Ontario bishops not consulted in OCSTA clarification MPPs say supports GSAs
By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News
Ontario's Catholic bishops were not consulted when the Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association (OCSTA) issued a clarification of its Respecting Difference policy that some MPPs said supports gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in Catholic schools.
Several lay Catholics who spoke at a public hearing here May 22 on Ontario's proposed anti-bullying legislation found themselves blindsided when MPPs cited the clarification, which says: "Respecting Difference Groups can address a variety of issues or can be issue specific, and address only one type of issue, e.g. the well-being and safety of students who identify themselves as L/G/B/T/Q."
Most presenters were unaware of the clarification, which appeared in Q&A format earlier this year on the OCSTA website.
OCSTA president Marino Gazzola, in an email interview, said, "It is in fact incorrect to say that Respecting Difference Groups support GSAs."
"We in fact take issue with the selection of GSAs as the sole example of an anti-bullying group presented in this legislation," he stressed.
Gazzola said the clarification was "developed to support the implementation of the policy in Catholic schools" and "reflect actual questions" being asked about the implementation of Respecting Difference.
The Ontario bishops were not consulted in the clarification. "The clarification document was produced to clarify points articulated in the Respecting Difference document which was created in consultation with Ontario's bishops. Given this fact, no additional approval was sought," he said.
Various groups have warned Bill 13 as is could violate the constitutionally-protected rights for separate Catholic schools, religious freedom and freedom-of-expression rights protected in the Charter, and parents' prior rights to oversee their children's education.
"We have voiced our concerns regarding Bill 13," said Gazzola. "As the legislation was previously written, Catholic schools had the option of providing groups that reflect our values and respect our denominational rights. In light of the recent proposed amendment to Bill 13 announced by Education Minister Laurel Broten, that has now changed and we are reviewing our options."
Don Hutchinson, vice president and legal counsel of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, attended the Ottawa hearings. "Unfortunately, the good intentions of the trustees in issuing the clarification document also opened the door for reinterpretation by those who have set their minds on having GSAs at the expense of legitimate concerns for other students," he said.
"The document has been seriously misrepresented as an endorsement of GSAs when it is an effort by the trustees to note that the 'love your neighbour' tenet of the Christian faith includes practical expression in Catholic schools through the groups they have designed to address discrimination and bullying that takes place in contradiction to the faith beliefs and principles of the Catholic Church and community."
"It is a highly questionable twisting of the facts that some MPPs have declared that the clarification document expresses support for Bill 13," said Hutchinson.
If the government tries to make a direct attack on parental authority, as they appear to be doing, it will eventually backfire," said Teresa Pierre, director of Parents As First Educators. "You can't attack the heart of the parent-child bond and survive at the polls."
"It's a clarification that muddies things," said Bernard Couture, an Ottawa father whose children attend the French Catholic schools, and who presented a brief to the Social Policy in Ottawa May 22. "However the clarification was carefully worded in a way that was just vague enough so you could also take away from it that while single-issue groups would be allowed, they would still have to promote Catholic teachings."
Guy Dacquay, another Catholic father who made a presentation, said, "I am greatly disappointed by this document, which can be expected to cause misinterpretation of the intent of the Respecting Differences document."
"The OCSTA clarification should be retracted and revised," he added.
OCSTA came out in favour of Bill 13, bolstering the position of Liberal and NDP MPPs who undermined the presentations of lay Catholics at the hearings.
Despite the OCSTA approval of GSAs, president Gazzola defended the Catholic character of Ontario's Catholic school system.
"Catholic schools deliver a Gospel-infused curriculum to 600,000 students in Ontario today," he said. "This is a 170-year-old tradition that continues to produce some of the most outstanding, compassionate, and service-oriented graduates anywhere."
"Catholic schools are thriving today precisely because 2.3 million Ontarians choose to support our schools and/or send their children to Catholic schools," he said.
"To question the authenticity of Ontario's Catholic schools is to do a disservice to the thousands of parents, students, teachers, alumni, and clergy who are doing transformational things in our schools to help and to serve others here at home and around the world."
"The defence for a constitutionally-protected Catholic school is in the individual stories of academic success and social justice initiatives that are at the core of every Catholic school."