Two Toronto Catholic District School Board trustees are looking to eliminate Gay Straight Alliances from the city’s Catholic Schools.
Trustee Garry Tanuan, who represents Ward 8 Scarborough, will introduce a motion at a May 23 board meeting that states that “Toronto Catholic District School Board schools shall have no Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs or similar.” The motion was seconded by Trustee John Del Grande, who represents Ward 7 Scarborough/NorthYork.
What Mr. Tanuan is proposing would go against Ontario law. Last June, the provincial government passed the Accepting Schools Act, which stated that students could not be prevented from setting up a GSA in any Ontario school.
In a statement Thursday, Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals said that no school board is exempt from the Act.
“It is my expectation that all school boards comply with the Accepting Schools Act,” said Ms. Sandals in the statement.
“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. Catholic school boards and stakeholders have demonstrated leadership and support in providing safe, positive and inclusive environments for all students. I know that Catholic values of tolerance and love make them natural allies in the fight against bullying. I hope the Board will continue to foster an accepting environment for all students.”
Mr. Tanuan did not respond to requests for comment.
The Accepting Schools Act officially came into effect in September. However, later that month it was revealed that a provision in Canada’s constitution could be used to circumvent the Act.
According to Eugene Meehan, a constitutional scholar who was hired by a conservative-minded think-tank Cardus, Section 93 of the Constitution Act of 1867 protects the rights of Catholics to run their own schools in ways consistent with their religious doctrines. This would allow for an appeal to the federal cabinet, which has the power to impose legislation to amend provincial law.
Mr. Tanuan’s motion calls for all anti-bullying clubs to adhere to the “Respecting Difference” report issued by the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association in January of 2012. This report offered guidelines for Catholic schools that included calling groups like GSAs “Respecting Differences” clubs and avoiding discussions of sexual attraction, political activism and gender identity.
According to the report, these groups would not be meant as “fora for activism, protest or advocacy of anything that is not in accord with the Catholic faith foundation of the school.”
Kevin O’Dwyer, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA), said having a group call itself a gay-straight alliance in a Catholic school has “never been an issue” for the teachers he represents.
“We need to have the wherewithal and the tools to address students’ needs,” said Mr. O’Dwyer. “There are clearly students that are gay and lesbian that are struggling... I think we’ve recognized a need to continue to respect all walks of life that come into our communities. That’s the focus we need to have.”
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) issued a statement Thursday condemning Mr. Tanuan’s motion, saying it “puts gay students at high risk.”
“This motion goes farther than banning GSAs. It would shut down all student discussion on issues of sexual orientation or gender identity in school-based clubs,” said ETFO President Sam Hammond in the statement. “How does that make a young student who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) feel welcome or safe in a school environment? How does that educate students to be respectful of differences?”
Sal Piccininni, Catholic School Board Trustee for Ward 3 North York, was frustrated by Mr. Tanuan’s motion.
“It’s a motion put out by a new trustee who is very naïve and doesn’t respect the law of the land and can’t seem to understand that no matter how many times we tell him,” he said, referencing that Mr. Tanuan was elected in a by-election in December. “I’m hoping that it doesn’t pass. I think my colleagues see the light.”
Mr. Piccininni added that he is in support of allowing gay-straight alliances in Catholic schools.
“I have no problem with gay-straight alliances in Catholic schools,” he said. “I have no problems with people talking about their feelings. I think it’s wonderful for student rights.”
With files from Steven Chase