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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

There Oughta Be A Law

Nathan Raine
Published Thursday May 28, 08:18 pm
GLBT Students need more than ‚Äúpolicy‚ÄĚ from government

For those unaware (and in Saskatchewan, it wouldn't be a stretch to assume that there might be more than a few folks who are), here’s a quick overview on gay-straight alliances: most often student-led organizations, GSAs are intended to provide a safe, supportive environment within schools for LGBT youth, and their straight allies.

In Canada, four provinces — Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, and Nova Scotia — have legislated GSAs, which means that by provincial law, schools must create a structure and framework for one if a student should ask. But in Saskatchewan, things aren't quite as straightforward. The government here has a GSA “policy” in place, rather than a law.

Don Morgan, Minister of Education, has justified the choice to not enshrine the right to GSAs into law by saying, “At this point in time, with the level of support, I think I would almost be doing a disrespect to (the school divisions) to try to put it into legislation because we have really good compliance and support.”

Not exactly a proactive approach — one that’s drawn considerable backlash. Along with Provincial Opposition leader Cam Broten, television personality Rick Mercer, among many others, has voiced his disappointment, saying that mere “policy” is not adequate to provide students with the support they need. Further, some have begun to wonder if veiled homophobia is to blame for the government's lack of conviction.

Amanda Guthrie, education and youth coordinator at the Avenue Community Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity in Saskatoon, works with a lot of youth who experience discrimination in the school system, and knows how important GSAs are to providing a safe place.

“Statistically speaking, 64 per cent of LGBT students feel unsafe at school, so GSAs provide a safe space for students to meet like-minded people,” says Guthrie. “It would be a very smart move [for the Saskatchewan government] to show that they support all students across the province, especially students who come from a minority.”

Guthrie is among the many displeased with the provincial government's claim that their current policy is adequate and legislation is not needed.

“Policy is just a suggestion that a GSA should exist, whereas legislation is actually power; it puts power back in the students' hands where it should be,” she says. “With policy, it's up to the student to approach a teacher or principal and say 'I would like a GSA.' That puts a lot of stress on students. They shouldn’t have to feel anxious, nervous or stressed about trying to create a space in their school where they can feel safe and welcomed and valued.”

In order to receive some clearer answers on their position on GSAs, we contacted the Ministry of Education. They granted an interview, but only through email, and answered by assembly, attributing the responses only to the Ministry of Education. The responses are dry, to say the least.

“Our policy is clear,” said the Ministry of Education, in response to an inquiry over why policy is preferred to legislation. “In addition, there are already laws in place [Saskatchewan Human Rights Code, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms] to protect students from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Okay then... so why not show leadership on the issue, the way Alberta has?

“When developing recommendations to address bullying and cyberbullying, consultations occurred with over 1000 students, parents, teachers and stakeholders. Those conversations helped to shape the action plan that is in place today, including the expectation that publicly funded schools to accommodate student requests for a Gay-Straight Alliances or a group of similar nature,” said the Ministry of Education.

So, that got us a whole lot of nowhere. When asked if they believe there is still a certain degree of discomfort surrounding the discussion of GSAs, the Ministry of Education said: “We can’t speculate on that. There are a number of resources on the ‘I Am Stronger’ website to help students, families and educators better understand the issues. Here’s a link to the site.”

Perhaps their resistance to actually having one human speak to another human directly about GSAs revealed a little more than they were intending, as twice they deferred their answers by saying to simply checking information on their website. It doesn't seem like they are entirely comfortable addressing the issue directly, but Guthrie is giving the government the benefit of the doubt.

“I wouldn't say the Saskatchewan government is homophobic — there's many people within the government supportive of the LGBT community. But I think there's definitely a long way for us to go just as people here in Saskatchewan,” says Guthrie. “When we have governments picking and choosing what human rights they are going to be favouring or deeming worthy of legislating, I think there are issues. They have the ability to fully support LGBT students.”

As for current GSAs in Saskatchewan schools, Saskatoon is faring much better than Regina: every public high school in Saskatoon has a GSA, while none exist in Regina, where Guthrie claims there is a definite desire for them. Planet S contacted Katherine Gagne, chairperson of Regina Public Schools, for comment, but she declined the interview.

Sigh. It seems rather excessively hard to get someone who isn’t actively advocating for GSAs to talk about them. But how could they be more afraid of any stigma than the kids who may see these groups as a safe — and potentially life-saving— haven?

“I’ve worked with students outside of Saskatoon that have been denied GSAs, or students who don’t feel safe to go to their teachers or principal and [ask] for one,” says Guthrie. “If students are afraid to ask a question because they might be denied then why would they even ask?”

Proactively establishing that safe place for students through legislation — through actual law, that is, not just gentle nudges or best wishes — seems to be what the Saskatchewan government fails to recognize, or is unwilling to do. The reasons behind that are still a bit cloudy, with answers being dismissive, essentially saying that it's good enough the way it is. Clearly not all students would agree.

“There's still a lot of stigma towards the LGBT community, and [questions about] whether it's necessary to be talking about LGBT issues within schools. So having school divisions like the Saskatoon Public School Division standing up for LGBT students, and GSAs existing in schools, really helps combat that stigma,” says Guthrie. “And so I think the discomfort we see with people talking about this issue, those people just simply need education. People are not born homophobic, so there's a lot of education that still needs to happen, and making GSAs mandatory is a fantastic step towards combatting stigma and homophobia within our schools.”

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