Ontario school boards prepare for new equity strategy

  • December 30, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - A new equity policy for Ontario school boards could mean more prayer spaces for non-Catholic students and gay/straight student alliances at Ontario Catholic high schools next year.

The provincial government introduced its equity and inclusive education strategy last year. Boards are required to have equity and inclusive education policies in place by next fall. The policies range from religious accommodation to tackling discriminatory biases like gender or racial discrimination and systemic barriers to education.

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association says it welcomes the government’s new strategy because accommodating other religions and denouncing discrimination are part of the Catholic Church’s teachings, said OECTA president James Ryan.

“We want our schools to be safe and good working and learning environments,” he said.

Ryan told The Catholic Register that some Ontario Catholic high schools already have prayer spaces for non-Catholic students and some have gay/straight alliances or groups.

“The main thing (about the policy) is to ensure that Catholic schools and all schools are free of homophobia or hatred,” Ryan said. “All our students are called to be chaste so sexual practice isn’t an issue.”

According to the education ministry, the new strategy is needed because only 43 out of 72 Ontario school boards have established some form of equity policy. The government also said it recognizes the increasing number of students from different faith communities in the schools

Joanne McGarry, executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, said the league doesn’t have a problem with policies promoting equality. But she said the league doesn’t support groups in high schools which promote gay rights issues like same-sex marriage.

“The right of a Catholic school to uphold Catholic doctrine is not in question,” McGarry said.

“A Catholic school would have the right not to allow (gay/straight alliances or gay rights groups) if the sole purpose is to advance the agenda of the redefinition of marriage.”

Meanwhile, Patrick Keyes, Toronto Catholic board’s superintendent for equity and inclusive education, said the board is already discussing how it can implement the new strategy and support gay students and students from different backgrounds. The Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pastoral guidelines to assist students of same-sex orientation calls for support for all students and promotes freedom from harassment, he said.

“It really becomes a challenge for them. For us, at the end of the day, we want to make sure these kids are loved,” Keyes said. 

Amy Gerdevich, president of the Ontario Association of Parents in Catholic Education, said she was unable to comment on the issue of gay/straight alliances in Catholic high schools since the association will be discussing the topic at a January meeting. But she said parents need to have more resources and information about where the church stands on homophobia and same-sex issues so they can speak to their children about these issues.

“Because of the ethics of our faith, we already see that, as a given, everyone (should be) treated in an equitable fashion,” Gerdevich said.

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