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Trustees at Canada’s largest Catholic school district are considering whether there is a place for terms such as gender identity and gender expression in the board’s code of conduct policy – or whether there’s a religious reason to exclude them.

The Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) has heard delegations from the public in recent months on whether it should add four terms – gender identity, gender expression, marital status and family status – in its code to the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination. Staff appeared to have inadvertently omitted those terms when recently updating the board’s policy to align with a revised provincial code.

TCDSB staff Staff appear to have inadvertently omitted the terms gender equality and gender expression when they recently updated the board’s policy to align with a revised provincial code. (File Photo).Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The board’s Catholic Education and Living our Catholic Values subcommittee is expected to raise the issue at its Aug. 29 meeting.

Paolo De Buono, a teacher at the TCDSB, first brought the issue forward to the board in March when he noticed the omission by staff.

“All of the terms, which intentionally mirror the Ontario Human Rights Code, are important. Questioning one puts all at risk,” Mr. De Buono said. “A sense of belonging is a key component for learning and a significant amount of students, including my future students, will be impacted as will their families by excluding any of those terms.”

He added: "As a Catholic teacher, my religious and professional response is to choose inclusion and not exclusion.”

The neighbouring Toronto District School Board includes those terms in its code of conduct, as do other boards, including the Waterloo Catholic District School Board.

The code of conduct is a document that sets standards of behaviour for students and staff. A memo in October from the provincial government informed school boards to review their codes to ensure they were consistent with a revised provincial code of conduct.

Maria Rizzo, the TCDSB chair, said in an interview that after hearing delegations, the issue was sent by the board of trustees to a subcommittee for review. But she said that the TCDSB needs to follow provincial policy and should include the four terms in its code.

“It’s the law. We are an inclusive organization and it should be included and I don’t have any empathy or sympathy for those who think they are holier than the Pope,” Ms. Rizzo said.

“We are a law-abiding organization. And we will abide by the law.”

At a board meeting in May, Ina Rocha, a parent who made a presentation to the board said trustees should not amend the code to include the four terms.

“These terms cannot be applied without interfering with the distinctive nature of Catholic schools,” said Ms. Rocha, whose submission is part of the board’s documents. “Since the Constitution guarantees the denominational rights of Catholic schools, I remind all trustees that they are constitutionally protected when they decide that a policy is unsuitable for Catholic schools.”

She added: “As a parent, I would object to adding language to the code that might be perceived to shelter staff and teachers living in relationships or pursuing gender changes that are contrary to the teachings of the faith. Trustees, I know that protecting children from insidious effects of ideological colonization ... as well as preserving the Catholic nature of our schools are both things you take seriously.”

Mr. De Buono, who also made a presentation at that meeting, told trustees that all students belong and the board needs to take steps to improve communication around inclusive language. He said he was worried that a seemingly simple measure to include these terms has gone on for so long. In that meeting, he had an exchange with trustee Michael Del Grande who spoke about a “faith commitment" to the church and adhering to the principles of the Catholic faith.

When asked about whether the TCDSB should keep gender identity, gender expression, marital status and family status out of its code, Mr. Del Grande said in an e-mail statement that the “exemption view is hypothetical as the reason to review any board policy matter is to understand its function and how it is to be implemented.”

“While the provincial code includes these terms, we still have the due diligence to review,” he said.

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