.”

GSAs started making headlines in January after Xtra reported a ban on the student clubs by the HCDSB. 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.”

In the face of national outrage, the HCDSB lifted the ban on GSAs, but it still does not allow any student group with the word “gay” in its title. Xtra subsequently revealed that gay-positive groups are banned at all of Ontario Catholic Schools. Dombrowsky has so far not returned any of Xtra’s interview requests.

Meanwhile, at the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board in Mississauga, a group of about 32 students at St Joseph Catholic Secondary School are fighting for a GSA. The students have since experienced anti-gay bullying at the school. The group’s founder, Leanne Iskander, 16, says the bullying is further proof of the immediate need for a GSA.

Iskander was denied permission to form a GSA at her school in March and has since been mobilizing support on Facebook. She is calling on all Catholic students in Ontario to start a GSA and join the fight.