Vanier policy is ‘educational apartheid’: expert

A sexual minorities expert says the new draft same-sex policy for Whitehorse Catholic schools likely doesn't meet Canadian law, despite the government's insistence to the contrary.

A sexual minorities expert says the new draft same-sex policy for Whitehorse Catholic schools likely doesn’t meet Canadian law, despite the government’s insistence to the contrary.

Kris Wells, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta who studies lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, said the new policy is still a clear violation of gay students’ rights.

“There’s no question that the policy is clearly discriminatory,” Wells said.

“The question will be is that discrimination justified? The crux of the issue, legally, is the denominational rights of Catholic schools under the Constitution, section 93. Will that trump the equality provisions under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

“That clearly states that any publicly funded institution, which includes publicly funded schools, must provide a discrimination-free environment on the basis of sexual orientation,” he said.

Controversy erupted during the winter over the Catholic schools’ original sexual orientation policy. That document was written by the bishop and outlined the church’s stance on homosexuality, as well as specifics about how Catholic school teachers should handle the subject.

It called homosexual urges a “disorder” and labelled homosexual acts an “intrinsic moral evil.” At the time, Bishop Gary Gordon said that Vanier teachers are also discouraged from using words like “gay” and “lesbian.”

The document was freely available on Vanier’s website until then-education minister Scott Kent ordered it taken down. In March, the department announced a new policy would be drafted.

While the offending passages have been removed from the new policy, the church’s position and teachings on homosexuality are still included in the footnotes.

The new policy was announced last Wednesday and is now in the hands of Catholic school councils for review.

Both Education Minister Elaine Taylor and department officials have repeatedly refused to comment on the new policy. Education spokeswoman Michele Royle said that the department won’t speak to the matter until school communities have a chance to review the document.

But that’s not good enough, said Wells.

“The question I’d ask is, how does it meet these laws? How is it not a contravention of the Human Rights Act?”

Wells explained that, as he sees it, even the existence of a second Catholic policy for gay students is proof that they will be treated differently.

“Would you do that to another group of students? Would you do that to our First Nations students and attempt to restrict their rights of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly?

“There quite simply can be no separate but equal. What this policy attempts to do is create an educational apartheid in our schools. LGBTQ youth are simply regarded as second-class citizens in their classrooms,” he said.

What the Yukon government should be doing, Wells said, is looking at other jurisdictions like Ontario, which passed the Accepting Schools Act last year. That act drew the ire of the Roman Catholic Church because it removed individual schools’ power to veto gay-straight alliances. Wells said such a move is critical to providing a safe and welcoming environment for gay students.

The current draft policy for Whitehorse Catholic schools gives Bishop Gordon a de facto veto over any gay-straight alliance group at the Whitehorse schools if he deems it to be contrary to Catholic beliefs.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a Catholic, a private, or public school. If it receives taxpayer dollars, it must, by law, provide a discrimination-free environment. Non-discrimination is a core value of a public education system,’ Wells said.

The NDP’s education critic, Jim Tredger, said he’s unimpressed with the new policy.

“It’s important to have the document, but it doesn’t mean a whole lot unless it involves the school community and works for the school community,” Tredger said.

Simply meeting the requirements of Canadian law should be the bare minimum not the benchmark of success, Tredger said. Had he been the education minister, he never would have let the Bishop’s original policy stand for as long as it did, Tredger said. And the new policy would have been written with input from the community, instead of in a top-down approach.

As far as he is concerned, the new policy doesn’t live up to the spirit and intent of the department’s own policy, Tredger said.

There is also confusion over exactly who wrote the document. Yukon Education says it was written by the Episcopal corporation, which submitted to the department to be vetted.

Last week Whitehorse Bishop Gordon wouldn’t confirm whether he wrote it himself, or with input from the government.

According to Paul Flaherty, the chair of Vanier Catholic Secondary’s school council, the Whitehorse Episcopal Corporation and representatives from the Education Department worked on the document together.

“The positive thing in all of this is Yukon government has said that it meets those legal requirements. The Episcopal corporation has also aligned that it meets the teachings of the church. It’s good that the two parties were able to get to a place that meets both of those objectives,” Flaherty said.

The new draft will be up for public review and input until a school council meeting in October, Flaherty said, though no date has yet been set.

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