Halton Catholic school board revives debate on LGBTQ issues with motion on Pride flag | CBC News

The Halton Catholic school community is about to revive a contentious debate about whether to fly the Pride flag outside its schools, less than a year after board trustees decided against doing so. 

Halton Catholic District School Board (HCDSB) trustees will consider a motion that would direct staff to raise the flag every year in June to mark Pride month, in a show of support for the LGBTQ community.

Last year, the board declined to vote in favour of a similar motion, instead amending it substantially. This year’s motion is set to be debated at a virtual board meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m.

Burlington trustee Brenda Agnew, who brought forward both motions, said this time she hopes her colleagues who had misgivings will change their minds.

“I believe that everyone belongs in our Catholic schools, and I think an outward symbol of that is extremely important,” said Agnew.

The Pride flag debate pits community members who want LGBTQ students to feel included and welcome at school against social conservative parents and others who believe non-heteronormative sexual orientations are inconsistent with traditional Roman Catholic values.

Catholic teachings say members of the LGBTQ community must be treated with dignity and respect, but the Vatican says sexual relations between people of the same sex are a sin. 

Last year, Catholic school boards in Toronto, Durham, Niagara, Waterloo and other Ontario regions broke with tradition and raised the Pride flag at their schools for the first time. Some schools chose to do so for the entire month of June, while others did so just for the first week.

WATCH | Halton Catholic District School Board votes against motion to fly Pride flag in June 2021:

Halton Catholic District School Board votes against motion to fly Pride flag in June

The Halton Catholic District School Board has voted against flying the Rainbow Pride flag in front of schools during Pride Month this June. As Ali Chiasson reports, some who attended the board meeting on Monday are frustrated — but support for LGBTQ students is pouring in. 2:05

A heated meeting

When the issue came up at the HCDSB last April, the three-hour virtual meeting was bogged down by bickering, procedural manoeuvring and multiple attempted amendments.

Instead of choosing to raise the flag, trustees passed a motion requiring the board to provide mandatory training for senior staff on supporting LGBTQ students, to raise awareness around Pride month, and to post “safe space poster signage” at schools.

After the vote, all nine of the board’s high schools tweeted messages of acceptance, tolerance and diversity. Some changed their logos to include rainbow colours.

Student trustee Katie Bowie said the board’s decision made a number of LGBTQ students feel unwelcome.

 “A lot of students … felt a new sense of exclusion from our community, and it led a lot of students to speak up in support of flying the Pride flag,” said Bowie.

Bowie, along with the board’s two other student trustees, Gabriela Masri Ahmar and Alicia Tokiwa, all told CBC they plan to vote in favour of the motion, although their votes are non-binding.

“It’s not going to solve homophobia, it’s not going to end bullying, but it is a tangible step we can take right now to make people feel safe and included,” said Tokiwa.

Halton Catholic School Board student trustees Alicia Tokiwa, Gabriela Masri Ahmar and Katie Bowie at a conference they attended together last year. All three say the overwhelming majority of the students they represent support flying the Pride flag outside schools in June. (Submitted)

The revived proposal has also attracted opposition from some parents.

Parent Veronica Touhey wrote a letter to the board to express her view that flying the Pride flag violates the teachings of the church.

“Some believe that the raising of the ‘pride’ flag is necessary to stop bullying and discrimination, and while these are always good intentions in themselves, the act of raising that flag over Catholic schools will undermine the mission of Catholic education and the mission of the [HCDSB],” Touhey wrote.

“The ‘pride’ flag is in fact a giant red flag of warning for anyone concerned about traditional values and the freedom to live by them.”

Parent Matthew Demeter, who also wrote to the board, agreed.

“I must admit I was deeply concerned about the news that this board is considering a petition once again to fly the ‘Pride’ flag at all schools and board buildings beginning this June and in perpetuity,” Demeter’s letter said. 

Social conservative groups, federal MPs weigh in

The issue has also attracted the attention of outside social conservative groups, including the Campaign Life Coalition (CLC) and Parents as First Educators (PAFE).

Halton Parents for Change, which promotes equity and inclusion, released screenshots of emails it says the groups sent to local parents ahead of Tuesday’s meeting.

“The LGBT lobby and its accomplices at the HCDSB are pushing full steam ahead to make sure that the Gay Pride flag flies over the board’s Catholic schools this coming June,” the CLC email said. “The LGBT lobby didn’t succeed at accomplishing this last year, despite their massive efforts. And we don’t want them to succeed this year.”

The email from PAFE attempted to recruit parents willing to attend the meeting to speak against the motion.

Halton Parents for Change said the participation of these groups during last year’s debate led to “hateful delegations” and letters that demonized LGBTQ people.

Meanwhile, the region’s four Liberal MPs all signed an open letter to the trustees expressing their “unwavering support” for flying the flag.

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