Discrimination in Ontario Catholic schools

A constitutional relic vs a modern reality

Discrimination extends beyond the treatment of queer youth in Ontario Catholic schools, in both the silencing of students with alternative views and in rules governing hiring practices.

Gay teachers at these schools, terrified of losing their jobs, don’t open up about their personal lives and avoid topics in the classroom that could raise eyebrows. Non-Catholics and atheists are forced to lie in order to land coveted teaching jobs.

One GTA Catholic teacher, who is gay and asked that his identity be concealed to protect his job, says gay teachers constantly feel scrutinized. The job market is bleak. “What do you do when 35 percent of the jobs are not open to gay people?” he asks.

“The reality is you have to be firmly in the closet while you’re at work. I can’t be open to the principal or the vice-principals or administration. I always have to consider who is safe. It’s a daily problem.”

Patrick Keyes, superintendent of education for the Toronto Catholic District School Board, tells Xtra the hiring practices at Catholic schools can be perceived as discriminatory.

“At a Catholic school we have the right to hire people who hold a baptismal certificate,” Keyes says. “So we can justly discriminate in who we hire. You must be a baptized Catholic.

“If you’re going to have a Catholic school board, you need to populate the board with faithful and believing Catholics. On the other hand, we have to be open to the world.”

Section 93 of the Constitution Act outlines special protections for “denominational,” or Roman Catholic, schools.

In 1985, when then-premier Bill Davis extended public funding to Ontario Catholic schools for grades 11 to 13, secondary schools became open access, meaning students needn’t prove they are Catholic to attend. To attend a Catholic elementary school, on the other hand, a child needs a baptismal certificate from the Catholic Church, or one parent must hold a baptismal certificate.

A lot has changed since confederation, and Catholics no longer face the same level of discrimination they did a century and a half ago. In fact, the tables have turned, and Catholic school boards now use a privileged constitutional position to discriminate against other minorities.

Constitutional lawyer Douglas Elliott says there are many problems associated with Catholic education because in many cases school boards answer to the Vatican, not the Ontario Ministry of Education.

“The Catholic school system is an extension of the public school system. But from the Catholic Church’s perspective, it’s not part of the public school system at all. It’s part of the Catholic Church,” he says.


Gay teachers, and those with religions other than Catholicism, get the message that they can apply only to jobs in the public school board.

A landmark Canadian case involved Delwin Vriend, a teacher dismissed in 1991 from King’s University College, a private religious school in Edmonton, because of his sexual orientation.

Vriend filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission but was refused protection against discrimination because sexual orientation was not included in the province’s human rights code. The case made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in 1998 that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violates section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Closer to home, Barbara Santamaria, a teacher on the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board in 1983, was pressured to quit when the board found out she was Jewish. “I went for my interview knowing that I was going to be asked for a reference from my parish priest, which I don’t have because I am Jewish.”

During the job interview, Santamaria says she was told it was important that all teachers are Catholic so students can constantly be immersed in Catholic doctrine.

Although no official challenge was taken up against the board, Santamaria tells Xtra the experience led her to advocate for a single secular school system.

Another recent case in Edmonton involves Jan Buterman, a trans teacher who was fired by the Greater St Albert Catholic Schools district. CTV Edmonton reported that Buterman was commended for his abilities as a teacher but was told his “values were not in line with the Catholic Church.”

Buterman told the Edmonton Sun the district has since offered him $78,000 so long as he keeps quiet. Buterman turned down the offer and is instead proceeding with a human rights complaint against the district.

Meanwhile, trustees in the Edmonton secular system recently passed a motion to develop a policy to prevent harassment of and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans students and staff.

Catholic schools have also marginalized students who openly express pro-choice views. Often they are silenced, and in some cases, punished.

Every year students are bused by the thousands to Parliament Hill for the annual anti-choice March for Life.

Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board student Ryan Wijetunga, 17, is pro-choice and says students attend the Ottawa rally for different reasons, some just to get a day off school. “I went because I wanted to understand other people’s views.”

Amid the frenzy and inflammatory rhetoric about teenage sex and unborn babies, rational discussion is impossible, he says. “Students are being used as pawns.

“They make people who are pro-choice look like monsters,” says Wijetunga. “It was really biased. It felt like a cult. They just tell us that abortion is wrong… It feels like they are just brainwashing these kids.”

More than 20,000 students and teachers from numerous Ontario Catholic schools attend the March for Life, which is promoted by school chaplains, their attendance paid for by parents and student fundraising. Students are encouraged to participate alongside evangelicals and extreme rightwing politicians. The pilgrimage is voluntary.

Campaign Life Coalition (CLC) youth coordinator Alissa Golob, 24, dismisses students who challenge the Catholic Church’s staunchly conservative position. “Why go to a Catholic school if you’re not pro-life? Catholics are pro-life, and we always will be. If you hold a contradictory view, go to a public school.”

Golob regularly speaks to students in Ontario Catholic schools about the CLC and being “pro-life.”

“Maybe there are a few students who attend [the March for Life] just for a day off school, but after hearing the speakers and going to the conference, kids are completely inspired and completely pro-life afterward,” she says. “It really helps shape their view.”

In March, Grade 10 student Alexandria Szeglet was sent home from her Thunder Bay Catholic school for wearing a green strip of tape with the word “Choice” on her uniform. That day, the school hosted a pro-life event at which some students wore red pieces of tape with the word “Life.” When Szeglet passed out her green strips to fellow students, she was told to remove the tape or go home. She went home.

Golob says, “We have a constitutional right to teach Catholicism in our schools and uphold it.”

But students shouldn’t have to leave school, Queer Ontario’s Casey Oraa argues. Parents decide which school to send their children to, and those students may decide later not to be Catholic. It’s unfair to expect them to drop out of school, disrupt their education, leave their friends and teachers and commute across town to enroll at another school, he says. “Queer students, pro-choice students, students with different religions are all being singled out and told to leave because they don’t fit into this narrow definition of what it is to be Catholic.”

Read Part One and Part Three of Xtra‘s investigation into Ontario’s Catholic schools.

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