TORONTO - Students would be able to call anti-homophobia clubs "gay-straight alliances" under changes to proposed legislation that previously allowed principals to veto the name, Ontario's Education Minister Laurel Broten announced Friday.
The change in the Liberals' new anti-bullying bill — the Accepting Schools Act — is part of a government initiative to create a "safe and accepting climate" in schools, including Catholic schools.
"Schools need to be safe places for kids to be themselves, and for some kids, that means being able to name a club a gay-straight alliance," Broten said.
"I don't think there's anything radical about allowing students to name a club."
The legislation, which comes in response to the suicides of two bullied students last year, is about protecting and empowering students, Broten said.
Allowing students to name clubs as they see fit is part of that empowerment process, she said.
"It wasn't for us to sit at Queen's Park and tell students what the name of their clubs should be, and we weren't going to do that."
Despite objections from Catholic school trustees and some religious groups, the bill requires school boards to support student groups for "people of all sexual orientations and gender identities."
It specifically makes reference to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, two-spirited, intersexed, queer and questioning people.
Some critics argue the bill is an affront to their family values.
Conservative critic Lisa MacLeod accused the Liberals of making a mockery of committee hearings, where she said 80 per cent of speakers opposed the legislation.
"The Liberals basically have decided they would enshrine in legislation the name of a club," MacLeod said.
"They have taken away the rights of the school community to make that determination."
Still, Broten said she hoped the opposition parties would support the bill, including the naming provision, and expressed appreciation for the backing offered by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association.
Word of the change was welcomed by the Ontario Gay Straight Alliance Coalition.
"It is very positive that the proposed language reflects our suggestion that the new act will acknowledge the charter rights of students," said coalition lawyer Doug Elliott.
The province's New Democrats were quick to take credit for the amendments, saying the party has been pushing the minority Liberals for explicit protections for students who want to start groups aimed at combating homophobia.
"We're glad after so many months the government saw the light," the NDP's Peter Tabuns said.
Among other things, the bill aims to encourage a "positive" school climate and prevent inappropriate behaviour, including bullying, sexual assault, gender-based violence and incidents based on homophobia.
It also would establish "Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week" beginning on the third Sunday in November.
Broten said the name of an activity or school organization would have to be consistent with the promotion of a climate that is "inclusive and accepting of all pupils."
The government hopes to pass the legislation before the legislature rises for the summer on June 7.
If They're Happy And They Know It
From an early age, we teach children to identify and organize objects: A is for apple, B is for ball and so it goes. And we should also teach them to identify their emotions: "You must be happy the sun is shining, we can go to the playground." Or, conversely, "Maybe you are disappointed it's raining and we can't visit the park." In this way, the dialogue begins, as does the ability to take another's perspective. Kids can only talk about their feelings if we give them the vocabulary; so show them how and give them permission to express them.
Talking To The Boys
Parents sometimes don't give their sons the tools they need to properly express their feelings. Child psychologist Dan Kindlon, who co-authored Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, told us parents -- and society -- often protect boys from having to do the emotional work that will help them become whole people. He shared the story of a mother and daughter coming across a little boy crying in the park. When the daughter asks why the boy is crying, the mom helps her speculate. "Maybe he's lost." "Maybe he hurt himself." A mother with a son, however, may tell her son not to worry about the crying child. An encounter with a curt waiter at a restaurant might provide more food for thought: "Why do you suppose he's so angry?", parents could ask. Boys don't need special training, Kindlon says, they need opportunities to show off their natural capacity for caring for pets, siblings, grandparents, elderly neighbors and others in the neighbourhood.
Express Your Feelings
Parents can also show their children how to express their feelings by doing it themselves. Start by sharing the highs and lows in your day. If you are facing a moral dilemma, talk about it with your kids. They don't need to know every detail to try to get the gist. If you make a mistake, apologize. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it shows kids how it's done. As Mary Gordon, the famed founder of <a href="rootsofempathy.org" target="_hplink">Roots of Empathy</a>, an award-winning organization that offers empathy-based programming for children in their classrooms, told us: attentive, loving and empathetic parents are the best role models for children. Gordon should know. Independent studies have shown her program's graduates are more socially sensitive, less aggressive and more likely to challenge injustice than other youngsters.
How Would You Feel If...?
It's a question that's perfect for every occasion. Ask kids to put themselves in someone else's shoes -- happy or sad. From the playground to the grocery store to the living-room sofa, our day-to-days are filled with moments that could be considered from someone else's perspective. At the park, for example, a power struggle at the swing-set could evolve into a lesson in sharing and perspective taking: "How would you feel if you weren't allowed a turn?" A bedtime story or children's movie that ends happily-ever-after might merit a follow up: "What do you think you would have done in that situation?" It's a lesson some rather accomplished people have learned. In his video introduction at the Democratic Convention in August 2008, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke of the only time he saw his mother angry. It was upon witnessing an act of bullying on someone who appeared to be different. "She'd said to me, 'Imagine standing in that person's shoes. How would that make you feel?' That simple idea, I'm not sure I always understood it as a kid, but it stayed with me."