Two Grade 12 Halton Catholic District School Board (HCDSB) students offended by their board’s ban on gay-straight alliances (GSAs) have come forward in an attempt to hold trustees’ feet to the fire and ensure the new policy doesn’t discriminate against gays.
The students approached Steven Broadley, vice-president of operations at the York Federation of Students. Broadley is collaborating with MPP Glen Murray’s office to see if a human rights challenge is possible if it’s determined that the HCDSB’s equity and inclusive education policy doesn’t comply with the Ontario Human Rights Code.
Broadley would not reveal the students’ names; they asked to remain anonymous for their own safety, he says. “To file a human rights complaint you must be directly affected in the school system, or be a parent or staff.”
On Jan 11, HCDSB trustees voted to reexamine the board’s equity and inclusive education policy at a policy committee meeting in Burlington. The move follows a Jan 6 Xtra story that quoted board chair Alice Anne LeMay justifying the ban on GSAs by saying the schools “don’t have Nazi groups either.” LeMay says she is undecided as to where she stands on rescinding the policy even in face of public outrage.
The current policy and ban are still in effect at HCDSB. Trustees will debate the issue and cast their votes at the next regular board meeting, which will be held Jan 18, before drafting a new equity policy “that is in accordance with Catholic teachings.”
Broadley says banning GSAs sends a terrible message to students.
“This issue isn’t exclusive to the Halton Catholic District School Board,” he says. “I’d be interested to know the situation at other boards. Each and every queer student in Ontario should have the ability to organize GSAs.”
“At the meeting Alice Anne LeMay said some Catholic boards in Ontario go even further with their policies,” Broadley says, adding that he’s investigating whether other boards have banned GSAs. “That’s a concern.”
Meanwhile, in Halton, Oakville MPP Kevin Flynn says he knows the importance of GSAs. Flynn recently received an email from a distraught father whose son attempted suicide because he has been viciously bullied in high school for being gay.
“That board needs to provide their students with the full range of opportunities that other students in Ontario have,” Flynn says. “Students need to see their schools as a safe place where they can talk about issues and problems, such as problems at home, sexual orientation and racial discrimination.”
Flynn says he’s still shocked by LeMay’s comments on GSAs. He hopes the HCDSB “does the right thing” by lifting the controversial ban.
“When I heard about this ban I was very surprised. I think it causes a lot of people concern, including those at the Ministry of Education and me as an MPP. Boards have to comply with Ontario’s Human Rights Code. In this case, something has come to light I don’t think a lot of us were aware of.”
NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo says the HCDSB’s ban on GSAs is even more alarming in the face of disturbing new data that says 77 percent of trans people in Ontario have seriously considered suicide.
“What the Halton board is doing is not Christian,” she says. “What they’re doing is putting children in harm’s way.”
DiNovo adds that the HCDSB is also putting Catholic school funding in jeopardy.
“You want us to continue to fund Catholic education? Well, this is exactly the wrong way to go about it,” she says. “If this is the kind of tack that [the HCDSB] is taking, the public won’t support Catholic education and provincial representatives won’t either.”
If the funding is pulled and one publicly funded school board is established, DiNovo says, Catholic boards like HCDSB will likely go private.
“Then those boards will really ramp up the homophobia,” she says. “That’s also my concern. Without being responsible to taxpayers, they will do anything they want. The bishop will take Catholic boards far to the right. That’s a real concern.
“[The ban] is a direct attack on Catholic education, and it doesn’t uphold the Ontario Human Rights Code. The board is extremely misled.”
Ontario Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky refused a phone interview with Xtra despite repeated attempts to schedule time with her. Also, James Ryan, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA), did not return calls from Xtra.
Further east of Toronto, in Peterborough, John Mackle is the education director of the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board. His board’s equity policy has not yet been passed.
Gay Catholic students in Peterborough can form clubs, but they must be called something other than gay-straight alliances. Mackle doesn’t think gay students need a club all their own.
“The bishop recommended we not call them gay-straight alliances,” he says. “We have organizations in all of our six secondary schools that welcome homosexual and heterosexual students. They deal with a number of different issues, like poverty, racism, justice. They just call them by different names. None are about a single issue, like being gay.”
“Well, we’re an extension of the Catholic Church,” Mackle says, sounding slightly confused by the question. “That’s the teaching of the Catholic Church.”
Read more of Xtra’s coverage on the Halton Catholic District School Board’s ban: