CFI presentation on Bill13, Bullying and GSAs, to the Ontario government Committee on Social Issues
May 16, 2012
A presentation by Justin Trottier, CFI National Communications Director to the Ontario Government Committee on Social Issues on Bill13: Accepting Schools Act. Presented Tuesday, May 15, 2012
My name is Justin Trottier. I’m the National Communications Director at the Centre for Inquiry. I want to thank the esteemed members of this committee for the time and opportunity to present today.
I’m joined today by two colleagues, Kevin Smith, the Chair of the Board of the Centre for Inquiry, and Greg Oliver, the President of an allied organization called the Canadian Secular Alliance.
Both the Centre for Inquiry, or CFI, and the Canadian Secular Alliance, are member organizations of the Ontario GSA Coalition, a network of 13 organizations pushing for the constitutional right of students to form GSAs under their chosen name. We wholeheartedly endorse the Ontario GSA Coalition briefing paper to this Committee. We will not therefore repeat the thorough legal analysis contained therein which, in our opinion, makes a watertight case for the absolute necessity of mandating the allowance of GSA in publicly funded schools. We do recommend though that the final bill tightens the currently ambiguous language in Bill 13 with respect to students right to name their club whatever they want.
The Centre for Inquiry’s broad mandate include three areas of relevance here: first, the promotion of evidence based decision making, second, fundamental freedoms and equality between all citizens and, third, the protection of our secular society.
The evidence is clear and compelling. Three-quarters of LGBT students feel unsafe at school and 42% of LGBT youth had thoughts of suicide at some time. No one disputes these, or the need to fight bullying, instead much of the debate centres on the name Gay Straight Alliance.
Now what’s in a name? In this case, everything. Depriving students of the right to include the word gay in the name deprives them of an element of their identity, of who they are, is another more pernicious form of bullying, one in this case that has been systematically implemented by certain school boards and, if Bill 13 fails to pass, passively supported by government.
The attack isn’t only on the name. Some catholic schools forbid the symbol of the rainbow being associated with these clubs. The Orwellian intent is clearly to keep gay students in the closet and the student club focused on anything other than the one area urgently requiring attention.
The Centre for Inquiry also supports basic equality rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular those enshrined in our charter. Even if there was not a shred of evidence that GSAs were necessary due to the statistics on bullying, our charter guarantees freedom of association and freedom of expression, especially in public institutions.
Both the public secular school system and the public catholic school system are public institutions. In fact, only 8% of catholic school funding comes from the property tax of catholics, with 92% comes instead from general revenue. Now given the fact that the per pupil cost to educate a student in a catholic government funded school is higher than that to educate a student in a secular government funded school, it is mathematically guaranteed that non-catholics are funding catholic schools. In this sense, catholic schools might be described as more publicly funded than even secular schools.
Which brings us to our final point. The centre for inquiry stands for secularism, that is church-state separation. As the Ontario GSA coalition briefing paper compellingly argues, the acceptance of public funds by an institution entails that that institution will not discriminate.
One of the repeated remarks by opponents of GSAs has been that Bill 13 unfairly singles out one group for protection, namely LGBT students. Not only is that simply inaccurate, given that Bill 13 speaks to supporting gender equity, anti-racism and disability awareness groups too, but it is in fact a backward argument. Its the opponents of GSAs who unfairly single out one group for attention. Bill 13’s explicit inclusion of GSAs is only necessary because certain catholic school boards - supported by these anti-GSA activists - have chosen to oppose these, but only these, single issue clubs. In my public secular high school, for example, there was a christian club, a muslim club, and an astronomy club, among many others. I don’t recall any opposition to these single issue clubs. Bill 13’s partial focus on GSAs is made necessary because of the constitution-violating precedent already set by a number of catholic school boards to ban GSAs if given any legal loophole allowing them to do so.
I was at a Toronto Catholic District School Board meeting in which booing courageous gay students gave way to the TCDSB legal counsel reminding the trustees to stand tall, because when human rights contradicted denominational school privilege, human rights must lose. It is this anti-gay agenda by catholic school boards, and not some gay-agenda by the gay and lesbian community, that requires and demands a GSA focus within Bill 13.
We’ve been circling around the real elephant in the room, which is public funding of catholic schools. This debate would hardly exist, GSAs would hardly be controversial, if Catholic schools were in the equivalent position of every other religious school system in Ontario, namely privately funded. Now the following remarks are those of CFI and the Canadian Secular alliance, and not the Ontario GSA coalition which has no official position on government funding of catholic schools.
But we feel it’s imperative to point out that legislation to mandate what should be plainly obvious, namely a students charter right to freedom of expression and freedom of association, is a band aid solution. These problems of discrimination, and violations of fundamental rights and equality, will crop up again and again so long as a system exists in which funding comes from one source - namely the people and government of Ontario, but accountability lies in large part elsewhere, namely with the Ontario Institute for Catholic Education and the powerful assembly of catholic bishops.
Today its GSAs. A couple of weeks ago it was attempts to turn students into pro-life activists during class time. A few years ago it was the banning of books written by atheists. Some years before that it was Marc Hall being denied the right to bring his same sex boyfriend to the prom. I could go on, and on.
We realize this committee is in no position to take on the issue of public funding of catholic schools. But on the other hand, it would be farcical to deliberate on this particular matter without pointing out the inherent conflict. Other provinces, including Quebec, have defunded catholic schools. Its legally simple, but politically difficult. It takes courage. But it isn’t a wacky marginal position. Actually, a CBC commissioned poll from 2007 found that of those who responded to whether they wanted catholic and secular schools to merge, ⅔ responded favourably.
The question as to whether catholic schools should be required to support GSAs has been satisfactorily answered. The real question, to us, is whether Ontario should be required to continue to support catholic schools. If we do, as history has shown, we will be in for a never ending series of fights for equality and fundamental freedom which, in terms of time, focus and money, Ontario can ill afford.
It’s time to emulate the inspiring courage of the students fighting for GSAs and deal head on - and just as bravely - with one of the basic problems of our educational system.