After the York Catholic District School Board (YCDSB) voted against flying a Pride flag in June, local advocates and community members are speaking out.
The vote on May 29 followed months of contentious debate over the issue, where protesters attended board meetings and police were called on multiple occasions.
While trustees Angela Grella, Carol Cotton, Elizabeth Crowe and Jennifer Wigston were in favour of flying the Pride flag, they were outnumbered 6-4 by Frank S.D. Alexander, Michaela Barbieri, Joseph DiMeo, Maria Iafrate, Theresa McNicol and Angela Saggese.
“We have heard through the tears of children that they do not feel loved, welcome and safe,” Cotton told her fellow trustees prior to the vote. “I challenge each of my colleagues to support this motion … as a deliberate gesture of commitment to our students.”
After the decision, student trustee Anthea Peta-Draos told reporters she and many of her fellow students were “very upset; I see the students from my school in the audience, and all the schools, crying and in tears after hearing this decision. It brought me to tears as well.”
A student group called YCDSB Students for Change is organizing a walkout for June 8, and are encouraging students at all York Catholic schools to walk out of their classes at 1:15 p.m. on that day, and wear rainbow colours instead of their uniform.
“Our trustees and administration have failed us,” reads a poster created by the group, which also circulated on social media. “Now we must act.”
Mike Totten, president of the York Catholic Teachers Association, also criticized the board’s decision.
“As a lifelong and devout Catholic, it is embarrassing to watch a majority of voting trustees hide behind the symbols of our faith in an effort to justify homophobia, transphobia and bigotry,” Totten said in a statement. “This is the ultimate act of cowardice and the very antithesis of Catholic values that my members teach our students.”
Paolo De Buono, an Ontario teacher who had advocated for the York Catholic school board to fly the flag this year, said the decision left him feeling “deeply concerned for students”— particularly LGBTQ2S+ students—in York Catholic schools.
“I was very upset and discouraged, because I understood that it would have a negative impact on these students and how they saw themselves accepted—or, in this case, not accepted—in their school for who they are,” De Buono tells Xtra. “When you see other school boards talking about Pride Month, it’s a highlight of the year for teaching inclusivity. That’s where York Catholic has to go. That’s where a school board should be.”
In fact, after the York Catholic school board vote, Anthony Pauk, principal of St. Denis Catholic School—part of the Toronto Catholic District School Board, which is separate from York — made a point of highlighting why his own school was flying the Pride flag this year.
“This is an opportunity for us to showcase how Catholicity and love come together,” Pauk told CBC. “As I tell the kids, it is one and the same. The kids all know that every single one of them is loved, every single one of them is included and we celebrate that through fun.”
De Buono says flying the Pride flag in June, and making other changes, such as offering training on LGBTQ2S+ topics for teachers and using inclusive language in school documents, is important for students’ well-being and their educational success.
“We have to stop treating this topic like it’s taboo,” he says. “We’re talking about students’ identity—who they are—and a lot of the time, they’re discovering who they are while they’re students. So we have to make our schools more inclusive and safer, so that they can be who they are.”
The day after the vote, queer advocacy group Pflag issued a statement condemning the decision and raising the alarm about the impact on students’ safety and health.
“This school board is unsafe for York Region’s LGBTQ2+ community and is kept unsafe by a group of York Catholic board trustees who weaponize their faith against marginalized communities,” says York Region Pflag chapter president Tristan Coolman.
That same day, Ontario’s education minister Stephen Lecce said he would “continue to encourage school boards to do the right thing,” and had sent a memo setting out “a clear expectation that all publicly funded schools—English and French, Catholic and public—will find meaningful, positive ways to celebrate Pride.”
Still, Lecce said he would not force the York Catholic school board to fly the Pride flag by issuing a mandate.
Marit Stiles, leader of Ontario’s official opposition, said flying the Pride flag is a “simple, meaningful” action all school boards should take.
“All publicly funded school boards have a responsibility to provide a safe, inclusive [and] affirming place forLGBTQ2S+ students to learn and grow,” Stiles said in a statement.
Voting not to raise the Pride flag, “sets us all back,” the statement reads.
On Thursday, to mark the start of Pride Month, the York Catholic school board did post on social media, sharing a picture of the Progress Pride flag and wishing the school community a happy Pride Month.
This is in line with one of the recommendations the school board heard from their Gender, Sexuality and Catholic Education Committee Monday—which, along with releasing a statement in support of the LGBTQ2S+ community, had also asked the board to fly the Pride flag and to create a group to support queer students.