While a Catholic school district in Ontario failed to pass a proposal to fly the rainbow-colored LGBT Pride Flag outside schools in June, the school board changed the proposal to say that staff should “raise awareness around Pride Month.” The board mandated staff training on the issue to encourage “shared understanding” and requested a review from the Ontario education minister.
Patrick Murphy, chair of the Halton Catholic District School Board, told CTV News Toronto that many people spoke out against the proposal to fly the LGBT rainbow flag at all schools in celebration of Pride Month and to put safe space posters in every class.
“The reality is, we received probably a thousand emails. There is polarization on this subject,” he said.
At an April 26 meeting, the school board debated the proposed motion. They amended the motion to remove the request to fly the flag and instead decided to put one poster in each school.
“We received a great deal of feedback on the proposed motion to recognize Pride Month from members of our community, and we know that some will be disappointed with the outcome of our deliberation,” Murphy said in an April 27 statement. “The actions prescribed in the motion adopted by the Board of Trustees outline the first steps in an ongoing commitment to supporting the 2SLGBTQ+ members in our HCDSB community.”
The expanded LGBT acronym used by Murphy includes “queer/questioning,” “two-spirited” and other professions of sexuality.
The school district has 37,000 students in 45 elementary schools, nine secondary schools, and three continuing education schools. On its website, the district describes itself as “distinctively Catholic, providing exceptional education, while nurturing the call to love and to serve as a people of faith, living out God’s plan.”
Its values statement includes support for “conditions that support the spiritual, intellectual, physical and emotional well-being of all students so that they may fulfill their God-given potential.”
The board’s amended April 26 motion, titled “Supporting Our Diverse School Community,” resolved that the school district staff “raise awareness around Pride Month” starting June 2021, following the guidelines of a May 19, 2020 communication from the Institute for Catholic Education, the support organization for English-language Catholic schools in Ontario. It required that each school post signs “to ensure that students in the 2SLBGTQ+ community are supported throughout the entire school year.”
It mandated training for senior school board staff so that the school board can “create a shared understanding” on “the Catholic Social Teaching on loving and accompanying students who identify as 2SLGBTQ+, denominational rights and rights of students and staff under the Ontario Human Rights Code.” This training is to start with the school year.
It also mandated such training for principals, vice principals, teachers, chaplains, early childhood education staff, and special education staff, to be started in September.
Ontario is one of three Canadian provinces— the others being Alberta and Saskatchewan— that fully fund Catholic school systems with taxpayer money. While provincial governments set basic rules for the operation of those schools, local decisions are made by trustee boards elected by Catholics at the time of municipal elections. Schools are not owned by the dioceses in which they operate. While bishops set catechetical curricula and ensure sacramental ministry in school contexts, they do not exercise control over elected board.
Murphy’s statement said that mandatory staff training, raising community awareness, and making sure that resources and supports are in place for students are part of “a long-term strategy to creating and maintaining safe and inclusive learning environments in each of our schools where all students and staff can feel welcomed and accepted.”
Days before the board meeting, in an April 19 letter, Murphy wrote on behalf of the board to Ontario’s Minister of Education Stephen Lecce. He cited the Ontario Education Action Plan’s action item on the need to strengthen the “inclusive culturally responsive and relevant curriculum, assessment and resources… available to educators.”
That action item includes providing resources and professional development support to teachers and school leaders to “combat Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and transphobia.”
The school board made a formal request to the education minister for “a review and revision of the Ontario curriculum to better incorporate the culture and history of racialized and marginalized students and staff, including: women, people with disabilities, Black and Indigenous People, People of Color, and 2SLGBTQ+ individuals.”
The Halton Catholic District School Board policy on equity and inclusive education, last updated in 2019, stresses both commitment to the Church and commitment to a learning environment that treats individuals with respect regardless of various categories, including “sexual orientation, gender identity, (and) gender expression,” in accord with Ontario’s Human Rights Code.
Its commitments to religious freedom and freedom from discrimination or harassment are to be interpreted in accordance with this code, said the policy. At the same time, the policy notes the denominational rights of Catholic schools.
Nicole Hotchkiss, a twelfth grade student at St. Ignatius of Loyola in Oakville, had backed the measure to fly the Pride Flag
“The entire point of my motion and my original delegation was that people would know that Catholic schools support LGBTQ2+ students and they denied us once again today,” said Hotchkiss.
She told CTV News Toronto that it was unfair to see the controversy as a debate between equal sides and “basically have your rights debated in front of you.”
“You’re told that it’s through a Catholic lens so you have to sort of view both sides, but one side is telling you that you’re not welcome, you’re not accepted, you shouldn’t have the right to marry who you want, that your identity doesn’t exist.”
She said, “the message that I got is that they’re afraid.”
The Halton chapter of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, which has 3,000 members, wrote a letter in support of flying the Pride flag. After the school board’s decision, all Catholic high schools in the district made some show of support of the Pride flag, including changing their logos.
Kirsten Kelly, the Burlington student trustee on the board, said the decision against the flag was “frustrating” and shows “ that a lot of people don’t want to move forward and they are very set back in their ways in trying to defend the fact the 2SLGBTQ+ community shouldn’t be supported by the Catholic community,” adding, “it is just full of bigotry and hatred.”
Kelly is also public affairs coordinator with the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, CBC News reports.
At times, school board leaders have censored or rejected critics who cite Catholic teaching.
In November, Thomas Cardinal Collins of Toronto rebuked members of the Toronto Catholic District school board for refusing to allow a passage of the Catechism of the Catholic Church pertaining to ministry to people with same-sex attraction to be read during a recent meeting.
“The Catholic faith must guide all who are engaged in Catholic education— including students, teachers, administrators, and trustees— or that education ceases to be Catholic,” Collins said.
The Canadian Community Health Survey for 2015–2016 reported that 1.4% of Canadians over age 15 identified as homosexual and 1.5% identify as bisexual.
Trans Care BC, a transgender-affirming group run by the Province of British Columbia, has claimed that between 1% and 3% of Canadians identify as transgender. Statistics Canada has not previously collected information on such self-identification and is testing responses for the 2021 census, according to a June 2019 report from the Standing Committee on Health of the Canadian House of Commons.