This teenager was barred from running as a student council member because she is not Catholic. Now she’s suing the York Catholic board

When 16-year-old Dasha Kandaharian learned that she had been disqualified from a York Catholic District School Board student trustee election because of her religion, she was shocked.

“I thought it was unfair,” he said during a Zoom interview after school from his home in King City. “I believe that all students should be able to run for student trustees.”

The 12th grade Orthodox Christian student and her father filed a lawsuit against the board in late August, represented pro bono by Torys LLP and the nonprofit legal aid clinic Justice for Children and Youth. They claim their politics requiring students running 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 raises interesting questions about the restrictions that publicly funded boards in Ontario can implement to exclude their many non-Catholic students. A similar situation follows in April in Halton, where a Muslim student started a petition after she, too, was denied the opportunity to be a trustee.

Mariann Gordon, a spokeswoman for the York Catholic District School Board, said in an emailed statement that the board will not comment “on the details of a lawsuit that is before the courts.”

School board policies are set by the Board of Trustees, he noted, as outlined in the Ontario Education Act.

“The right to manage Catholic education in Ontario is protected by the Constitutional Act of 1867, and this right is also recognized in the Charter, the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Education Act,” he added.

“Furthermore, the right to impose a qualification based on religion does not offend the Charter, due to the exemption in section 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 it comes with a fee. Then in 11th grade, he had already served on the student council, played on various sports teams, and made the honor roll.

“I have an interest in business, law and politics and I thought that becoming a student trustee would expose me to these fields,” he said. “I also wanted to give something back to my school community. They have done a lot for me, I have 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 attorney for Justice For Children and Youth, said the team will argue that this violates the right to equality under Section 15 of the Charter, and “that it is outside the legal authority of the board, the authority that they are granted under the Education Law. “

They want the policy to be canceled or “declared without legal effect.”

This would also set a precedent for other Catholic boards in the province, most of which, he said, have similar policies.

Kandaharian decided to attend a Catholic school because he had access to a school bus and faith-based values ​​fitted in well. Williams noted that there are many non-Catholic children in Catholic schools, and “there would be a wide range of reasons,” ranging “from convenience to necessity.”

“We are interested in this case because we believe that it is truly representative of the protection and promotion of the equal rights of children in education,” he said.

“So we thought it was very important to support Dasha in her efforts to defend herself and her teammates.”

Raghad Barakat, a senior at St. Francis Xavier Catholic High School in Milton, went through a similar experience last spring, as a Muslim who was also denied the opportunity to be a 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 in the policy.”

The policy of that board has not yet changed. Barakat will be a witness in the Kandaharian case.

“If they are qualified and have worked hard and have volunteer hours and are leaders, I don’t see why the line should be drawn at the student trustee, when we, as non-Catholics, have supported the Catholic school, so much and I have been model students in many cases, “he said.

The Halton Catholic District School Board did not respond to a request for comment.

“I feel very discouraged that I was not able to make the change that I had set as a goal,” Barakat said.

“However, I am very excited that people are interested in the issue and willing to listen and listen to my voice, along with the voices of other Catholic and non-Catholic students who are fighting for this change.”

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