Kathleen Wynne was premier of Ontario from 2013 to 2018. She was education minister from 2006 to 2010.
The Ford government’s weak response to the hateful opposition against an Ontario Catholic school board flying the Pride flag should come as no surprise.
In his leadership bid, Premier Doug Ford courted the votes of a bigoted minority by vowing to repeal an updated sex education curriculum which once in office, he did, only to reinstate a virtually identical curriculum.
He and his government then cozied up to Charles McVety, the leader of Canada Christian College who railed against same-sex marriage and claimed LGBTQ2S+ people prey on children. When Mr. McVety applied for degree-granting status for his college, the Ford government did nothing to oppose the application and, in fact, passed legislation prematurely to allow the change. It was only the ruling of the independent Postsecondary Education Quality Assessment Board that stopped it.
The Premier rarely talks about the well-being of students and is equally rarely ever seen in any of the nearly 5,000 publicly funded elementary and secondary schools in Ontario. The connection between the academic, emotional and social success of the children in our schools and the strength of Ontario’s economy seems to be lost on this Premier and his government.
So, is it any wonder that Minister of Education Stephen Lecce can only equivocate when it comes to the safety of LGBTQ2S+ students?
On April 25, the York Catholic District School Board heard delegations from students requesting that the board fly the Pride flag during the month of June, making it clear that the board needed to do more to ensure that all students, staff and families could feel safe in their schools. Protesters chanting hate against the LGBTQ2S+ community disrupted the meeting. The board has said it is still consulting and has not yet decided whether to fly Pride flags at its head office and schools.
The minister’s response has been that he hopes that “schools will do their part” to create inclusive, safe places but that these are local decisions. He has made no public statement condemning the hateful language and actions of the community protesters. He has made no strong statement of support for the students who are asking the board to do more to keep them safe.
This is a minister who has recently introduced legislation – Bill 98 – that will seriously undermine the autonomy of local school boards and yet when it comes to the issue of protecting the rights of LGBTQ2S+ students, he hopes and wishes that it will all work out.
The truth is that there is legislation and policy already in place that require school boards to ensure that schools are safe spaces for all. The Equity and Inclusive Education Policy and the Accepting Schools Act have been in place since 2014. The minister has the tools to take a much stronger stand in the face of this board’s inaction.
The time for wishing and hoping is over.
Still in 2023, LGBTQ2S+ students are at much higher risk of suicide and mental-health challenges than the rest of the population. The hate spewed at the YCDSB demonstrates that while our society has come a long way over the past 50 years, there is still work to be done.
Part of that work is for elected leaders, school trustees, MPPs and ministers to enforce their own codes of conduct, policies and laws. Children, their teachers and all communities need to know that decision-makers have their backs.
It is the minister’s job to take a stand on this issue. It is his job to uphold the policies and laws that exist to keep students safe and to condemn actions that put them at risk. Flying the Pride flag can be dismissed as merely a symbolic action, but it is a very public statement that a school board understands its obligations. And if it were not significant, it would not raise the hackles of the homophobic and the transphobic whenever it is debated.
I don’t know who advises Stephen Lecce, but I do know that there are many conservative voices right now, particularly in the “anti-woke” movement, who are creating permission to turn back the clock.
Fifty years ago, I was 20 years old and I can tell you that your best chance of being included and feeling safe then was to be a white, able-bodied, straight male. Since then, we have made progress on issues of racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia.
But if we allow those voices to turn back the clock by diminishing that progress, then shame on us as a society. And shame on the politicians who fail to take a stand.