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Toronto Catholic school board rejects GSA ban

Education Minister Liz Sandals says all schools must follow Accepting Schools Act

Students from Francis Libermann Catholic High School. They told the board that they wanted to call their group a GSA but were denied by school administration. Credit: Andrea Houston

An evening filled with anti-gay vitriol at the Toronto Catholic District School Board May 23 ended with trustees rejecting a motion to ban gay-straight alliances.

But while the motion failed seven to four, GSAs are still very much frowned upon at many TCDSB schools. Yulanda Lui, a Grade 12 student at Francis Libermann Catholic High School, spoke to the board with three other members of her club. She said school administrators did not allow her and fellow members to call their group a GSA.

So, rather than battle with school officials, Lui said, the students accepted the name “Bridges” – a title suggested by an administrator. The name is an acronym for “be respectful of individual differences. Give everyone some love.”

“If students want the name GSA they should be allowed to use it, because it’s all up to them,” another member of the group told Xtra. “Schools are meant for students, not the political agendas of the parents themselves. Those values can be instilled at home.”

Two groups of students deputed to the board, and none spoke in support of the motion to ban GSAs. Many of those who did support the motion told trustees that GSAs are “corrupting youth.” One parent, Shawn Goldman, brought his toddler up to the microphone and called queer clubs a “Trojan horse bringing radical sexuality and feminism into the classroom.”

Another, Lola Fortino, who is not a parent or an educator, said GSAs should be called “Chastity Clubs” instead. She said queer youth should be “counselled so they can overcome homosexuality.

“What do we say to a child who says he’s gay?” she said. “Refer him to spiritual counselling. If we love them we are to bring them to Christ.”

While deputations continued in the boardroom, confrontations flared up in the hall outside. Andrew Walker, the board’s student trustee, told the board he consoled one of the students who was crying in the hall, upset by all the “hurtful and hateful” remarks made by anti-gay trustees, parents and deputants.

“I think this motion is a step backwards from what we worked so hard to get to,” said student Erin Edghill, 17, a member of a GSA at Mary Ward Catholic Secondary School. “We passed Bill 13, and there was a huge debate over that.”

TCDSB vice-chair Sal Piccininni spoke to the room and said he was pleased the motion failed. He encouraged students to start GSAs, noting that some trustees are “on the wrong side of history.”

Heckling from the gallery -including loud booing and shouts of “Judas!” – nearly drowned out most of his speech.

Meanwhile, the TCDSB’s senior communications manager, John Yan, told Xtra he was “embarrassed” by the motion, saying it makes the board look backward. When asked if he anticipates a return of the motion, or a similar motion, next year, he said, “I hope not.”

Trustee Garry Tanuan proposed the motion, which was seconded by trustee John Del Grande. Tanuan says he believes Premier Kathleen Wynne and Education Minister Liz Sandals will accommodate Catholic concerns about GSAs.

“Gay-straight alliance clubs promote a positive view of homosexual activity, which undermines Catholic teaching on chastity and marriage,” Del Grande says.

“The name [GSA] is charged. There’s no denying that. It’s not appropriate in a Catholic school. It’s what the name means in terms of a movement – what you would call gay rights,” he says.

If it had passed, the motion would have contravened Ontario law. Last June, the provincial government passed the Accepting Schools Act (Bill 13), which mandates that students should not be prevented from setting up GSAs and calling the clubs by whatever name they wish, in any Ontario school.

“That’s if you take the literal interpretation of Bill 13,” Del Grande says. “But you have to take into consideration denominational rights . . . [Bill 13] contravenes those rights.”

But in a phone interview May 24, Education Minister Sandals told Xtra that all Ontario schools have a responsibility to follow the Accepting Schools Act and allow GSAs. Sandals said she is pleased that “most” TCDSB trustees agree with her.

Should another student step up to complain that a request for a GSA is being denied, Sandals vowed to enforce the law. “While I would have been quite disappointed in the board if it had passed the motion, the problem is really if the principals disallow [GSAs],” she said. “From a legal perspective, the administration of the board, which includes principals, is responsible for following the Education Act.

“I would hope that the superintendent would look into [schools like Francis Libermann Catholic High School] . . . If there have been problems, then the students or the parents need to forward that complaint to the superintendent or the director.”

The recent Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association annual general meeting featured Sandals as a guest speaker. At it, the Catholic Register reported, Sandals said that if an election were to be called over the Liberal budget, she “will be back on the street knocking on doors and defending the Catholic education system again.”

When asked what she would have done if the motion had passed, Sandals wouldn’t speculate. “I will worry about hypothetical constitutional challenges when they are no longer hypothetical.”

Below is our video coverage of the meeting and vote.