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Education Ontario education minister asks Halton Catholic school board to suspend controversial charity plan

Ontario’s Education Minister has taken the unusual step of asking a Catholic school board to suspend a controversial policy that forbids students from raising money for charities that support abortion, euthanasia and other activities opposed by the church.

In a letter sent on Wednesday to trustees at the Halton Catholic District School Board, Indira Naidoo-Harris stated that she received numerous complaints from parents and students about the lack of consultation around the policy.

Ontario Education Minister Indira Naidoo-Harris.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

“I encourage the board to pause implementation of its new policy and continue with its consultation to ensure the various voices in the school community are heard and considered,” Ms. Naidoo-Harris wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail. “I will continue to monitor this situation closely to inform potential next steps to ensure the board is acting in the best interests of its students and community.”

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The Halton Catholic board passed a motion in February stating it would no longer provide or facilitate financial donations to non-profits or charities that publicly support, “either directly or indirectly, abortion, contraception, sterilization, euthanasia, or embryonic stem cell research.”

The broad nature of the motion caught many off guard, and caused confusion among charitable organizations. Trustees have since heard from several students and parents opposed to it, and Ms. Naidoo-Harris even voiced her concern that the board did not properly consult with the school community as is required before adopting fundraising policy changes.

In a statement on Wednesday, Ms. Naidoo-Harris said she was worried that the new policy “continued to interfere with the board’s ability to effectively carry out their responsibilities” and asked for a pause to consider the voices of students and the community. (The government can only investigate and then put in a supervisor if it finds boards are not providing good governance or carrying out their respective duties, for example.)

Halton’s board of trustees moved another motion last month that the policy be sent out for feedback. But the “Sanctity of Life” resolution remains in effect during consultations and that means schools can’t raise funds for the Canada Cancer Society’s Relay for Life youth events, for example. The charity said its policies permit funding research using embryonic stem cells when it meets certain criteria.

The school board’s chair, Diane Rabenda, did not respond to The Globe’s request for comment on Wednesday. She provided a statement in February, but since then has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Trustee Anthony Danko, who voted in favour of the motion, said on Wednesday that “the Minister is entitled to write a letter to us, and we’re entitled to have a policy.”

When pressed on whether the board would pause the implementation of the policy, Mr. Danko was blunt. “The motion is in effect at this time,” he said.

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Mr. Danko said he understood there were some who were disappointed, but “we have a duty to uphold our Catholic mission.”

The motion in Halton comes as the federal government has faced criticism for an application requirement attached to the Canada Summer Jobs program that says groups must affirm their respect for a woman’s right to have an abortion in order to receive funding.

“If the federal government wishes to impose its beliefs on us, we can assert our morality where we’re supposed to, which is in our schools,” Mr. Danko said.

As the policy was implemented, there was confusion among charities over what they had agreed to, with some saying they were only stating the board’s concerns did not apply to their organizations.

The United Way of Halton & Hamilton, which originally had signed the form, removed its name from the board’s list of approved charities, citing “interpretation variations.”

The Terry Fox Foundation and WE Charity also requested their names withdrawn from the list, meaning schools cannot raise funds for those organizations.

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The board removed the list of approved charities from its website last month. A spokeswoman said that several charitable organizations on the list were uncomfortable with the calls they were receiving from the public and the media.

Halton Catholic schools raised about $316,000 for charities in the past school year.

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