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Teen wins landmark case against York Catholic school board. Here’s what it could mean for others


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Teen wins landmark case against York Catholic school board. Here’s what it could mean for others

A York Region teenager has won a landmark court case against the York Catholic District School Board after it barred her from running for student trustee because of her religion.

“It hasn’t really hit me yet,” said Dasha Kandaharian, 17, now a first-year student at York University’s Schulich School of Business.

Kandaharian was in Grade 12 at St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic High School in Aurora last year when she launched a lawsuit against the YCDSB. The board had prevented her from running for student trustee, two years earlier, when she was in Grade 10, because she’s Orthodox Christian — not Catholic.

She and the non-profit legal aid clinic Justice for Children and Youth argued the board’s policy requiring students who run for the post to be Catholic was a violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A recent ruling from Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice agreed with them.

“The role of student trustee bears no relationship to any right or privilege held by Catholic separate schools at the time of Confederation and the prospect of students who are not Catholic representing a Catholic school as a student trustee would have no prejudicial affect on such a right or privilege even if it existed at that time,” the decision reads.

Student trustees represent the voice of students in school board decisions about education.

While Kandaharian’s case involved the YCDSB, other students from neighbouring Catholic school boards served as witnesses and documented their own struggles trying to run for student trustee as non-Catholics.

“(The students involved in the case) have a lot to be proud of — for identifying unfairness and doing something to try and make their school a better place,” said Allison Williams, a staff lawyer with Justice For Children and Youth. “They demonstrated a lot of courage and tenacity. It was really inspiring for us.”

Williams is hopeful the decision, which she calls precedent-setting, will motivate other Catholic boards in the province with similar policies to “pre-emptively review and change” them in accordance with the court’s conclusion, “and in promotion of children’s rights.”

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According to the decision, there are approximately 5,000 non-Catholic students enrolled with the YCDSB alone. “The 5,000 students that are not Catholic constitute a significant group that are not treated as complete members of the student body or the school community,” it reads.

Elizabeth Crowe, chair of the YCDSB, said the board “is very disappointed by the ruling from the Ontario Superior Court.”

“Student trustees hold important positions in the governance of constitutionally protected Catholic school boards and the board felt very strongly that they should hold the same qualifications with respect to Catholicity as duly elected Catholic trustees,” she said in an emailed statement to the Star. “The York Catholic DSB is examining the ruling to determine next steps.”

Raghad Barakat, a first-year humanities student at the University of Toronto, went through a similar experience to Kandaharian last spring, when, as a Muslim student at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Secondary School in Milton, she was denied a chance at running for trustee.

Barakat called the Halton Catholic District School Board’s policy “a little bit contradictory,” especially as they have another policy that states the board will “identify, examine, and remove any barriers that exist, preventing full participatory school-community relations including obstacles associated with any systemic discrimination.”

This experience led to her being a witness in Kandaharian’s case, along with Rushan Jeyakumar, a current Grade 12 student at Michael Power-St. Joseph High School in the Toronto Catholic District School Board who was unable to run for student trustee in Grade 10 because he is Hindu.

“I was in a state of shock and happiness,” said Barakat, of learning about the court’s decision in the middle of a class. She immediately ran out to call her parents and share the news. “It was so validating to hear. Finally (non-Catholic) students can get the opportunities they deserve.”

Jeyakumar was equally elated to hear the news, telling the Star he’s hopeful his school board and others like it will see this decision and implement changes to their policies, especially as students are students, regardless of the religious beliefs they hold.

“There’s not really much of a difference. Religion shouldn’t be a barrier to access.”

Alessia Passafiume is a GTA-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach Alessia via email: apassafiume@torstar.ca

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