OECTA represents 45,000 of Ontario's Catholic teachers.

OECTA comes out in favour of GSAs

  • February 6, 2012

TORONTO - The union representing 45,000 Ontario Catholic teachers has no objection to gay-straight alliances operating in Catholic schools. The Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association says GSA format as developed in the United States is in conflict with Catholic teaching, and that anti-homophobia clubs in Catholic schools should be called Respecting Difference.

Both sides say there is no conflict between these two positions.

"There's really no difference between OECTA's stance and our stance on serving the needs of all of our students, including those with same-sex attraction or gender-identity issues," said OCSTA president Nancy Kirby.

"For there to be any disagreement we would have to have a pretty good understanding of what Respecting Difference really means," said OECTA president Kevin O'Dwyer. "We haven't had a chance. The document came out last week."

A media storm blew through Ontario's daily newspapers and broadcasters over OCSTA administrative guidelines for Catholic school boards on how to implement their equity and inclusive education policies. As the storm swept the province, O'Dwyer sent a letter to The Toronto Star Feb. 3 reiterating that OECTA members have no problem with GSAs and were ready to volunteer to lead the school clubs.

"It's a position we defend based on what is best, how we can best support students," O'Dwyer told The Catholic Register.

Teachers bring the professional and ethical standards of their profession to the question of how to assist gay students who are being bullied, said O'Dwyer.

"Our sense is that when we speak about students and what's in the best interest of students, we do it with a pretty professional and well-documented reputation," he said.

That said, it's up to the boards to set policy, according to O'Dwyer.

Ontario's Catholic school boards already have policies which bring them into line with anti-bullying legislation. The Respecting Difference document is a set of recommendations about how those policies should be administered. It's up to individual school boards to adapt the recommendations to their policies as they see fit, said Kirby.

The OCSTA has been widely criticized for its choice of language in the document. Respecting Difference never mentions gay or lesbian students.

"It's because we're talking about respecting differences, and that's what we're explaining in the whole document," said Kirby. "Just because the word isn't in there doesn't mean we have a problem saying the word gay, or gay-lesbian, transgendered, whatever. It's just that it doesn't happen to be in the document."

Kirby has been part of Ontario College of Teachers meetings shaping a LGBQT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgendered) qualification course which will soon be offered to teachers. In effect, the course would set professional standards for how teachers and schools protect and support gay students.

Kirby doesn't see a conflict between standards set in the Ontario College of Teachers course and the Catholic trustees' position on GSAs.

"When it comes right down to it — whether it be trustees, administrators, teachers, support staff — everyone wants the same thing for the students and that's that they feel safe in the school environment, that they feel accepted and supported and that we try to eradicate bullying."

While students are bullied for all kinds of reasons, anti-gay bullying brings its own challenges and issues that require a specific response. That may include student clubs, said Kirby.

"We have not said anywhere that (students) cannot have a club solely for LGBQT students," she said.

OECTA and the Catholic Principals Council of Ontario are working together on ways of informing Catholic teachers about how professional standards and practices should apply to working with gay students in Catholic schools.

"We're in the process of finalizing what a conference opportunity would be for both teachers and administrators," said O'Dwyer. "We're going to really take a look at equity in the context of a Catholic school."

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