LGBT students and allies deserve more than toothless policy

PROVINCE by Nathan Raine


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. GSAs are (usually) student-led organizations 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 not to enshrine the right to GSAs into law. “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,” he’s said.

Not exactly a proactive approach, and one that’s drawn considerable backlash. Provincial opposition leader Cam Broten has called for support for GSAs in the legislature. Television personality Rick Mercer 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. After all, just a decade ago — before Brad Wall took over as leader — the Saskatchewan Party argued against same-sex marriage.

Could some intolerance linger?

Amanda Guthrie, education and youth coordinator at Saskatoon’s Avenue Community Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity, works with a number of youth who experience discrimination in the school system. She 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 e-mail, and answered by assembly, attributing the responses only to the Ministry of Education.

“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 1,000 students, parents, teachers and stakeholders,” said the Ministry. “Those conversations helped to shape the action plan that is in place today, including the expectation that publicly funded schools accommodate student requests for Gay-Straight Alliances or a group of similar nature.”

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 deflected questions by suggesting Prairie Dog check information on their website.

It doesn’t seem like the Ministry of Education is entirely comfortable addressing the issue directly, but Guthrie gives 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,” says Guthrie. “But I think there’s definitely a long way for us to go just as people here in Saskatchewan.

“When we have governments picking and choosing what human rights they’re 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. Prairie Dog contacted Katherine Gagne, chairperson of Regina Public Schools, for comment, but she declined an interview.

If it seems excessively hard to get someone who isn’t actively advocating for GSAs to talk about them, that’s because it is. But how could politicians be more afraid of 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?”

Thus far, the Saskatchewan government refuses to legislate safe places for LGBT students and allies, seemingly content with gentle nudges or best wishes. The government is essentially saying things are good enough the way they are.

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,” says Guthrie. “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. 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,” she says. “There’s a lot of education that still needs to happen, and making GSAs mandatory is a fantastic step towards combating stigma and homophobia within our schools.”