Halton Catholic District School Board (HCDSB) trustees have voted against flying the Pride flag at its schools, after a lengthy discussion that was weighed down by procedural wrangling and numerous attempted amendments,
The debate started after Burlington Trustee Brenda Agnew moved a motion to direct Board staff to ensure the flag was flown during Pride month in June at all schools and the Board’s headquarters. It also sought to encourage the creation of events that promoted equity and inclusion as well as the posting of a safe space poster in each classroom.
Agnew said she moved the motion, in part, “to save students’ lives,” citing how a number of students who identify as LGBTQ2 have died by suicide.
“We have a chance to be leaders, champions if you will, of the future, of amazing things to come. Change is hard, it is scary, but don’t let fear guide you,” she implored the board.
“Please let’s use our collective voices to be the change, to make a difference to save lives, to show love.”
However, the motion sparked debate among several trustees who raised issues such as ensuring all groups would have access to flying flags, the need to erect secondary flag poles and how chaplains and other staff can provide better support than the flag.
Burlington Trustee Vincent Iantomasi said the Board needs a formal policy on flags, adding the Canadian flag serves “as an unmistakable symbol of unity and inclusiveness for all Canadians.”
Janet O’Hearn-Czarnota, a trustee for Halton Hills, moved to amend Agnew’s motion to remove any direction on flags being flown on Board properties and to ask staff to ensure safe space signage is posted, to raise general awareness of Pride month and to increase staff training on inclusion matters.
“What this has done has really created sides in our school community, which is very unfortunate and it saddens me. It’s very emotional. It’s emotional on everyone’s perspective and it’s time to make a change,” she said.
“If we have one student out of our 37,000 children that feels unsafe in our schools, that’s one too many for me.”
After two hours of debating amendments, questioning voting procedures and discussing the issue, a majority of the trustees backed the amended motion just after 11 p.m.
“This completely defeats the purpose of … not flying the flag,” Oakville Trustee Nancy Guzzo said while announcing her vote, before going on to “hesitantly and begrudgingly” support it.
The vote came after Nicole Hotchkiss, a student at St. Ignatius of Loyola Catholic Secondary School in Oakville, spearheaded the initiative after making a deputation to the board earlier in the month.
“As a Queer student in a Catholic school, the relationship between the LGBTQ+ community and Catholicism as a whole is a bit complicated and there’s definitely work that needs to be done to repair that relationship and move forward,” Hotchkiss told Global News in an interview ahead of Monday evening’s meeting.
“While our school is doing a lot of work internally, the biggest issue with us as students is that we couldn’t visibly see that support, and the easiest way to show that visibly is to fly the flag at our school.”
Hotchkiss, who uses the pronouns they and them, said the move to call for the flag to be flown at HCDSB facilities and safe space posters began as a social justice project. After submitting the project, they said they want to pursue it — ultimately delegating to the board.
The call, Hotchkiss said, has had mixed results. While they said there have been voices of support, there has been harsh negativity. Hotchkiss said some are being selective with citing Biblical passages and being told the move doesn’t align with the board.
“I think the biggest thing is saying that it doesn’t align with so-called Catholic values even though the most fundamental one of our religion is to love thy neighbor as thyself,” they said.
Niamh Shallow, a former HCDSB student, stepped forward to support Hotchkiss in their initial plea to the board for change. She said for her Grade 12 prom, she wrote on a submission that she wanted to bring a girl to the event. After submitting a paper with the girl’s name, Shallow said she was called to the office “to discuss appropriate prom conduct.”
“Once I had time to sit back and reflect on things like this, it’s really hurtful, you know?” she told Global News.
“In my case, when you have an administration that isn’t supportive of you, it’s impossible to come forward with these stories, not to mention students who are in the closet.”
Shallow went on to describe how having a physical symbol, such as the Pride flag, would encourage students who want to speak out.
“It would have meant the world to me,” she said.
As a part of Monday’s agenda, there were nearly 100 letters from people who wrote about the issue. While a majority expressed support with flying the Pride flag, those who opposed the original motion said it conflicted with the Catholic board’s mission.
“The passing of this motion will not only sow further confusion on what constitutes authentic Catholic teaching but will also create discord and division in our Catholic school community,” Lydia Rett wrote in a letter.
“Our Catholic faith teaches us to love, response and value every person and to recognize that each and every human being possesses an inherent dignity by virtue of being a child of God. If the HCDSB, as a Catholic education community, is already demonstrating these teachings, as it should be, then what is the purpose of singling out one particular group of people for special recognition and treatment?”
Maria Filice, who said she has two daughters who went to HCDSB schools, said when it comes to flying the Pride flag, “it is not right to be promoting a lifestyle that is opposed to Catholic teaching.”
Before Monday’s meeting, an online petition calling for the Pride flag to go up at all schools and for safe space posters to be hung up had more than 16,000 signatories.
“These actions are a visual and symbolic reminder that the HCDSB community members have a visual reminder knowing that they are supported in our Catholic community,” the petition said.
Among those showing their support on social media for the petition were actors Eugene Levy and his two children, Sarah and Dan Levy.
“As if this even needs to be voted on. Let’s get out of the dark ages and let the flags fly,” Sarah tweeted.
“Well said Sarah,” Eugene wrote.