Students will be able to set up gay-straight clubs to promote tolerance in all public schools in Ontario under new anti-bullying legislation from the Liberal government, Premier Dalton McGuinty said Wednesday.
Some Catholic schools have banned clubs based on sexual orientation, but McGuinty said the bill specifically allows gay-straight groups, although he noted they may be called something else.
"We're going to require that, at every school where students request that this be put in place, they be permitted to organize themselves with a gay-straight alliance," McGuinty told the legislature.
"It may not be that name that they use, but the important thing is we're going to have that kind of a supportive group there available in all our schools."
The New Democrats were concerned by what McGuinty said the gay-straight alliances might be called.
"I was a little worried with the way the premier couched his remarks saying they might not be called that," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"Look, if we're not prepared to allow kids to use the word gay, if we as we put legislation together and put new rules in place say that gay is a bad word, then how are we going to end bullying of kids who want to self-identify as gay?"
McGuinty said, however, that the legislation would give students the right to name the clubs.
It would also allow schools to permanently expel students for bullying, instead of being limited to suspensions, McGuinty said after visiting students at L'Amoreaux Collegiate Institute in north Toronto.
"We're stepping it up, and we're saying it can be the subject of expulsion, which is the most severe consequence that a school can impose," he said.
"We are determined to take the next step to ensure that in our schools we send a very clear, strong and direct message: we will not tolerate bullying of any kind, at any time, for any reason."
At least one-in-three Ontario students reports having been bullied, said Education Minister Laurel Broten.
"We know every single student has seen it, has suffered some form of it, because the reporting levels are obviously lower than the level of what's transpiring in our schools across the province," said Broten.
"That's why we take it so seriously."
Students should feel free to be who they are at school, regardless of ethnicity, faith, culture, gender or sexual orientation, added McGuinty.
The bill will require that schools take action to prevent bullying, intervene when appropriate and punish offenders.
"We're taking policies with respect to bullying and giving them the force of law by introducing those by means of a bill and ensuring that boards must take concrete steps when it comes to preventing, intervening and applying progressive consequences," said McGuinty.
The Progressive Conservatives introduced their own anti-bullying bill Wednesday, which Tory education critic Elizabeth Witmer said calls for anti-bullying awareness campaigns at all grade levels.
"Let's make sure at least that these young people learn in kindergarten that it's inappropriate to bully and that they learn to deal with some of the feelings that they have of anger or depression or loneliness," said Witmer.
"My bill is proactive, it's raising the awareness and educating people about how you respond to it."
McGuinty suggested the minority Liberal government was open to incorporating some of Witmer's legislation into it's own anti-bullying bill.
Recent suicides of gay teens who were bullied were "absolutely" on his mind as the new bill was drafted, said McGuinty.
"This is a way to draw what painful lessons we might from those terrible tragedies, and to give some meaning to those tragedies, by taking concrete steps to make our schools safer for all our kids," he said.
The suicide of 15-year-old Jamie Hubley, a boy who was a target as the openly gay student at his Ottawa school, touched a nerve, with teens from around North America flooding the Internet with tribute songs, videos and messages in response.
The premier also released his own It Gets Better video, which encourages students, teachers, parents and community members to do their part to help end bullying and intolerance.
"To those of you who face bullying, or feel that you're alone, I want you to know you're not," McGuinty says in the video.
A lot of bullying takes place off school property, but McGuinty said the government can't really deal with that.
"We're not going to pretend that we can somehow reach out into the broader community, into every nook and cranny, but we'll do our very best when it comes to the physical environment of the school itself."