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On Tuesday, Premier Dalton McGuinty stunned everyone by stepping down from his position as Liberal Party leader, and calling for the prorogation of Queen’s Park until a party leadership convention could be held. In an e-mail sent to supporters, he said:

“I feel very good about where we are as a party and a province. But as Liberals, we’re always driving forward. The opposition’s political games are holding Ontario back.”

“We’re also going to consult with the opposition about what they would support to freeze wages. To this end, I’ve asked the Lieutenant Governor to prorogue the legislature to allow those discussions with our labour partners and the opposition to occur in an atmosphere that is free of the heightened rancour of politics in the legislature. And when the legislature returns, we will either have negotiated agreements in hand or a firm sense of what the opposition will support.”

From this, you get the sense that he is taking a much-needed step back, putting the government back in order and ready to tackle the important business of governing our province. And there is no doubt that partisanship at Queen’s Park is at a fever pitch, however, there is a lot of ongoing business that Premier McGuinity needs to answer for, including the ongoing investigation of Ornge and Health Minister Deb Matthews, and the contempt investigation of Energy Minister Chris Bentley. He has now added to these (and past) scandals by proroguing our provincial legislature while his energy minister is under investigation for withholding documents, which could ultimately lead to the government being found in contempt.

What bothers me most about these circumstances is the partisanship behind it. I am a member of the federal Liberal Party, and a supporter of the Ontario Liberals, yet I’ve watched as scandal after scandal has happened in our province. There always seems to be an excuse, mostly that the opposition are out for blood and entirely unreasonable. Not that these complaints are entirely without merit, some sessions of Question Period do look more like a political circus than serious discourse on how to serve us, their constituents. However, the purpose of the opposition parties are to hold the government accountable, especially in a minority situations where less than a majority of the citizens of Ontario have confidence enough to support the Liberal Party.

I’m also greatly concerned to watch excuses being made for actions that are deplorable, as long as they’re being performed by the federal Conservative Party of Canada.

I’m also greatly concerned about the double-standards that seem to be appearing in the way our governments do business. When the provincial Liberals do things that we condemned in the federal Conservatives (e.g. prorogue to avoid trouble, omnibus bills) I am hearing the same excuses from the Liberal supporters that I heard last time from the Conservative supporters. Those excuses didn’t convince me under the blue banner, and I’m still not convinced hearing them coming from the red banner.

This excellent Macleans article by Mark Jarvis covers the prorogation:

Prorogation is not a mechanism designed to afford the current government a political advantage in the exercise of power.

Yet, in recent years we have seen first ministers misuse the power of prorogation to avoid confidence votes, delay reporting by officers of parliament, escape questioning and scrutiny, and side-step accountability for matters of public policy and administration.

This most recent prorogation terminates an ongoing investigation of contempt against one of McGuinty’s ministers and effectively precludes anticipated motions of contempt against an additional minister and McGuinty himself until a new session of the legislature, when McGuinty will no longer be premier.

There is also the contempt situation. With prorogation, “all bills and committees from this short session — such as the committee investigating Energy Minister Chris Bentley for withholding documents on cancelled power plants — die on the vine.” Many are questioning the motives of the premier proroguing this session, when it nullifies the contempt investigation of his energy minister.

And there is the matter of the contempt investigation itself. I have encountered many partisans that are calling the contempt motion an “opposition witch hunt”; yet, when the federal Conservative Party was under investigation for withholding documents on Afghan detainees and prorogued parliament December 30 2009, opposition parties argued the Harper Government was attempting to shut down democracy in Canada. In response, protests were organized across Canada (Sarah and I participated in the one here in London). The arguments I encountered is that the two situations are entirely different. However, I had this conversation with CBC’s Kady O’Malley (an excellent authority on parliamentary procedure) October 2 over Twitter:

Kady: It’s fun to watch Liberals who decried the Conservatives’ refusal to turn over Afghan detainee docs defend the ON Liberals’ contempt.

Me: I’ve been trying to untangle this issue, many have told me this issue is *completely different* than CPC doing it. I had my doubts.

Kady: Yeah, that’s crap.

Me: That was my suspicion, thanks Kady.

Kady: The power of parliament to order the production of papers, people and records is sublimely simple, and absolute.

Me: Makes sense. What I encountered was: documents were produced on time, document request interferred with business in progress etc. etc.

Kady: No, if the documents were produced in time, there wouldn’t have been a prima facie contempt ruling.

Kady: Also, documents are expected to be produced in original, non-redacted format.

Me: Good to know, to me it seemed exactly the same as CPC situation. So what is really different? Just partisanship?

Kady: Yup.

Finally, there is also the practice of passing omnibus budget bills. On this issue I was also reassured that when the Ontario Liberals did it, phrases like “an unfortunate but necessary tactic for a dysfunctional minority situation” were used. They didn’t want to do it, but it was the only way business was going to pass with such a ridiculous opposition.

Meanwhile, with the marathon passage of the last federal omnibus budget bill, the progressive consensus seemed to be something along these lines:

A second federal budget bill is being tabled today, with opposition parties already scrumming to discuss how these kinds of budget bills, crammed with government business that has no business being there, have no place in democratic discourse.

So what do we do with this? How do we move forward?

I understand the importance of parties in the political process. I understand that it is through parties that policy is built, and ultimately influenced in parliament. It is by joining a party that citizens can make their voice heard; sharing ideas, shaping policy and helping to choose candidates and the party leader. Ontario Liberals currently have the unique opportunity to help choose both the next provincial and federal leader of the party.

Yet, we’re frustrated with the partisanship of the party system. Facts become muddied when party loyalty trumps the truth. What should be strategy to best represent constituents becomes a race to forward ideology, with the worthiness of an idea often measured by merely who said it. Voter apathy is high at all levels of government, with only about 60% of Canadians able to vote actually casting a ballot.

How do we strike a balance? How do we promote political honesty, and foster a political environment all citizens are willing to participate in?

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There are many problems plaguing Ontario’s public school system. The economy remains fairly stagnant and the provincial government is struggling to find solutions and cut costs, while battling with a minority government situation. For years the London community of Lorne Ave. Public School has been threatened with the closing of their school as resources become tighter and the school has struggled with under-population.

This spring, the provincial legislature battled through passing Bill C-13, the Accepting Schools Act, to tackle bullying, specifically the chronic problem of the bullying of LGBT students (as described here). The major obstacle for the passing of the bill was the Progressive Conservatives and the Catholic School Board opposing it, with the board saying that they would be forced to accept “behavior” that is against their religious teachings.

Things have only become more complicated since then. Over the summer the provincial government struggled to create a new contract with the different teacher unions as their previous contracts were set to expire. The McGuinty government accused the unions of dragging their heels over the summer, creating speculation about whether the school year would start on time. Eventually the government called an emergency session of the legislature, with the threat that they would legislate a new deal if the unions wouldn’t agree to the terms they were willing to offer.

The provincial government has just passed the controversial Bill C-115, The Putting Students First Act. As this article states, “It imposes a wage freeze, the end of sick-day banks and a two-year strike ban, over the objections of unions representing most of the province’s teachers and school staff.” Understandably, the unions are furious, saying that their democratic right to collective bargaining is being taken out of their hands, and are vowing to protest this action.

In retaliation, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) is urging teachers to reconsider staying after school for extra-curricular activities such as sports and clubs, drawing criticism that though their complaint is with government, they’re only punishing students with this action. As well, “ETFO also wants its members to take part in ‘McGuinty Mondays’ in which teachers and educational professionals refuse to take part in school or system-level meetings.”

All of these issues combine into a very volatile situation for the government, educators and students. The government struggles to cut the massive provincial deficit, including by cutting back teacher wages and benefits, yet they seem to be avoiding a difficult but important step to cutting the cost of our education system as well as ensuring it becomes fair for all Ontarians.

To me, there is a very real solution to these issues available: amalgamate the Catholic and public school boards into a single, united secular school board. It would combine all of the schools already owned by the province, make much more efficient use of all of the school resources including buildings, staff and teachers, and produce a truly fair public system.

So far, the Green Party of Ontario (GPO) is the only political party willing to amalgamate the Catholic and public school boards. Though I am traditionally a Liberal supporter I am completely ready to say this, and to say I wish other parties would take the GPO’s lead. GPO leader Mike Schreiner’s views seem very similar to my own; he sees it as an issue of fairness and fiscal responsibility. In his words:

It’s an issue of fairness. In today’s world, it’s unfair to fund one religion school system at the exclusion of all others. The second is fiscal responsibility. When we have a record provincial deficit and we’re talking about cuts to education and attacking teachers, to not look at ending wasteful duplication –  I think it’s irresponsible to not look at those savings.

Right now, we have a public school system that contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, both by discriminating student entry and staff hiring by religion, and discriminating by sexuality. As well, in 1999 the United Nations Human Rights Committee condemned Canada and the province of Ontario for violating equality provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In this 2005 report, the Committee restated its concerns and observed that Canada continued to fail to “adopt steps in order to eliminate discrimination on the basis of religion in the funding of schools in Ontario.” Mr. Schreiner again:

I can’t think of any other place in society where we would allow two-thirds of our teachers to be denied employment opportunity. The Catholic board denies employment to non-catholic teachers and I don’t think you see that discrimination in hiring anywhere in Ontario especially by something that is funded by public tax dollars.

That doesn’t mean I believe we should completely eliminate religious teaching in our public schools. Far from it, I actually believe we should have more, as elective classes, and taught objectively instead of through a particular religious lens. As Mr. Schreiner says:

That doesn’t mean you can’t have religious education in the public system, you just can’t do it in a way that prioritizes one religion and excludes others.

This process would be a tremendous battle for our province, but it is absolutely the right thing to do. I hope that all parties will one day see this reality, and push to create a single, unified, fair and efficient school system.

As I wrote about in my previous post, “Why Bill C-13 Matters”, there has been a great deal of controversy in Ontario surrounding the Liberal government’s bill that would add new anti-bullying practices to Ontario public schools. The controversy has been specifically over Section 303.1, which states that every board will support pupils who want to start student organizations for people that are bullied, making specific mention of sexual orientation and organizations known as gay-straight alliances.

The Catholic School Board and members of the Ontatio Progressive Conservatives (PC) balked at this, with the Catholic School Board stating that this approach forces the Board schools to accept something they believe is against Catholic doctrine. They asked the government to remove any mention of gay-straight alliances, and a PC MPP, Lisa MacLeod, tabled Bill C-14, which proposes similar measures to C-13 without making any mention to sexual orientation.

The controversy grew as the Ontario NDP asked for amendments, including the following amendment to 303.1:

(2) For greater certainty, neither the board nor the principal shall refuse to allow a pupil to use the name gay-straight alliance or a similar name for an organization described in clause

Bill C-13 passed the provincial legislation last week, to a great deal of both applause and frustration. The goal is to have this new legislation in effect in provincial schools by the start of next September’s fall semester.

Part of the issue is that the Catholic School Board favours a top-down approach to teaching, and believes (along with parents) that this bill restrict the parent/teacher/principal role (despite their role being recognized in the legislation). According to a 15-page document released by Board trustees, Catholic clubs are encouraged to have teacher moderators and to designate principals to approve the group’s name and activities. It includes these words:

Student Activities or Organizations are not intended as (a forum) for activism, protest or advocacy of anything that is not in accord with the Catholic faith foundation of the school

At this time the Catholic School Board has signaled that it will not sue the government over this action, but there was a great deal of speculation about legal action before the bill passed, and it seems that it may happen in future, sinking public money into what could become a protracted legal battle.

As well, it seems doubtful the Catholic School Board will respect the new rules. Fred Collie, the Bishop of the Thunder Bay Diocese, made these comments to the Kenora Daily Miner:

Everything we do in our schools, every part of our curriculum, always has a Catholic component to it…We’re going say the Catholic church is not going to endorse or support homosexual lifestyles because we don’t see it as a proper lifestyle or a morally good lifestyle for people.

It begs the question: why does the province of Ontario still support a separate religious school as part of the public system?

The Catholic School Board is a public entity supported by public money, yet takes its utimate leadership from the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican, not the province of Ontario. This means that a branch of the Ontario public school system, with a Vatican-led stance on homosexuality, is in breach of the Canadian Constitution, which guarantees that every Canadian is free from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

It’s also worth noting that in 1999 the United Nations Human Rights Committee condemned Canada and the province of Ontario for violating equality provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and and Political Rights. In this 2005 report, the Committee restated its concerns and observed that Canada continued to fail to “adopt steps in order to eliminate discrimination on the basis of religion in the funding of schools in Ontario.”

This issue, however, is much broader than that. I don’t believe that a single ideology or belief system should be taught at a public school as the “correct” one, to the exclusion of all others, regardless what that belief is. If parents want their children to be educated from a particular perspective they have every right to do so, but I don’t believe that this type of exclusive education should occur in the public school system. This is why I advocate for a single public school board for our province, without religious affiliation.

There are a variety of reasons to do this:

One of the arguments for continuing the Catholic School Board is that it provides an alternative to parents who don’t want to send their children to a private school yet want their children to receive a religious upbringing. I don’t believe it is fair for one religious perspective (Roman Catholic) to be supported on public money to the exclusion of all others. Ontario has many different belief perspectives/traditions, and though Roman Catholic is the largest denomination in Ontario (with 34% of Ontario identifying themselves as RC in 2001), it shouldn’t have special standing above all others (the beliefs of the other 66% of Ontario). For education equality, we should have one board.

However, I don’t believe this should mean that the entire Ontario public system teaches only secular ideas. I believe all religious perspectives could and should be available to students who want to study them. The Catholic School Board states that they are a “vital component of the province’s publicly funded education system” and the diversity it brings is part of what makes our system so successful.

I believe the opposite. I am proud of our public school system, but believe it could be so much better.

I believe that this merger would lead to a stronger system by creating a more unified, inclusive education structure and provide a more varied education to all Ontario students. By merging school boards and thereby students, teachers, buildings etc., all public school students would have more resources at their disposal. Instead of positioning our students in secular vs. religious schools, they would meet students with more varied perspectives and make more topics available for study.

Ontario Green Party Leader, Mike Schreiner, puts it this way:

We need to merge the best of the Catholic and public system into one publicly funded education system, French and English.

I also believe that this merger should happen for financial reasons, and should be an easy sell particularly to the Ontario PC in this regard as it would help lower the province’s deficit. Although this issue was avoided by the Drummond Report, it would help the public school system operate much more efficiently. I find it completely unacceptable that the province operates separate sets of schools with their own boards regardless of inefficiencies, especially considering the financial state that the province is in. A move to merge the public and Catholic school boards (starting with the management of the boards, and moving downwards to give the school systems time to adjust to the changes) would be a practical, achievable step in lowering the public cost of education in the province.

Mike Schreiner says it so well:

The public wants to have a conversation about whether it’s appropriate that we fund one religious school to the exclusion of all others. That’s an equity issue. It’s a fairness issue. It’s a fiscal responsibility issue. And, at the end of the day, it’s a quality-of-education issue.

I’ve been following the news of Ontario’s Bill C-13, the Accepting Schools Act, with interest as the story has unfolded. This week, the legislation passed 65-36, with Liberal and NDP members voting for it, and all PC members voting against (as told here). It has become a very emotional issue, surrounding this portion of the legislation:

303.1 Every board shall support pupils who want to establish and lead,(a) activities or organizations that promote gender equity;(b) activities or organizations that promote anti-racism;(c) activities or organizations that promote the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people with disabilities; or(d) activities or organizations that promote the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, including organizations with the name gay-straight alliance or another name.

Perspectives towards this legislation have been varied, to say the least.

A sample of the support for the legislation has been posted on this government website. Among those speaking in support of the legislation are Nancy Kirby, President of Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association, Catherine Fife, President of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, Gordon Floyd, President and CEO of Children’s Mental Health Ontario, and Kevin O’Dwyer, President of the Ontario English Catholic Teacher’s Association.

There are many detractors as well.

One prominent group has been members of Ontario Catholic School Boards. Many have pushed heavily for a generic name for student groups, not using the words “Gay-Straight Alliance”. They have accused the Liberals of being needlessly polarizing and forcing the schools to go against Catholic Church teachings, as shown here. Another example of religious complaints against the legislation is available in this release by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

Another group vocally against the legislation is Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party. Randy Hillier, PC, MPP for Lanark, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington, shares his thoughts on the legislation here.

There are deep convictions on both sides of the issue. These are my thoughts on the legislation, and why it is important.

One of the arguments against this legislation is that it is up to parents to change their children, not the government. It is true parents need to step in and teach their children respect, respect for everything they think they need to bully another person for, including physical size, sex, age, race, religion, sexual orientation. The legislation does mention that this is an important component:

Acknowledge that an open and ongoing dialogue among the principal, school staff, parents and students is an important component in creating a positive school climate in which everyone feels safe and respected.

But what do we do when a parent refuses/is unable to do so, and the schoolmates suffer? Schools already have methods to deal with bullying, but it still is very persistent (with current estimates of 1/3 of entire student population bullied), and students have committed suicide because they can see no other way out of their torment.

Specifically, what is done for children that are victims of bullying because of their sexual orientation? Several people I grew up with are gay, but tried to mask that they were to avoid bullying while in school, and only came out after leaving Wiarton. No one should have to lie to themselves and others about who they are for fear of bullying.

Also, what if their parents are the bullies? Many homosexual people can’t even turn to their own family for support.

The creation of safe spaces for students, specifically Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), is commendable. No school board or principal should be allowed to stop such a positive group from forming when students in their school want to create one. Post-secondary schools are already forming these (or similar) groups, to create safe spaces for people who are adults. I think it is that much more important that these groups are available to students that may have no other place to turn.

Comments by people like MPP Hilliers that this legislation is a waste of time overlooks the fact that at least one PC member believes that a similar legislation should be passed. PC MPP Lisa MacLeod (Nepean-Carleton) tabled Bill C-14, the Anti-Bullying Act (also known as the counter-Bill C-13) that is very similar to the one presented by the Liberals, except that it didn’t make reference to sexual orientation at all. I believe that the PCs believe in the importance of this legislation by the government, but without wanting to offend the Catholic School Board or their conservative base.

It has also been argued that these new clubs would be exclusive instead of inclusive. This argument ignores the nature of groups like gay-straight alliances, which encourages all people to participate in a respectful manner. I wish that these groups had existed when I grew up. I understand that they will not be a quick fix to deep-rooted bullying issues, but I feel that it is a positive step in bringing people of all sexual orientations together for discussion, with the goal of moving towards understanding and acceptance.

I am particularly troubled by the religious arguments against supporting this legislation. My understanding is that Christianity should accept any movement to protect persecuted and abused people, most especially vulnerable people such as children, and should not be leading the charge against that action. The fact that students in Ontario today can go to a public school that is dictated by the Vatican belief that homosexual acts are “acts of grave depravity” that are “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to the natural law” demonstrates why this legislation is so important. It also begs the question of why Ontario still has a publically funded Catholic School Board.

I was bullied throughout my childhood, for being small for my age, for being artistic, and for enjoying reading. There were days I dreaded going to school, and felt trapped because I knew that if I turned to my parents or teachers for help, my life might only become worse by drawing further attention. Everyone is different, and anything that can be done to break down stereotypes and prejudice should be encouraged. That is why I think Bill C-13 matters.