05/25/2012 02:38 EDT | Updated 07/25/2012 05:12 EDT

'Gay-Straight Alliances' Acceptable Club Name Under Ontario Anti-Bullying Bill

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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.

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