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Leanne Iskander receives Humanist Canada’s Youth Award

Student at forefront of charge to have GSAs in Ontario's Catholic schools

Humanist Canada's Youth Award winner, Leanne Iskander (right), with Xtra reporter Andrea Houston. Credit: Justin Ling

Leanne Iskander is Canada’s young humanist of the year.

The Ontarian won the award at this year’s Humanist Canada Conference, held in downtown Montréal. The nod to the GSA crusader’s work fit into the conference’s theme, Sex and Secularism.

Winning the award caps off a whirlwind school year for the 18-year-old, who has led the charge on the issue of gay-straight alliances in Ontario’s Catholic school system. Iskander’s face has become one of the most prominent of the campaign.

Xtra reporter Andrea Houston, who spoke about GSAs at the conference, presented Iskander with the award. Houston says the GSA issue is an “LGBT, and a humanist, issue.” And while the marriage between the two might not be immediately intuitive, Houston says the fight to get GSAs in Catholic schools is a “universal fight.”

There’s discrimination that shuns not only queer, but non-Catholic students, Iskander says. “The system is not working for us,” she adds. “The way we were treated in general is really negative.”

She points out that non-Catholic students are not eligible to receive awards at the end-of-the-year ceremony. There was also the bitter struggle that the school board waged to avoid letting GSAs operate in their schools.

For her part, Iskander faced her share of acrimony as the campaign proceeded. While things are getting better, Iskander says, she used to get a lot of hate mail, especially messages with heavy religious themes. Sometimes they would just be Bible verses condemning homosexuality.

Sitting across from Iskander, Houston is amazed at how well the high school student has handled all the negative comments. “It would have scared me,” she says.

But things have been looking up, this award being only the most recent acknowledgment of Iskander’s work. She has received a spate of accolades of late, including being co-grand marshal of the Toronto Pride parade. She can’t pinpoint how many she’s received thus far and settles for saying it’s “a bunch.”

“It should get better,” Iskander says. “People are used to us now. They’re more tolerant. The support we’ve received has really started to shift.”

But Iskander’s year ended on a bit of a sour note at this year’s graduation; the principal didn’t clap for her. And, to drive the point home, he gave a speech afterward with a thinly veiled anti-GSA message, Iskander says.

Editor’s note, Oct 17, 2016: This article has been edited for accuracy and clarity.