Queer youth from schools across the country are gearing up for OUTShine, Canada’s first national gay-straight alliance summit, which takes place in Toronto this weekend, May 17 to 20.
More than 300 GSA members and 100 educators will come together at the Sheraton Centre and Jarvis Collegiate Institute for a full weekend of workshops, entertainment, panels and speakers.
Egale executive director Helen Kennedy, who is organizing the event in partnership with the Toronto District School Board’s office for gender-based-violence prevention, says the politics surrounding GSAs, and the resistance that some schools have demonstrated, will be front and centre.
“What we are trying to do is facilitate networking and dialogue between youth across the country to talk about the issues they are facing in their own communities and discuss some of the push-back from LGBT inclusiveness within the educational environment,” Kennedy says.
“We want them to talk about curriculum. We hope they create a dialogue and a series of networks to start comparing notes and talking to each other about the establishment of gay-straight alliances and inclusive spaces within their schools when they go home.”
Representatives from three Catholic schools, two in Ontario and one in Yukon, are attending. Also confirmed are youth from North Battleford, Saskatchewan, who started the first ever GSA in a First Nations school.
“So you can imagine the wealth of information they will have to share around their experiences,” Kennedy says. “Shared experiences, I think, will be the most valuable parts of the weekend for the youth.”
Last year, Ontario passed Bill 13, which mandates that GSAs must be allowed in all schools when requested by students. The passage of the legislation capped a two-year fight by students in Catholic schools, which previously banned GSAs.
While GSAs are common in public schools, especially those in large urban centres, most faith-based schools and schools in small rural communities continue to make it difficult for students trying to start the clubs, Kennedy says.
“What kinds of push-back are they still getting?” she says. “What kind of support are they getting from their boards and the broader community? Do they have access to resources?”
Organizers say they plan to hold the summit every two years in locations across Canada. The 2015 summit will take place in Winnipeg.