The Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) is trying to ban gay-straight alliances with a new motion that will come before the board May 23.
The motion seeks to challenge the Accepting Schools Act (Bill 13), provincial legislation passed last year that amended the Education Act. Bill 13 mandates that GSAs be allowed in all Ontario schools when requested by students.
Trustees Garry Tanuan and John Del Grande, however, feel that GSAs should be banned because they “promote a positive view of homosexual activity, which undermines Catholic teaching on chastity and marriage.”
“The provincial government is breaking the law by violating s. 93 of the Constitution, which enshrines the denominational rights of the Catholic schools,” Tanuan’s motion states.
Tanuan and Del Grande, who has seconded the motion, did not respond to Xtra‘s requests for comment. Tanuan, who won a by-election in December, says GSAs “are a threat to Catholic teachings.”
Christopher Mckerracher is one of the leaders of his GSA at St Joseph’s Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga, one of the only Catholic schools in Ontario with a GSA. He says Toronto Catholic school trustees are showing clear homophobia against their students.
“This is incredibly frustrating,” he says. “These trustees are only thinking about themselves and forcing their beliefs on others. I’m really angry about this. Why are they doing this? GSAs are keeping students safe.”
St Joseph’s became ground zero in the fight for GSAs after Xtra revealed in 2011 that GSAs were banned at all Catholic schools. Former St Joseph’s student Leanne Iskander was denied a GSA by her principal and was threatened with disciplinary action.
In the year that followed, Iskander, Mckerracher and a number of other students in Catholic schools all over Ontario fought hard to form supportive clubs at their schools in the face of vehement opposition from religious groups and anti-gay trustees.
“There are people working in education who have no business making decisions for youth,” Mckerracher says. “These trustees are not leaders.”
The TCDSB, which has previously tried to ban GSAs, did not respond to Xtra‘s repeated requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Mckerracher says the GSA at St Joseph’s is finishing a very successful second year. Members have hosted anti-homophobia events, parties and fundraisers. The club has provided a safe space for all students in the school.
“There’s even been a few students who have come to our events that were somewhat homophobic before and are now really supportive,” he says. “GSAs are harmless and helpful. I don’t understand why they are attacking us.”
Casey Oraa, former co-chair of Queer Ontario, who has been helping to empower and mobilize students to fight for GSAs, says it’s the responsibility of the Liberal government to now enforce the law.
“I want to know what the government is going to do. Here’s a test. Now we have a board that wants to bring in a motion that flies in the face of legislation. How is the province going to ensure implementation? Let’s not forget Catholic schools are publicly funded.”
Oraa says he is thankful that activists pushed to ensure that the language in Bill 13 is explicit in allowing students to choose the names of their clubs. Catholic schools wanted the power to force students to call clubs “Respecting Differences,” an ambiguous name with no mention of the word gay.
“This is the loophole that was predicted,” Oraa says. “Since we have that very clear language in Bill 13, this is going to be a battle, I imagine.”
If the motion is adopted, GSAs will not be permitted in Toronto Catholic schools, a decision that would contravene provincial law.
Education Minister Liz Sandals was not available for an interview but sent Xtra a statement. “It is my expectation that all school boards comply with the Accepting Schools Act. It is our responsibility to ensure all students feel safe and welcomed at school. That’s why the Act states that neither the board nor the principal can refuse to allow students to have a gay-straight alliance or a similarly named club.”
Sandals says she hopes the TCDSB will scrap the motion and instead foster an accepting environment for all students. She does not say what the government plans to do if the motion is adopted.
Tanuan’s motion goes on to say, “Trustees must protect Catholic school principals from being forced to betray their Catholic values . . . Defining the terms of reference of the anti-bullying clubs in the Toronto Catholic District School Board is the responsibility of the Board of Trustees and is currently being left to front line administrators. This is compromising these administrators’ conscience rights.”
The motion was originally placed on the April 25 meeting agenda, but board chair Ann Andrachuk determined it is “unlawful” and runs “contrary to the education act.” (Listen to trustees debate the legality of the motion here.)
“It’s not the legal council’s decision to make decisions on behalf of the board,” Del Grande tells Andrachuk, protesting her decision to keep the motion off the agenda. “I’m disturbed by the fact what I am hearing, that trustees don’t like the motion, and that’s fine, but to hear this overriding [power], that the director and chair can just remove things they don’t like, what is and isn’t appropriate, is a gross misconduct of democracy.”
Andrachuk expresses concern that the motion puts the board in a legally precarious position. Del Grande responds by telling her to “read the education act,” adding that democracy “has been put to shame tonight.”
In the end, TCDSB trustees voted in favour of overruling Andrachuk’s decision and allowing the motion to be re-submitted at the next meeting.
“The Education Act governs all publicly funded schools in the province,” says Ken Jeffers, coordinator of the Toronto District School Board’s gender-based-violence-prevention program.
“[The Education Act] is Ontario law. I can’t imagine a local body of trustees is looking at a motion to contravene any law in Ontario. The courts would side very quickly to uphold the law over a local school board.”
While he can’t comment on the decisions of another school board, Jeffers says a motion such as this flies in the face of Bill 13.
“Bill 13 guarantees students the ability to play a much greater role and have a voice in student engagement,” he says. “It makes sure they have the clubs they need, the programs they need and the ability to have advocacy for any issues, harassment and discrimination, particularly around gender and sexuality.”
The TCDSB meeting is Thursday, May 23, 7pm at the TCDSB head office at 80 Sheppard Ave E in North York.
Audio of the debate at the TCDSB last month. The chair attempts to keep the motion off the final agenda.
Xtra’s coverage of the Toronto Catholic School Board’s attempt to ban GSAs in 2011.