Cardinal Thomas Collins speaks to media at a news conference at the archdiocese of Toronto May 28, responding to Education Minister Laurel Broten’s announcement that clubs dealing with sexual orientation and gender issues must be called a gay-straight alliance. Photo by Michael Swan

Cardinal Collins defends Catholic approach to bullying

By 
  • June 1, 2012

Cardinal Thomas Collins is puzzled and troubled by the Ontario government's reversal on a key aspect of Bill-13 but says it's premature to speculate on a court challenge to keep gay-straight alliances out of Catholic high schools.

Collins responded on May 28 to Education Minister Laurel Broten's announcement three days earlier that the government's anti-bullying Bill-13 will be amended to prevent Catholic school boards from blocking clubs called gay-straight alliances (GSAs). Under the amended legislation, the naming of such clubs will be solely up to students. Previously, the bill said clubs that deal with sexual orientation and gender issues could be called a gay-straight alliance "or another name."

Collins said he believes forcing GSAs on Catholic schools is an attack on freedom of religion. He said he is very troubled at what he called "this rapid shift, this narrowing, this hardening, this elimination of flexibility" in the government position. But he said it was too early to discuss a legal challenge on the basis of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Catholic education.

"The legislation hasn't even passed yet," he said. "We're very premature to be looking at issues like that. I don't think it would be responsible to be talking about strategies when the thing isn't even passed into law."

Collins disclosed that he had several discussions on Bill-13 with political leaders, including Premier Dalton McGuinty, as he worked quietly behind the scenes to persuade politicians to respect Catholic rights in new anti-bullying legislation. He wouldn't, however, discuss details of those meetings.

"We've constantly engaged with this issue for a long, long time," he said. "We've been trying to engage in dialogue to see ways in which we can have diversity (and) respect for different approaches. We have been urgently and diligently trying to do that. That's why I am, shall we say, disappointed."

The cardinal said he finds it puzzling that the legislation calls for just one solution to deal with gender-based and same-sex bullying.

"Surely there are many pathways that can be used and be valuable," he said. "Why is an act of the legislature being used to, in a sense, micro-manage the naming of student clubs? Surely, schools are different from school to school. Why not have more diversity, more inclusivity, more openness?

"Why are Catholics not free to design their own methods of fighting bullying in harmony with the local situation and with their own particular school? Why one method?"

In announcing the plan to impose GSAs on Catholic schools, Broten said the intent was to create safe environments for all students.

“I don’t think there’s anything radical about allowing students to name a club,” she was quoted saying. “It wasn’t for us to sit at Queen’s Park and tell students what the name of their clubs should be, and we weren’t going to do that.”

Collins said he found it very odd that on this one issue — the naming of an anti-bullying clubs —students are being given the authority to overrule their adult school leaders.

"This idea that any student would be able to override the principal or the trustees . . . that's an unusual way to do things," he said. "That's remarkable authority. I don't know if draconian is the word, but where's the flexibility? Where's the inclusivity?"

Catholic schools are entirely supportive of initiatives to reduce bullying. In January, the Ontario Catholic Schools Trustees' Association released a document called Respecting Difference that outlined how Catholic schools would address anti-bullying for all students. That document was drafted after wide consultations and all indications were that the government would respect the Catholic approach to this issue.

But the May 25 announcement made it clear that the government rejects Respecting Difference. Collins wouldn't speculate on the government's motives but is concerned about the focus on one type of bullying.

"What about the kids who are suffering for all kinds of reasons? I think anyone who suffers should be helped."

In a statement issued May 28 by the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario, Collins wrote that the issue is not just with the name itself but with all that goes along with what he called the GSA "brand." He likened it to joining the Liberal, New Democratic or Conservative parties and "rightly expecting something different from each."

Collins said the GSA model has an ideology and approach, including advocacy, that may be fine for many people —"and there are many good things in it" — but it doesn't fit with Catholic principles.

"All we're simply saying is that we think something like this should not be mandated from an act of the legislature. Why not simply have a bit more flexibility?"

Collins is troubled that the issue has become so controversial. In the end, he says, all education stakeholders want exactly the same outcome — schools that are safe and welcoming. In the Catholic model, that means personally supporting students, said Collins, "using methods and approaches that are in harmony with the faith we cherish."
"There is no reason for controversy here," Collins said. "We simply ask that diversity be respected in our society."

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