The Ontario government's anti-bullying legislation is well on its way to becoming law, making it clear that sexual assault, gender-based violence and incidents based on homophobia will not be tolerated in the province's elementary and secondary schools.
The Accepting Schools Act, known as Bill 13, passed third and final reading on Tuesday with a vote of 65 to 36. It was the first bill to pass since the Liberals won a minority in last October's provincial election. The New Democratic Party supported the bill and all 36 Progressive Conservative MPPs voted against it.
"Today is about saying to Ontario students, 'You can be who you are. You will be safe and accepted at school and the Ontario government supports you in that desire,' " a visibly relieved Education Minister Laurel Broten told reporters just minutes after the vote.
The bill will receive Royal Assent later this month, formally enshrining it into law in time for the new school year in September. The bill amends the province's Education Act and every school must comply with it, regardless of whether they are public or Catholic, Ms. Broten said.
The bill has opened up a rift between Roman Catholic church leaders and the government over an amendment which removes schools' veto over allowing students to set up clubs called Gay Straight Alliances.
GSAs are in conflict with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, which assert that homosexuality is "intrinsically disordered." Church leaders argue that Catholics should be free to design their own methods to fight bullying.
The Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario issued a tersely-worded statement on Tuesday, expressing "serious concerns" regarding "certain aspects" of the legislation. Bullying in any form is "unacceptable," the statement says, and Catholic partners will seek to foster safe and welcoming school communities "in a way that is in accord with our faith."
The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario praised the bill, saying students must be protected from discrimination, including homophobia.
"We're pleased that neither a board nor principal may prevent students from using the name 'gay-straight alliance' if they wish to start such a student organization,'" ETFO President Sam Hammond said in a statement.
The amendment giving students the right to use the name GSA for their club, made by NDP education critic Peter Tabuns and adopted by the Liberals last week, also created a rift between the government and the Progressive Conservatives.
The government and the Official Opposition initially spoke with one voice on the need to send a message that bullying will no longer be tolerated in the province's schools. In fact, Elizabeth Witmer, the former Progressive Conservative education critic who is now head of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, introduced her own anti-bullying private member's bill last November, the same day the government tabled its bill.
Tory Leader Tim Hudak said principals run the province's schools and they should have a veto power over naming student clubs. He accused the government of using the controversy surrounding naming clubs as a distraction to avoid talking about major problems confronting Ontario's economy, including the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs.
"We have lost focus" on what should have been a "motherhood and apple pie issue," Mr. Hudak told reporters. "Our position is that principals run the schools with the parents and the school boards, not students."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said it is disappointing that all three parties could not work together to "keep kids safe at school."
The intent of the bill is not just to discipline schoolyard bullies, but to spot and correct bad behaviour before it escalates. Bullying can take many forms, ranging from verbal taunts to physical assaults, and is an underestimated and pervasive problem in Ontario schools. A survey of students in grades 7 through 12 done by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in 2009 found that almost one in three students had been bullied.
The widely publicized suicides of two young people in Ontario -- 15-year-old Jamie Hubley and 11-year-old Mitchell Wilson -- were uppermost in Premier Dalton McGuinty's mind when he introduced the legislation last November.