A Mississauga Roman Catholic high school's decision to bar students from launching a gay-straight alliance doesn't gel with Ontario's education policy on equity, Premier Dalton McGuinty said Monday.
"We are making it perfectly clear to all our school boards, all our schools, all our principals, all our teachers and all our students that it is unacceptable in Ontario to discriminate based on race, gender, religion or sexual orientation," the Premier said in Question Period.
But Mr. McGuinty stopped short of stating that the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board was actually in breach of the ministry's code on equity, saying that "boards can find different ways to ensure that they adhere to those policies."
The Premier commented on the issue after 16-year-old Leanne Iskander approached Frances Jacques, principal of St. Joseph's Catholic Secondary School, to start a gay-straight alliance recently and was flatly turned down. Ms. Iskander said she was told by the principal that a "GSA is premature at 16 and it would encourage other students to identify their sexuality when they are too young."
While she approves of Mr. McGuinty's response, Ms. Iskander said "it is time for him and the government to actually do something about it."
NDP education critic Rosario Marchese also said the Premier's response was a non-answer.
"The policies are quite clear," Mr. Marchese said, referring to a ministry's memorandum from October, 2009. "There is absolutely no ambiguity and it applies to both public and Catholic schools."
The memorandum reads that "boards must also help school staff to give support to students who wish to participate in gay-straight alliances and in other student-led activities that promote understanding and development of healthy relationships. Schools must also engage their school councils and student councils to support these student-led activities."
The Premier and the Ministry of Education have been largely silent on the subject of GSAs since the issue first made international headlines in January. In the neighbouring Halton Catholic District School Board, chairwoman Alice LeMay came under fire when she told the gay and lesbian newspaper Xtra! the board "doesn't allow Nazi groups either. Gay-straight alliances are banned because they are not within the teachings of the Catholic Church." Public outrage forced the Halton board to lift the ban on gay-straight alliances, but it still does not allow any student group with the word "gay" in its title.
"They are afraid and don't want to interfere," Mr. Marchese said of the provincial government. "Perhaps they are hoping the whole issue will just go away."
It's not the first time that Mr. McGuinty, himself a Catholic, has had to walk the fine line between the ministry's equity policy and the church-led doctrine of Catholic school boards.
Last spring, he pulled the plug on an updated sex-education curriculum after some parent groups objected to references to homosexual intercourse and same-sex couples.
Bruce Campbell, spokesman for Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, told The Globe and Mail that the St. Joseph's principal's response was one "the board wholeheartedly supports."
So far, individual school boards have been allowed to amend the ministry's equity policy as they see fit, so long as alternative forms of support are offered.
As such, Mr. Campbell said the St. Joseph's principal offered to help the 30 interested students by arranging discussions with the school's chaplain and social worker.
Ms. Iskander said that "I don't feel the school is being very supportive. They are trying to dodge the whole issue by not letting us say what we stand for and making us join other groups."
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association said it supports the students of the St. Joseph's GSA and is willing to help mediate discussions with the school board and offer legal assistance if necessary.
"These so-called alternatives are just not adequate and represent a violation of freedom of expression when students are not allowed to identify their group a gay-straight alliance," spokeswoman Noa Mendelsohn Aviv said. "An unwritten ban against a GSA is almost as bad as a written ban against it."
Also problematic for Ms. Iskander and her group is the principal's referral to Courage International, an archdiocese-supported organization for young people with same-sex orientation that focuses on chastity.
"I find that website kind of offensive because they are the opposite of supportive - they try and cure you of your homosexuality," she said. "The Catholic Church is totally outdated on this."