Student in battle of faith and freedoms
Teen sues school board after being barred from trustee race over religion
MAY WARREN STAFF REPORTER
When 16-year-old Dasha Kandaharian learned she was disqualified from a York Catholic District School Board student trustee election because of her religion, she was shocked.
“I thought it was unfair,” she said during an after-school Zoom interview from her home in King City.
“I think that all students should be able to run for student trustee.”
The Orthodox Christian Grade 12 student and her father launched a lawsuit against the board in late August, represented pro bono by Torys LLP and non-profit legal aid clinic Justice for Children and Youth.
They claim its policy requiring students who run for trustee to be Catholic is a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The case, if successful, could have implications for other boards with similar policies, and it raises interesting questions about restrictions the publicly funded boards in Ontario can put in place to exclude their many non-Catholic students. It follows a similar situation in April in Halton, where a Muslim student started a petition after she, too, was denied a chance at trustee.
Mariann Gordon, a York Catholic District School Board spokesperson, said in an emailed statement that the board will not comment “on the particulars of a lawsuit that is before the courts.”
School board policies are set by the Board of Trustees, she noted, as outlined in the Education Act in Ontario.
“The right to management of Catholic education in Ontario is protected by the Constitution Act 1867, and this right is also recognized in the Charter, the Ontario’s Human Rights Code and the Education Act,” she added.
“In addition, the right to impose
“I thought it was unfair. I think that all students should be able to run for student trustee.” DASHA KANDAHARIAN STUDENT
a qualification based on religion does not offend the Charter, because of the exemption at s.29 of the Charter.”
In April 2020, Kandaharian, a student at St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic High School, was selected by her school to run for the position of student trustee, a leadership role that gives teens a voice on Ontario school boards and comes with an honorarium. Then in Grade 11, she had already served on student council, played on several sports teams and made the honour roll.
“I have an interest in business, law and politics and I thought that becoming a student trustee would expose me to these fields,” she said.
“I also wanted to give something back to my school community. They’ve done a lot for me, I’ve learned a lot from them.”
But the York Catholic District School Board, specifically Section 3.6 of Policy 107, requires that student trustees be Roman Catholic.
Allison Williams, a staff lawyer at Justice For Children and Youth, said the team will argue this violates the right to equality under Section 15 of the charter, and “that it is outside of the legal authority of the board, the authority given to them under the Education Act.”
They’re looking to have the policy quashed or “declared without legal effect.”
This would also set a precedent for other Catholic boards in the province, most of which, she said, have similar policies.
Kandaharian decided to attend a Catholic school because
she had access to a school bus, and the faith-based values were a good fit. Williams noted that there are a lot of non-Catholic kids at Catholic schools, and “there would be a wide range of reasons why,” ranging “from convenience to necessity.”
“We have an interest in this case because we think it’s really representative of the protection and promotion of children’s equality rights in the educational setting,” she said.
“So we thought that it was really important to support Dasha in her efforts to advocate for herself and her peers.”
Raghad Barakat, a Grade 12 student at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Secondary School in Milton, went through a similar experience last spring, as a Muslim who also was denied a chance at trustee.
The 16 year old started an online petition last spring and with some of her classmates made a delegation to the Halton Catholic District School Board
“pointing out the contradictions of the policy.”
That board’s policy is still unchanged. Barakat will be a witness in Kandaharian’s case.
“If they’re qualified and they’ve worked hard and they have volunteer hours and they’re leaders, I don’t see why the line should be drawn at student trustee, when we as nonCatholics have supported our Catholic school so much and been such model students in a lot of cases,” she said.
The Halton Catholic District School Board did not respond to a request for comment.
“I feel very disheartened that I wasn’t able to make the change that I had set the goal of,” Barakat said.
“However I am very excited that people are invested in the issue and willing to pay attention and listen to my voice, along with the voices of other non-Catholic and Catholic students who are fighting for this change.”
Toronto Star Newspapers Limited