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What’s In A Name?

Is it time to pull the plug on Ontario’s government-funded faith schools?

There’s a struggle taking place in Ontario that pits Canada’s most cherished freedoms against one another and could potentially change the face of education in the province.

Ontario politicians are attempting to amend the province’s Education Act, brought in last November to provide a framework for dealing with the problem of bullying. The act seeks to:

• Introduce tougher consequences for bullying and hate-motivated actions – up to, and including, expulsion

• Require all school boards to support students who want to lead activities that promote gender equity, anti-racism, understanding and respect for people with disabilities and people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, including groups with the name gay-straight alliance or another name• Add a definition of bullying to the Education Act

• Designate the third week of November as Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week to raise awareness about bullying and encourage more people to stand up against bullying

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• Require organizations using school property to follow standards consistent with the provincial code of conduct.

Semantics and loopholes
The act is being revised to contain the phrase “including groups with the name gay-straight alliance or another name” after it was discovered that gay students at Catholic schools were forbidden to use the name “gay-straight alliance” for support groups they formed with heterosexual students.

Up until now, they’ve been forced to find more creative names for such groups. Reminiscent of the old “don’t ask, don’t tell” US military policy, they’re tolerated only if they don’t shout about it. But the words “gay-straight alliance” are important to them because that’s how they identify themselves. If society is to encourage acceptance of the gay community, it needs to be able to speak the words. This is something the Catholic Church has obvious difficulty with.

The archbishop of Toronto, Cardinal Thomas Collins, spoke out against the new amendments, writing that “all forms of bullying need to be addressed, and all victims of bullying need to be helped.” BUT, “it is not helpful to propose one particular way, such as the one commonly called GSA.” He can’t even bring himself to say the words, preferring an acronym instead. The Catholic bishops also say that the emphasis in any anti-bullying campaign should be based on “an accurate understanding of those who are most at risk.”

Are gay students at risk?
As far as risk is concerned, sexual orientation is the second greatest reason students are bullied, according to a U.S. survey in 2005. Appearance was the primary reason cited. We’ve all read the media reports about students taking their own lives as a result of persistent bullying. Prohibiting people from identifying themselves in their chosen way contributes to this culture of victimisation. A 2011 study funded by Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, found that “20.8 per cent of LGBTQ students indicated being physically harassed due to their sexual orientation, compared to 7.9 per cent of non-LGBTQ participants.” Gay students endured six times as much verbal harassment about their sexual orientation and almost two-thirds of gay students feel unsafe at school. Surveys conducted in both Canada and the U.S. found bullying of sexual minority students is less common in schools that have an anti-homophobia policy and/or have a gay-straight alliance.

A support-system for students seen as an attack on religious freedom
Cardinal Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto, calls the amended law an attack on religious freedom and encouraged members of all religious faiths to stand against it. “If it happens to us, it can happen to you, on this and other issues,” he wrote, in a somewhat inflammatory tone, on a church website. “When religious freedom becomes a second-class right, you also will eventually be affected.”
In an interview on 28th May, with CBC Radio’s Matt Galloway, Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten defended her new amendments. “To many of our students, we know that the term gay-straight alliance has great meaning and that words matter and that if you can’t name something, you can’t address it,” she said.

Are publicly-funded faith schools an anachronism in Canada’s secular society?
Resolving the conflict between Catholic religious doctrine and Canadian constitutional rights means something will have to change. The state has a duty to protect the vulnerable in society and to ensure that public money isn’t put toward discriminatory uses.

Catholic schools run on government funds are subject to the same statutory requirements of all public schools. Surely individuals’ constitutional rights are not as easily erasable as sins absolved at confession. There’s a bullying problem and the government is trying to tackle it. If their methods conflict with the tenets of your religion, you can choose to stick to your principles and fund your own approach. It’s as simple as that.

Aisha Isabel Ashraf is a freelance writer and author of the popular blog EXPATLOG – a collection of irreverent observations from her experiences as a "cultural chameleon". It's where you'll find her, strung out on caffeine, humorously dissecting the peculiarities of expat life for her own amusement and the benefit of future generations.

She can be contacted via the usual avenues (e-mail, Twitter, Facebook) – just swing by the blog for directions.

Read Aisha's other Expat Focus articles here.

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