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Canada’s pre-eminent private schools are taking great care to ensure students and staff feel safe and free from prejudice, discrimination or stereotyping. Fostering a culture in which gender-inclusive language is understood and valued is at the centre of their efforts.

“It takes work, as individuals and as a community, to create an environment that encourages open conversation and the development of a positive self-identity,” says Vicky Boomgaardt, assistant head of community at Lakefield College School, located just north of the village of Lakefield, Ont.

The process of creating a culture of inclusivity for the students and staff of Lakefield is continuous and ongoing. Lakefield is a private, co-educational boarding and day school for students in Grade 9 through Grade 12. Last year it began offering an all-gender housing option in addition to its boys’ and girls’ housing.

“We are one of a handful of Canadian Accredited Independent Schools to do this,” Boomgaardt says.

“We also invite professionals, like diversity speaker and educator Rosetta Lee, and people from The Get REAL Movement, to facilitate workshops for students and staff, and identify the many positive ways we can engage in conversations about identity, both formally and in our day-to-day school life.”

The Get REAL Movement is a Canadian non-profit focused on combatting 2SLGBTQ+ discrimination, racism and bullying. It began as a small student project in 2011 at Western University in London, Ont. As volunteer leaders, the students saw excellent results combatting homophobic, transphobic and racist language and attitudes with its friendly, honest, diverse and personal story-driven approach. Get REAL recently announced it had reached 1 million students coast to coast through its workshops, after-school programs, guest speakers, field trips and advocacy programs.

Listening and learning from students is a key pillar of Lakefield’s approach to gender inclusivity. In 2023, the school surveyed students about their comfort level with using pronouns in different settings. The survey revealed that some students felt comfortable expressing their identity in the classroom but not online.

“In cases like this, we take the students’ lead to ensure they feel comfortable,” Boomgaardt says.

The school’s commitment to create a safe and positive environment extends to staff.

We are transparent in our recruitment philosophy and commitment to equal employment opportunities for persons of all cultures, colours, ancestries, religions, sexes, national origins, sexual orientations, ages, marital statuses, disabilities, gender identities and veteran statuses,” says Tracy Reid, assistant head of human resources at Lakefield College School.

Reid says the school is also working on removing gendered language and pronouns in its policies and forms.

“We welcome staff, if they choose, to include and model their use of pronouns in our community – in their email signatures and social media presence, and by wearing pronoun buttons,” Reid says. “In this way, we hope to create a more visibly inclusive and positive environment for our students and staff.”

The Bishop Strachan School (BSS) is Canada’s oldest independent day and boarding school for girls in junior kindergarten to Grade 12 located in Toronto. With more than 900 students, it takes a proactive and holistic approach to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging for the benefit of its students, staff and community.

“We know that affirming students’ identity – be it racial, religious, gender, sexuality, any other part of those protected grounds – is essential to their sense of well-being and foundational to their ability to thrive,” says Radhika Raj, director of inclusive excellence at The Bishop Strachan School.

“We do really respect the voices of our students. They are growing up in a completely different context than we have,” Raj says. “Language comes from a history of violence and oppression. It’s something we approach with curiosity here at BSS. We try to be brave and understand that we’re continuously learning from each other and the community at large.”

To empower students and help them to have meaningful conversations, BSS supports student-led initiatives, including student unions for Grade 7 to Grade 12, led by students in Grade 11 to Grade 12. It is up to the students to decide the areas they want to discuss. “We have a gender sexuality alliance, led by students and supported by adult advisors and by me in my role as well,” Raj says.

Raj uses her skills and experience to offer workshops and support to her peers at BSS. Last year she offered a workshop for staff about inclusive language and invisible harm, and how it interrupts when language is used in a certain way. “There is a lot of training that goes in to creating brave spaces and celebrating identity,” Raj says.

Raj says that some BSS teachers include pronouns on their name tags. “Students and staff are invited to share their own pronouns if they like. We take the lead from them. They have opportunities to self-report and that’s the key – that it’s not other people making assumptions or labelling them,” she says.

By learning about and embracing gender inclusive language, Canada’s private schools are helping their students become confident and caring leaders of tomorrow.

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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