Setting policy on the backs of teens

It's still possible to avoid a wrenching legal battle

It is cruel to ask 16-year-olds to carry the weight of a multiyear court case on their backs. It is doubly cruel because it need not be so.

And yet, it could all end up in court.

Leanne Iskander and Taechun Menns are astonishing people, for any age. They — along with as many as 30 others — are part of a gay-straight alliance (GSA) at St Joseph’s Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario. The problem is, their school principal, Frances Jacques, told them they can’t have a GSA.

So, for the time being, they’re doing what teenagers do best — meeting at the mall. That’s right: like generations that came before them, they’re not taking no for an answer.

Jacques’ statement to Iskander, that “a GSA is premature for your age,” is cribbed from a homophobic teaching manual authored by Ontario bishops in 2003. By edict from the Catholic bishops, clubs that use the word gay are to be discouraged, since gay sex is “deficient” and gay students are called to a life of abstinence.

A couple of weeks ago, gay Liberal MPP Glen Murray got jammed up over the Catholic GSA question on Twitter. In response, Murray challenged those who were upset to find a test case. Iskander, Menns and their hapless principal have provided just such a case.

The question is, what now? The Canadian Civil Liberties Association says that forbidding students from forming a GSA is unconstitutional. Should that case be made before the courts, with St Joseph’s at the centre?

Well, the short answer is no.

The provincial Liberals, under Dalton “the education premier” McGuinty, can and should intervene. They should start — today, preferably — by making known their displeasure about the treatment of gay teens by Ontario’s Catholic schools. Condemn the caveman teaching materials supplied by the bishops. Discipline the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board.

Then there’s Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky, who, knowingly or not, has become the Minister of Bigotry. Dombrowsky stayed silent when Halton Catholic schools tried to stitch a GSA ban into its board policy. This time around, she ought to speak up. Otherwise, she’s siding with the bullies over the students.

Then there’s the school’s principal, Frances Jacques, who owes an apology to her students. It’s the Christian thing to do. And if she won’t, then the Dufferin-Peel board’s director of education, John Kostoff, should.

This winter, Xtra was told repeatedly that there is no “official” ban on GSAs in the province’s Catholic schools. If that’s the case, McGuinty, Dombrowsky, Kostoff or principal Jacques can turn this around.


The Ontario election — Oct 6 — looms. Some have questioned whether it makes sense to press this issue before the election. Others — the party faithful — say the Liberals are afraid to meddle with Catholic schools before the election but will take care of it in 2012 or 2013, once they secure a third mandate.

There is, I’m afraid, no reason to believe this is true.

The bishop’s guidelines have been in place since 2003, when the Liberals were first elected. A comprehensive curriculum update failed to comment on it. Two elections were fought on education, and the GSA ban was never mentioned. Why should we believe that the third time’s the charm?

In fact, after word broke that the Mississauga GSA had been denied, Murray continued to insist that “there are GSAs in many schools,” including Catholic schools. It shows that he and his party would rather obfuscate than deal with it, at least in the short term.

A couple of weeks ago, Brenda Cossman — the law professor who heads the University of Toronto’s sexual diversity studies program — weighed in, challenging Murray. She referenced a gay teacher who was fired for being gay and a high school student who wanted to take his boyfriend to the prom. Both fought protracted legal battles.

“Do we really need to drag another [Delwin] Vriend or Mark Hall through this?” she wrote.

The point is, we don’t need to.

There is a whole chain of people — starting with the principal and going all the way up to the premier — who could avoid dragging these teens through the courts.

I suspect Iskander, a cool-headed and articulate advocate, would be up to the task.

And Iskander will have help if she wants it, from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Egale, Queer Ontario and Xtra — not to mention Cossman and half the Twitterverse.

Will it turn into a Supreme Court case? Well that depends, to a large degree, on the McGuinty Liberals and a clutch of administrators in Mississauga.

Marcus McCann

Marcus McCann is an employment and human rights lawyer, member of Queers Crash the Beat, and a part owner of Glad Day Bookshop. Before becoming a lawyer, he was the managing editor of Xtra in Toronto and Ottawa.

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