5 min

Ontario’s new education minister vows to tackle bullying

Laurel Broten says 'every single school in Ontario will be safe'

Credit: Andrea Houston

Ontario’s new education minister kicked off Canadian Bullying Awareness Week, which runs from Nov 13 to 19, by chatting with students at Gordon A Brown Middle School in East York, Toronto.

MPP Laurel Broten met with Grade 8 students and spoke to them about how to tackle bullying at their school.
She also sat down with Xtra’s Andrea Houston for an exclusive one-on-one interview.  
Andrea Houston: Students have recognized gay-straight alliances (GSAs) as the best way to fight bullying and create an inclusive environment through educating the whole school. Do you support GSAs in all schools, even Catholic schools?
Laurel Broten: I very much support the need to have supports for our LGBT students at our schools. As a government, we have many initiatives that support this kind of work.

I am about three weeks into this job, but I have already spent a lot of time going out into schools, last week and this week, talking to students to find out what kind of supports they need.

My goal is to get the supports that students need into the schools and respond to what they are saying they need to be safe. Homophobic bullying is a key issue. Likewise, so is misogynistic bullying and bullying due to disabilities. Those are three key things I will be taking a look at. I am asking, “Do we need to do more?” “What can we do?” And how can we take the message of inclusiveness from the classroom, from the school auditorium, to the locker room, to the kitchen table and to the wider community.

But in Catholic schools GSAs are still banned. Students are now permitted general equity groups but nothing specific to LGBT issues. In fact, the name of the student clubs still can’t contain the words gay or rainbows. What do you plan to do about this?
I’ve had a chance to get into some of our Catholic schools over this past week and see firsthand some of the great work that’s being done by really progressive students and really progressive teachers to respond to the needs of the students in those classrooms. We absolutely need [queer] identified groups of support, and I will continue to push for that in our schools. I plan to listen to LGBT students to have them tell me what they’re looking for. I have spoken out on a number of occasions about homophobia and the need for our schools to be inclusive. I come to this job with a deep appreciation for human rights and the need for respect and diversity. We need to respond to the call from students.
My premier said to me, ‘Go out, have conversations, and find out what more we can do to support our students.’ We must ensure that the supports they need are in place.
Students like Leanne Iskander and her group in Mississauga are asking for GSAs, and they are being blocked by their Catholic schools. Students are fighting this battle alone. What are your strategies to enforce the rules in Catholic schools?
On the sex-ed curriculum, myself and the premier have made a commitment to get out and consult with parents to talk about how we can move forward with those curriculum changes.
When it comes to all of our publicly funded schools, including our Catholic schools, they need to be inclusive and welcoming places. They need to respond to the needs of their students, and LGBT students in particular, who need support. That’s my main focus: making sure students feel safe and welcome in their schools. I will be doing that in short order because we have seen tragic results from situations where students are left struggling with feeling included and homophobic bullying. It’s not acceptable. Every single school in Ontario will be safe and a place where every student can be who they are.
The Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students of Same-Sex Orientation, a guidebook for Catholic educators, is a document reviled by some students. Those students I spoke to don’t like to be called sinful or immoral. Do you have any plans to remove it from schools?
I clearly and completely understand why that document is not acceptable to many, many Ontarians. I understand that. My focus is on our school system, how we can better support students and ensure schools are safe. We have to ask our leaders in schools to be part of that solution and respond to what kids need to be able to succeed, and they can’t do that if they don’t feel safe and welcomed in their school environment. They can’t learn if they are being attacked and bullied because of their sexuality. So, there’s work to do.
Have you given yourself a timeline for these issues?
These issues have my attention right now. I understand the importance of tackling this issue quickly. It is something our government has been focused on for a number of years. But there’s more we can do.
For schools that refuse to support queer youth, how will you enforce the rules?
The same way I tackled sexual violence, climate change, domestic violence, making sure immigrant communities are more welcome: you look for allies and bring them in. How do you change culture? How do you change what is happening in society? Talk to kids. Allow them to bring that message into our classrooms and into our schools. I am not naive to the challenge that exists, but I know there’s an amazing amount of great work happening across the province.
Let’s talk about sex education. Do you support mandatory sex education for all students in all schools? When will we see the revised curriculum?
There has been so much misinformation and outright lies about sex ed. The misinformation has been put out in a very homophobic way. I have been very clear: that is not acceptable. I called upon Tim Hudak to apologize for using information that was totally inaccurate for the purpose to divide Ontarians. That is not what we should do. We want to bring Ontarians together. Homophobia is not acceptable. Discrimination on the basis of your sexual orientation is not okay. My commitment on sex ed is this: to go out and talk to parents to help them work with the education system, bring sex ed forward and make changes. We have always had a sex-ed curriculum and we always will. As the premier said, we need to talk to parents, who are the first teachers of their kids, and find out how we can work together.
For queer youth, seeing images of themselves in literature and history books is huge. It shows them there are people just like them. It puts the spotlight on queer leaders who have shaped our world and who fight for human rights at home and abroad. Unfortunately, teachers tell me there is almost nothing right now. In fact, they say, unless students ask, queer history generally doesn’t come up.
I agree. Our curriculum will need to reflect the diversity of our province. The curriculum can play a huge role in making our schools inclusive. That’s an important conversation.
Will we ever see a Queer History Month?
That’s a great idea. Would I be open to a conversation about improving our curriculum? Absolutely.