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Toronto rally calls for end to GSA ban

Green Party candidates support a single school system

Queer Ontario's Nick Mulé gives a shout-out to GSA activist Leanne Iskander during a rally at Queen's Park on Sept 18. Credit: Andrea Houston

A Sept 18 rally in support of gay-straight alliances (GSA) at Queen’s Park was attended by a large number of Ontario Green Party candidates and supporters. Speakers repeatedly stated that the Green Party is the only political party pushing for a single school system, to put an end to the ban on GSAs in Catholic schools.

Approximately 120 protesters rallied at the steps to the provincial legislature, some holding signs demanding an end to “faith-based bullying.”

“I have a message for the political party that forms a government in Ontario,” said Queer Ontario’s Nick Mulé. “Find your spine and defund Catholic schools now.”

Keep the Faith But Not in Our Schools was organized by the Canadian Secular Alliance (CSA) to demand an end to public funding for religious education. Speakers pointed to the ban on GSAs and the continued use of the Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students of Same-Sex Orientation in Catholic schools as the source of damaging discrimination against queer youth.

The list of speakers included three Green Party candidates: Mark Daye, Toronto Centre; Frank de Jong (who is also a teacher with the Toronto District School Board), Davenport; and Justin Trottier (president of the Centre for Inquiry Canada), Parkdale-High Park.

No NDP, Liberal or Progressive Conservative representatives spoke at the rally.

“We are now at a stage between public awareness and public support,” said organizer Kevin Smith, from the Canadian Secular Alliance (CSA). “All we need is a leader of this province who puts the needs of public education first, instead of political needs. And we don’t have that in any of the leaders of the three main parties.”

De Jong called the NDP cowardly for not supporting one secular school system, a position the Green Party has officially taken. He said a school board that puts denominational rights above human rights, as the Toronto Catholic board recently did, should not be funded through the public purse.

The NDP has stated repeatedly that the party fully supports GSAs, but it has stopped short of calling for an end to the public funding of Catholic schools as a consequence of inaction. On Sept 15, GSA activist Leanne Iskander was an audience member during a taping of LeDrew Live, a town-hall meeting featuring NDP Leader Andrea Horwath on CP24. Iskander asked how the NDP plans to enforce the rules stated in the Ministry of Education’s equity policy. Horwath said Ontario schools have an obligation to allow students to create GSAs. 

Mulé also applauded Iskander and the St Joe’s group for demanding their rights in the face of bullying, harassment and discrimination from the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board. “Our government is letting the Catholic board ban GSAs, ban rainbows and prohibit any form of social advocacy.”

One speaker, Farzana Hassan, former president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, addressed the “gender apartheid” at Valley Park Middle School, an issue some activists say is separate from GSAs. Valley Park has been holding Friday afternoon student prayer services for the past three years. The sessions were initiated after staff noticed students were skipping class to attend services outside school.

Hassan pointed to reports that, during the sessions, menstruating girls are separated to sit behind the boys. “This is a clear violation of church and state. The government must not endorse practices that are blatantly discriminatory.”

Other speakers included Leonard Baak, from Education Equality in Ontario; Greg Oliver, president of CSA; former Catholic school teacher Joe Killoran; and Marilyn Byers, from PFLAG.

Killoran, noting that suicide rates are highest among gay teens, shouted to the crowd, asking if school boards should continue to use tax dollars to teach students that queer youth “deserve to burn in hell.”  The crowd responded with a thunderous “No!”

Notable Canadians who were unable to attend the rally sent letters of support and solidarity. In one letter, gay comedian Rick Mercer congratulated the students fighting for GSAs. He joked that if Catholic school boards continue to ban GSAs, “you can always join the drama club, which is basically the same thing. That’s what I did.”

Openly lesbian Canadian comedian Elvira Kurt also sent a message of encouragement for the students, affectionately calling them “Team Gay… Keep fighting the fight, and know that if he were alive today, Jesus would be in your school’s GSA.

“It’s so simple and so basic and yet deliberately ignored by the people in charge of Cirque du Catholic Church,” she quipped. “What they have against love is a mystery. Knowing who you are and loving who you are is deeper than religion; it’s the foundation of humanity. Too bad the church can’t get with the program. Too bad for them but not for you.”

The battle for GSAs began in January when the Halton Catholic District School Board banned the groups. Roman Catholic schools have repeatedly denied students’ requests for GSAs, saying supports are already in place and church doctrine condemns gay sex as “sinful and immoral.”

In March, Iskander and the St Joe’s GSA were blocked for a third time from forming any group with the word gay in the title. Iskander is currently looking at legal options.

This summer, a letter from a priest representing Toronto’s Coptic Christian community threatened to pull thousands of students from Toronto Catholic District School Board classrooms if homosexuality is taught in schools in any way.