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Catholic school trustees fear fallout over gay-straight alliance furor

St. Anne Catholic School in Ottawa'a west end has set up an anti-bullying program where students themselves take turns monitoring for schoolyard bullying during recess and lunch.

Brigitte Bouvier/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's Catholic school trustees fear that they have lost the support of their communities in their opposition to gay-straight alliances, and that the issue has eroded public support for Catholic education, a document obtained by The Globe and Mail shows.

The debate over proposed anti-bullying legislation, or Bill 13, has fuelled criticism of public funding for religious schools and caused a rift between Premier Dalton McGuinty and many Catholic leaders who believe that GSAs contradict the church's teachings.

The Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association – anticipating what it called "objectionable" new provincial anti-bullying legislation that is expected to pass Tuesday, requiring schools to allow GSAs – outlined a strategy in a memo to its members. This includes making GSAs a "subset" of broader anti-bullying clubs and ensuring that they adhere to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, which asserts that homosexuality is "intrinsically disordered."

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Education Minister Laurel Broten met with representatives from the trustees' association Monday.

"Let me be absolutely clear," Ms. Broten said in an interview. "Regardless of any memo or not, Bill 13 will be the law and it's my expectation that every board will follow the Education Act."

She said the association's concern that the McGuinty government is wavering in its commitment to fund Catholic schools is unfounded. "I have been very unequivocal in our support for Catholic education," she said. "It's constitutionally protected."

GSAs became a hot topic in Canadian education over a year ago when the Halton Catholic District School Board made international headlines by banning them altogether. The ban was repealed, but since then Catholic school boards have been developing alternative support groups with broad anti-bullying mandates that avoid using the words "gay" or "rainbow" in their titles.

The legislation was introduced last November in response to the suicides of teenage bullying victims, including Jamie Hubley of Ottawa and Mitchell Wilson of Pickering.

Then last month, Mr. McGuinty's government introduced an amendment requiring that students be allowed to call their clubs GSAs.

"It's very problematic because it totally goes against our beliefs," said Murielle Boudreau, president of the Greater Toronto Catholic Parent Network. "Nobody can change the Catechism, certainly not [Mr.] McGuinty."

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It was more than two years ago that Mr. McGuinty backed down to pressure from faith-based groups by withdrawing revisions to Ontario's sex education curriculum. But the GSA issue has revealed a divide within the Catholic community: Trustees and church leaders have been the loudest opponents, while students, teachers and parents are generally more supportive of the clubs.

The OCSTA memo amounts to an acknowledgement that the trustees are "out of step with where the rest of the culture is at" by taking a hard line against GSA's, said Peter Tabuns, the New Democratic Party's education critic.

He suggested that trustees may be raising questions about the McGuinty government's commitment to funding Catholic education as a "rallying cry" to try to pull people together. "But I can't see how it would be successful," he said. "I don't see the signals that would indicate the whole landscape is about to change."

The NDP plans to support Bill 13, ensuring that it will pass third and final reading on Tuesday. The Progressive Conservatives plan to vote against it, despite initially working with the governing Liberals to tackle bullying.

Tory education critic Lisa MacLeod said the bill has been "very divisive." Liberals caught the Catholic education system by surprise with an amendment last week, supported by the NDP, saying schools must let students call anti-homophobia support groups "gay" clubs, she said.

The governing Liberals have lost ground on anti-bullying, because the bill has turned into a debate on whether it will continue funding Catholic schools, Ms. MacLeod said.

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"This has opened up a Pandora's box," she said.

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About the Authors
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

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