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Marc Hall coalition reassembles to fight for GSAs

UPDATED: Group says priority is to ensure passage of Bill 13 in Ontario

The Ontario Gay-Straight Alliance Coalition holds its first news conference at Queen's Park April 2. Credit: Andrea Houston

UPDATE – April 3: The newly reassembled Ontario Gay-Straight Alliance Coalition held a news conference April 2 to tell MPP from all three political parties to hurry up and pass Bill 13, the Liberals’ Accepting Schools Act, because students need supports now.

“A whole year has gone by and lawmakers are still debating this,” says PFLAG’s Marilyn Byers. “We want to see Bill 13 passed by summer.”

Helen Kennedy, executive director of EGALE Canada, said lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans students don’t feel safe at school. They are at greatest risk of bullying, depression and suicide. “We know 70.4% of Canadian students hear homophobic comments on a daily basis,” she says. “This is not a healthy environment. This environment is toxic. We know we have a problem in our schools and we know that GSAs work. Violence decreases.”

Coalition lawyer Douglas Elliott says students have the constitutional right to form GSAs and the right to call the clubs what they wish.

“Catholic schools are wrong. Religious rights don’t trump the province. Catholic schools are publicly funded,” he says. “The attempt to force students to adopt another name reminds me of attempts to force us to use a word other than marriage.”

The full list of the Ontario GSA Coalition includes:

The Canadian AIDS Society
The Canadian Auto Workers
The Canadian Federation of Students
Canadian Secular Alliance
Catholics for Choice
Centre for Inquiry Canada
EGALE Canada
Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto
Canadian Union of Public Employees 
Ontario Federation of Labour
PFLAG
Rainbow Alliance
OPSEU’s Rainbow Alliance

April 2: Ten years ago, Marc Hall fought the Durham Catholic District School Board for the right to take his boyfriend to the prom. The coalition of Canadian organizations that helped him win his case then has reassembled once again to support students in their ongoing fight for gay-straight alliances (GSA).

“We are very concerned,” says lawyer Douglas Elliott. The GSA Coalition plans to step up the pressure on MPPs to get Bill 13, the Liberals’ Accepting Schools Act, passed by September. “People need to have a sense of urgency about this. We are talking about the safety of kids. We are talking about their lives.”

There is a very real concern that Ontario’s minority government could fall because of disagreement about the recent budget, he says. If this happens, the province will once again be thrust into an election and Bill 13 will likely die on the legislature floor.

“That’s the nightmare scenario, and that’s entirely possible,” he says. “These students need support now.”

The GSA Coalition is holding its first press conference at 10am April 2 at Queen’s Park, Elliott says. “To the students, we are offering our help in any way we can. It’s important for them to know there is a very powerful group of organizations that are united in their desire to support these kids. We are prepared to provide practical assistance to make sure they can get these gay-straight alliances set up.”

The coalition of organizations includes PFLAG, Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), EGALE, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Canadian Federation of Students, Metropolitan Community Church, the Canadian AIDS Society (CAS), Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives, and the Canadian Unitarian Council.

Support from the coalition could include anything from financial help for materials to start a GSA to free legal advice. “We’re offering practical help. Maybe a student wants to launch a lawsuit and they want to talk to a lawyer. We will hook them up,” Elliott says.

Mississauga Catholic school student Leanne Iskander has been fighting for a GSA since March 2011. Iskander, who already has a lawyer and may still pursue a court case, is part of a coalition of students. The Ontario InterGSA Association is an alliance of GSA students from across Ontario.

Iskander says any support that further helps students and brings attention to the issue is good news.

“I think this will be really helpful to have all those organizations supporting us,” Iskander says. “It’s really important that Bill 13 passes. We really need that.”

Since Iskander first went public, Catholic students across Ontario have been denied GSAs, including Burlington’s Elle Malon and Mississauga’s Anna Tran in October, Allison Risch from Brampton in February and Hamilton’s Mitch Burke in January. Queer Ontario and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have been offering support to the students since the beginning.

“We want to support the school coalition,” Elliott says. “We are there to support those high school students.”

In response to student demands for GSAs, Catholic schools announced in January they would begin allowing “respecting difference” groups. This announcement came with a “deeply offensive” set of guidelines, Elliott says. “When that document came out, many of us were very surprised that instead of being more progressive, they became more conservative.”

Catholic boards in Ontario have repeatedly blocked student groups with obviously queer names, like GSA or Rainbow Alliance. Iskander’s group was forced to take the name Open Arms, a name her principal deemed “Catholic-sounding” enough.

If any of the students were to launch a legal challenge now, Elliott says, the case would most likely be put on hold until the government passes proposed anti-bullying legislation — whether that’s Bill 13; Conservative MPP Elizabeth Witmer’s anti-bullying bill, Bill 14; or a combination of the two.

On March 29, Bill 14 passed second reading and was sent to the Standing Committee on Social Policy. Second reading debate continues for Bill 13, the Liberals’ Accepting Schools Act.

Bill 14 has some good ideas, but it does little to protect queer and trans youth, those at greatest risk of depression and suicide, Elliott says. 

“We want to be sure that when the new school year starts in September the rules are clear,” he says. “We want to see the bill passed so the kids have the protection of a clear law that expresses the right to form a club that focuses on LGBT issues. And they have the right to call it a gay-straight alliance, or whatever else they want to call it. Those two points are critical.”

Unlike Bill 13, Bill 14 does not explicitly mention GSAs. Catholic schools are trying to censor the word “gay,” Elliott says. “One of the main methods used to oppress gays and lesbians is to make us invisible, so taking away the words gay and lesbian is a good way to do that.”

Conservative Catholic parents and anti-gay religious leaders are pushing MPPs to keep any reference to GSAs out of the anti-bullying bills.

In the Marc Hall case, Catholic schools didn’t have the right to regulate school dances,” Elliott says. “Well, we say they don’t have the right to regulate school clubs either.

“Are they allowed to put students’ lives in danger because of their religious beliefs? Fundamentally, that’s the question. And I think the answer has to be no.”

Below is a video from the March 29, 2012 protest against Bill 13 held by Concerned Catholics of Ontario.