Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten called a news conference May 25 to announce that she is removing any ambiguity by tightening up the language in the Liberals’ Accepting Schools Act to ensure Catholic school boards can not refuse students who want to form gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in their schools.
The decision comes on the heels of a strong push by activists following the revelation that the bill’s language was left intentionally vague to avoid a court challenge by Catholic trustees.
In the weeks leading up to the decision, the standing committee for social policy at Queen’s Park had heard deputations on the legislation. Many religious groups and parents spoke strongly against Bill 13 and GSAs, calling the legislation a “radical sex education agenda.”
Broten says it was the deputations by queer youth fighting for GSAs that struck an emotional chord and forced her to rethink her position.
“During those hearings, we heard loud and clear that it is important that students who want to establish student-led, single-issue groups like gay-straight alliances in their schools should be supported and allowed to do so. We also heard that they should be allowed to call these groups ‘gay-straight alliances.’”
“It should not be up to us at Queen’s Park to determine what these groups should be called. We believe it should be up to the students. Student voices are what really matter.”
In the initial version of Bill 13, board administration could refuse to let students use the name GSA, or any name that uses the word gay. The language left a loophole, which was confirmed to Xtra by Nancy Kirby, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association (OCSTA) on May 15. Kirby said that GSAs will “never” be allowed in Catholic schools.
A new line has now been added: “For greater certainty, neither the board nor the principal shall refuse to allow a pupil to use the name gay-straight alliance or a similar name for an organization described in clause.”
Claire Purdy, a student in the Toronto Catholic District School Board who has been trying for a year to start a GSA at her school, cheered when Xtra gave her the news. “Oh wow! That’s so great. I am jumping up and down!”
“This means that students now have a newfound hope that their schools can’t shut them down. It will give so much more confidence to the gay youth, and the straight youth, who want to start a club where everyone feels accepted and united, called whatever they want, and they can’t be turned down,” Purdy says.
St Joseph Catholic Secondary School student Christopher Mckerracher was speechless. “Wow, that’s perfect.”
Ontario GSA Coalition lawyer Doug Elliott says the language change makes the legislation airtight. “It’s a home run. It’s exactly the clarification we were hoping for,” he says. “At first, the Liberals were hesitant to go the extra mile, but I am pleased that they have, and I think it’s supported by the vast majority of the people in Ontario.”
Elliott says he anticipates a court challenge from the Catholic school boards. The issue has already divided the Progressive Conservative caucus.
“This now puts the ball in the court of the Catholic school trustees,” he says. “If they want to object, they will have to fight this. We now have additional ammunition. This now makes my job easier if we have to go to court, which I think we will.”
NDP education critic Peter Tabuns has been relentlessly pushing this issue in Question Period.
“I think that we’ve had an impact on them. We’ve raised this issue in the house from the day they introduced the bill,” he says. “Ultimately, it all hit home. The students and deputations were very powerful.”
The legislation moves to clause-by-clause reading on May 28 and 29, then to a final vote before the end of May.