West coasters may be lagging behind Toronto’s queer education policies—but our city has more work to do.
As a senior in high school, my friends and I had one mission: to create a safe space in our Catholic school community for LGBTQ and questioning students. We formed a gay-straight alliance, and were met with grave resistance; it was 2011, before the Accepting Schools Act passed into law barring uncooperative school administrators from banning GSAs. Still, we encouraged students to come out to meetings with posters and morning announcements—anything to make a vulnerable demographic feel comfortable in their own school.
About a year after I graduated and GSAs became untouchable in Ontario schools, I returned to see students had maintained the group, and showed unabashed support. In preparation for the school’s annual art show, the GSA members painted the giant moose statue in our foyer in the colours of the rainbow—a show of pride I never could have imagined one year earlier.
Five years later, the debate over LGBTQ rights and issues in Toronto schools seems like old news. But for our west-coast neighbours in Edmonton, the debate is just heating up.
After charges from the Alberta School Board to establish guidelines to help LGBTQ students, the Edmonton Catholic School Board has faced scrutiny for its inability to implement recommended guidelines that support students regardless of sexual orientation and gender expression. That’s in large part thanks to the conflicting ideals of religious officials; in January alone, three Alberta bishops opposed recommendations that stipulate students can self-identify their gender and pick their own pronouns. Bishop Paul Terrio called the guidelines a “major problem for Catholic education.”
The situation is so dire that Alberta Education Minister David Eggen has asked ECDSB trustees to “sort themselves out” in order to submit the board’s new policy based on his recommendations by the March 31 deadline.
That students deserve to feel safe and comfortable in the institutions where they spend much of their day seems natural. Similarly, that religious officials have taken a bold stand against these rights is incredibly problematic. But for Torontonians to wipe their hands clean of the issue—that is, to assume these problems only exist in faraway cities like Edmonton—is just as troubling.
In 2014, Toronto District School Board trustee Sam Sotiropoulos tweeted that he reserved the right not to believe in transgender people, claiming he needed “scientific proof” that it is “not simply a mental illness.” Sotiropoulos lost his seat as trustee the same year.
But in the Toronto Catholic District School Board, several trustees who have not supported guidelines to create more welcoming environments for LGBTQ students still hold their seats. Ward 8 Scarborough’s Garry Tanuan and Ward 7 Scarborough-North York’s John Del Grande, for instance, introduced a motion in 2013 that attempted to eliminate GSAs—almost a year after the Accepting Schools Act had been made law. Tanuan also filed a motion to delay the implementation of the updated Ontario sex-ed curriculum last year—which included references to gender identity and sexual orientation.
Most recently, the TCDSB’s new chair, Angela Kennedy, refused to comment on her position regarding GSAs. Kennedy, who was a trustee for 15 years, won her seat as chair after running unopposed. In an interview with Metro Morning‘s Matt Galloway, she not only declined to speak to the significance of GSAs, she wouldn’t refer to them by name.
Though the days that young people in our city were barred from congregating to discuss LGBTQ issues seem long gone, there still remains anti-queer rhetoric coming from the very people employed to support students. Toronto may be ahead of Edmonton school boards by way of legislation, but there is still a long way to go before the battle for equality in our schools is won.