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Celebrating Canada's 2SLGBTQI+ Communities

Practice What You Preach: The HCDSB Will Not #FlyTheFlag. Now What?

After a lengthy meeting on April 26, trustees of the Halton Catholic District School Board voted against flying Pride flags at their schools in June, instead vote to have staff attend “education training” and putting up one single safe-space poster in each school. People aren’t happy…

It’s 2021, and friction between the Catholic Church, and the 2SLGBTQI+ community is still a reality. Though the 2SLGBTQI+ community continues to make strides in representation, inclusion, and visibility, there are still places that refuse to make an effort to acknowledge their existence, and one of those places are Catholic schools in Ontario. On Monday April 26, Trustees of the Halton Catholic District School Board voted against a motion that would raise a Pride Flag at every school in June to celebrate Pride Month, as well as having safe space signage posted in classrooms. They instead settled on an amendment stating that in lieu of flying a flag, or posters, staff would attend “educational training” on ways they can be more inclusive towards their LGBTQI+ students, and colleagues. Parents, students, and many HCDSB educators are rightfully and understandably upset with the decision.

The HCDSB, which includes Catholic schools from Oakville, Burlington, Milton and Halton Hills, is receiving pushback from community members, as well as their own educators on their decision. After an overwhelming amount of support on social media including a petition started by Student Trustee Kelly in favour of flying the flag that had gained over fifteen thousand signatures prior to the meeting, as well as celebrity endorsement from the entire Levy family (of Schitt’s Creekfame), and Olympian Adam van Koeverden, the news of the decision has spread well beyond Halton region. It’s reignited the long-standing debate about whether Catholic schools should continue to be publicly funded in Canada. Many people online argue that if their board is funded by all kinds of Canadian taxpayers, they should be abiding by the Government of Canada’s standards, which is to be inclusive of the 2SLGBTQI+ community. Others, who have spent years fighting Ontario’s Catholic school boards on something as small as allowing same-sex couples to attend prom together found the outcome to be predictable, but disappointing, nonetheless.

The Catholic Church has had an outdated, and arguably misinformed stance on homosexuality for a long time. Though many will try and use quotes from The Bible to justify their erasure and exclusion of the 2SLGBTQI+ community on the basis that it goes against God’s purpose. Using Bible verses in this way is an abuse of scripture, and it feeds the already alarming depression, and suicide rates among youth questioning their sexuality, as well as their place in the Catholic faith. The legitimacy of anti-2SLGBTQI+ scripture in The Bible is constantly being debated, with some even saying the text most commonly used against queer people is actually mistranslated. Recently Pope Francis voiced his support for same-sex couples. His quote was in the official motion in the meeting’s agenda package. Even with a shining endorsement from the Pope, the HCDSB trustees just weren’t ready to tell the 2SLGBTQI+ people of their community that they matter, and that they belong.

The HCDSB made headlines ten years ago in 2011 after they made a decision to ban GSA clubs to form in their high schools. Former Chair of the Board Alice Anne LeMay even went as far as to compare GSA clubs to “Nazi groups”, as they both go against the teachings of the Catholic Church. The ban was eventually lifted, but the HCDSB’s stance on the inclusion of LGBTQI+ people remained the same.  In 2016 the HCDSB’s board of trustees also voted against progressively changing the wording of their official discipline policy. The proposed change simply stated that schools should be a safe place for everyone regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender expression among other things such as disability and race. The wording of this new policy was taken from the Ontario Human Rights Code, as well as the Education Act. Though this policy’s only goal was to make schools more welcoming, and lower the tolerance for bullying, it was voted against, on the basis that using words such as gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation “went against Catholic teachings”. It’s been five years, and it seems they still haven’t budged from this stance. One individual’s argument against flying the Pride flag at HCDSB schools in the official agenda package for the original April 20 meeting stated that while they supported members of the 2SLGBTQI+ community, flying the flag at schools would give the impression that the board approves and endorses sexual promiscuity, as well as pre-marital sex which goes against their teachings that sex should only be between a man and a woman, with the purpose of creating new life.

The debate, which started at 7:30 P.M. lasted nearly four hours, with the first hour spent on incessant interruptions on whether or not the topic of raising the Pride flag would even be discussed in the meeting. The vocal opposition, mainly made up of three male trustees, made it clear through their arguments that their decisions were not based on fostering environments where everybody would feel welcome, safe, and supported. Instead, speaking in circles from their own fear and prejudices. Trustee DeRosa used his time to oppose flying a Pride flag to instead fly a “faith-based inclusion” flag made up of rainbow coloured stick people surrounding a stick-person Jesus. If that wasn’t offensive enough, he explained that he wanted schools to be inclusive, and safe for students. Students like his granddaughter, whom he said he ran for his current position for because “she didn’t like the colour of her school uniform”.

After an amendment was made to fly a Pride flag at the board’s head office in Burlington instead of having one at every school as a comprise, Trustee O’Brien suggested a further amendment that would strike out everything originally suggested, focusing especially on the inclusion of safe space signage in school, suggesting that a safe-space poster in a classroom “would be the same as flying a (Pride) flag”. Trustee Iantomasi spent all four hours of the meeting objecting any point he could, claiming bylaw violations every time he could get a word in. Iantomasi eventually stated that it would be disrespectful to fly any flag other than the Canadian one on a single flagpole, despite Halton’s public school board flying Pride flags underneath Canadian ones on their singular poles for several years now. “I believe in upholding the dignity of the Canadian flag, which means it should always be flown on its own” he said.

Anybody watching the meeting could see it was unorganized, and many of the trustees were uninformed. On more than one occasion, a number of the trustees who opposed the flag motion referred to the 2SLGBTQI+ community as “LBTG” or “LGTB”. However, there were also strong arguments in favor of flying the flag, and courageous words spoken by a small group of trustees. Mainly Student Trustee Kelly, Trustee Agnew, and Trustee Guzzo, who all made numerous statements asking the HCDSB to consider the motion. Trustee Guzzo even stated that she was willing to make a compromise that would make everybody happy in an effort to make a small step to make change but made it clear that the fight to fly a pride flag at every school was not over. At the end of the four-hour meeting, the initial amendment made by Trustee O’Hearn-Czarnota to the original motion won. This decision completely eliminated pride flags from being flown both at schools and the HCDSB’s head office. It also eliminated the motion to have safe space signage around schools. Instead, each school can put up one “faith-based inclusion” poster, and staff of the HCDSB would have “educational training” to learn how to be more supportive to people that identify as 2SLGBTQI+ in the HCDSB community. Nobody inquired about how much this training might cost the board, though there were previously oppositions made to flying a Pride flag due to the fact that buying a flag for every school would be too costly for their budget.

It doesn’t look like the online pushback by the public is stopping anytime soon, with this most recent decision adding fuel to an already burning fire. Vocal support online from teachers and support staff that actually work in HCDSB schools has also been overwhelming, with some of them even stating they would be posting things in their virtual and physical classrooms to let students know that they are seen, valued, respected, and embraced in an institution that continues to erase, ignore, and supress them. Because that’s what flying a pride flag at a HCDSB school would mean. It’s a symbol that offers inclusion, support, and celebrates that despite differences, everybody is welcomed into this space with open arms. It’s these same values that the HCDSB teaches their students. That we are all created beautifully, that God welcomes everybody with open arms. The choice to deny the flying of the Pride flags for one month, shows 2SLGBTQI+ staff and students of the HCDSB that they are an exception to these core values of Catholicism. Each of the flag’s colours, red meaning life, yellow representing the sun, green for nature, turquoise for art, and indigo/violet for harmony and soul, reflects the same values the HCDSB teaches in their schools. The decision that was made proves what we already knew. that many of the ideologies Ontario’s Catholic school boards stand behind are outdated, and exclusionary.  These actions have led many parents to consider moving their children into Halton’s public schools, abandoning faith-based lessons altogether in favor of a more inclusive school environment. If the HCDSB wants to continue promote and practice faith-based learning, the trustees must step into the twenty first century, follow their own “equity and inclusion for all” advice, and stop using religion to mask their prejudice and hatred. The votes may have been cast, and a decision may have been made, but the fight to fly Pride flags at Catholic schools in Halton isn’t over.

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    Chris Grady / 29 April 2021

    As a teacher/counsellor who worked in this board for 33 years, I can provide countless examples of staff and students trying to fight Board decisions like this one. It never gets less disappointing. While, I have many things to say, I will just comment on taking your children to the HDSB. it is a perfectly understandable choice. But, I must say that every school I worked in or with was exemplary in their commitment to Achieving, Believing and Belonging ( Brd. Motto) Another option is to let your kids stay wherever they want BUT, change your tax designation to the Public Board. If enough people do so , the Catholic Board will notice the reduced tax base and hopefully the Provincial Government will see a greatly reduced number of taxpayers supporting the two Board system.


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