CNS photo/Andrew Kelly, Reuters

Student trustees need not be Catholic, judge rules

  • November 2, 2022

The York Catholic District School Board has decided against appealing a court decision that it must let a non-Catholic run as a student trustee. But it is warning parents the case reflects anti-Catholicism in society, and urges them to pressure Queen’s Park to change the law that sparked the ruling.

“Sadly, we recognize that anti-Catholicism is present in our society today, requiring all of us to be vigilant and vigorous defenders of Catholic education,” York Catholic trustees wrote in a letter sent home with students on Nov. 1. 

The letter urges parents to contact their MPPs to “demand that they fix the language used in the Education Act that created this court case in the first place.”

YCDSB trustee Dominic Mazzotta told The Catholic Register the financial cost and uncertainty of winning in a higher court convinced the board not to appeal the decision in the case brought by Dasha Kandaharian, then a Grade 10 student at St. Maximilian Kolbe High School.

“The appeal would have cost a lot of money. The board decided to put that money into classrooms,” Mazzotta said.

Kandaharian was initially prevented from running for student trustee in Aurora, Ont., because she is Orthodox, one of about 5,000 non-Catholic students enrolled in York Catholic schools. The York Catholic board argued that, like elected adult trustees and as part of the governance structure of the board, student trustees must also be Catholic.

In an Oct. 13 ruling, the court found in Kandaharian’s favour. It said excluding non-Catholic students from an elected position violated the constitutional guarantee of “equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination.” The decision applies to all 29 Catholic boards in Ontario.

“The role of student trustee bears no relationship to any right or privilege held by Catholic separate schools at the time of Confederation and the prospect of students who are not Catholic representing a Catholic school as a student trustee would have no prejudicial effect on such a right or privilege even if it existed at that time,” the decision says.

Pat Daly, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association, expressed disappointment but not everyone shared the sentiment. Toronto Catholic District School Board teacher Paolo De Buono tweeted “@YCDSB If you are receiving funds because you’ve accepted them as students, you shouldn’t be able to deny them the right to be student trustees.”

There has been a flurry of calls in the wake of the judgment to get rid of Catholic education rights under section 93(1) of the Constitution Act. 

The Constitution has previously been amended to quash Catholic education rights in Quebec and Newfoundland. Globe and Mail columnist Robyn Urback called Catholic education in Ontario “one of the last vestiges of state-sanctioned discrimination.”

But Mazzotta counters Catholics must protect their school system from the hostile cultural and political environment in which it now operates.

“I’ve been in education over 40 years. As a teacher, as a VP (vice principal), as a principal, and now as a trustee for 12 years, I have never seen an attack on Catholics the way I have in the last couple of years,” Mazzotta said. “It’s a secular attack. They want the system to go down, to be removed. Our system has survived since the days of the Constitution. The Constitution dictates to us that we have a right to Catholic education. Our Catholic ratepayers have a right to Catholic education in the province. This is how Canada became Canada, by that constitutional agreement.”

From the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association perspective, Daly argues that governing the school system from a Catholic point of view doesn’t make the system discriminatory.

“Particularly at the secondary level, our schools are extremely diverse,” he said. “Catholic school boards and staff welcome that diversity. However, in terms of governance, that’s a separate, distinct issue. Student trustees form part of the governance structure in terms of bringing forward positions on the part of students, making recommendations, providing advice. There is a distinction between student voice and governance.”

The court ruled that since student trustees do not vote and their presence is not necessary for a board meeting to achieve quorum, allowing students to elect a non-Catholic student trustee would not impact any constitutionally guaranteed education rights.

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