Thank you to JersVision.org’s Loresa Novy & Faye Estrella who spoke at the legislative committee on Bill 13. Check out this Ottawa Citizen Article on their work.
On bullying, a day of talk but little unity
by Kelly Eagan
OTTAWA — There were 38 speakers on the agenda, some brief, some bearing binders.
Yet it fell to Faye Estrella, 27, of a gender that eschews pronouns, to crystallize the issue in eight words: “I’m not real sure this is very Jesus.”
Only in Ontario, with its publicly-funded religious school system, could an anti-bullying bill about which there is general agreement on aims end up in such a muddle.
A committee of Queen’s Park legislators spent eight hours Tuesday listening to public delegations express their views on the Accepting Schools Act. It proposes to give school boards more powers to deal with bullies and to expressly state what kind of student activities they should not just tolerate, but support.
The main clause of contention: That every board shall support pupils who want to establish and lead “activities or organizations that promote the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people of all sexual orientation and gender identities, including organizations with the name gay-straight alliance or another name.”
Many individual Catholics are not keen on the provision, arguing it interferes with their constitutional right to practise religion, via the Ontario Catholic school boards. The committee heard from several.
Even there, however, there is hardly unanimity.
Elaine McMahon is the local president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, which represents about 2,400 members here. An educator for 42 years, she supports the bill.
“As an educator and particularly as a Catholic educator, I believe that no one is unworthy of respect, dignity and love,” she concluded.
“It matters not what we call the (gay-straight alliance clubs), what matters is we have them … what are we afraid of?”
The new law could not be debated, in this city, without a reference to Jamie Hubley, the 15-year-old Grade 10 student who took his own life in October. The suicide followed battles with depression and incidents of bullying, including being thwarted when he tried to start a rainbow club at school.
Jamie’s father Allan, a city councillor, gave an emotion-filled speech to the MPPs in the morning.
Surprisingly, perhaps, he did not support the naming of specific groups — the gay-straight alliance, for instance — in the legislation, but favoured a more general ban on any type of bullying.
“I respectfully request that no groups be given special status by being named. To do so would only suggest that certain children are more important than others and I don’t support that notion. I’m here today to ask you to protect every child equally.”
He said his son endured “relentless” verbal abuse because he was a figure skater and loved singing. In the end, he said, Jamie felt broken. He urged the MPPs not to delay action.
“In fact, the bullies who hunted Jamie and took my boy from me will likely go on to attack other young people and damage more lives while we discuss whether we want to address bullying seriously.”
The committee is wrapping up five days of hearings. The Liberal government hopes to pass the bill before the legislature rises in June, with an eye to having it in effect by September.
Liberal MPP Yasir Naqvi pointed to the broad support among community groups in the city, including the Youth Services Bureau, and to the express approval from large Catholic organizations such as the teachers union. It is also true, he added, that some Catholic high schools already have so-called gay-straight alliance clubs.
Nor did he think there was much wiggle room on the bill’s language. “I don’t think the government wants to dilute the language.”
Tory MPP Lisa MacLeod, meanwhile, said about 85 per cent of the presentations on the bill were in opposition. She said she’s hearing from religious groups concerned that the anti-bullying language even applies to those renting space in a publicly-funded school, causing more potential friction between church and state.
“It’s become very polarizing,” she said during a break. “This should have been a bill that united everybody. Instead, it’s dividing Ontario.”
(Just to confuse matters, the opposition Conservatives had proposed a much-admired bill of their own. The final law will likely be a meshing of the two.)
Estrella, meanwhile, an organizer with Jer’s Vision, the youth anti-homophobia group, experienced episodes of bullying while growing up in Toronto. In high school, Estrella and a friend were thwarted in their attempt to start a GSA at a Catholic school. “It was the one thing we couldn’t do.”
Indeed, the Catholics seem to be all over the map on this one. Their own Ontario association of trustees in March released a document that said gay-straight alliance clubs are now permitted in the Catholic system.
Not all the action was inside. Over the noon-hour, about a dozen protesters stood at Kent and Queen streets, tape over their mouths, to visually demonstrate the muting of parental rights in the legislation.
So was it a day of sound and silence.
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