By Trevor Busch
A “curtain of silence” has descended on the Catholic community in the province regarding the creation of gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in faith-based schools, according to an assistant professor from the University of Alberta.
Dr. Kristopher Wells, of the university’s Institute for Sexual Minorities Studies, issued an open letter last week addressed to the administrative hierarchy of the Catholic school system in which he suggests trustees, officials, teachers, parents and students have been actively discouraged from expressing opinions on the issue since Bill 10 surfaced in the legislature in late 2014.
“Catholic school trustees are not speaking out,” said Wells. “We know that, for example, Catholic students have been silenced, parents have been silenced, along with trustees, teachers, and administrators on these LGBQT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer and Transgender/Transsexual) issues in schools. So what does that say about democracy if so many people are prevented from speaking out on these issues? I think for many of the Catholic trustees, and teachers in particular, there’s a great fear of retribution, where they’ve been told to stop speaking out.”
Gay-straight alliances are student-run organizations that are intended to provide a safe environment for students to meet and learn about different orientations.
The alliances bring together LGBTQ youth and heterosexual individuals to offer support and promote awareness about gender and equality issues.
GSA’s are intended to offer solutions for issues including homophobia, isolation, marginalization, violence and exclusion in the community.
“We’ve seen the letters from the Catholic bishops who refuse to support gay-straight alliances in schools,” said Wells. “The fact that we have this ongoing censorship, I think as a public we have to ask if democratically-elected Catholic trustees are forbidden to voice their views, or speak on behalf of their constituents, is democracy being served? Do voters and their views not count?”
Bill 10, which if passed would have amended the Alberta Bill of Rights to address issues of equality for LGBTQ students in Alberta schools, was shelved by the Prentice PCs in early December to attain further consultation on the issue with the public.
“It’s fundamentally important to their (trustees) role as democratically-elected officials, but also to democracy — if we can’t openly talk about these issues, or if trustees are not actually representing the views of the constituents they serve, then the question becomes who are they representing?” said Wells. “The fact is all of these schools are receiving public tax dollars and are beholden to the public for their activities, yet it seems like they’re more interested in being responsive to church hierarchy then they are to public citizens’ concerns and issues.”
Much of the opposition to Bill 10 stemmed from allowing school boards to decide if a gay-straight alliance should be permitted in schools, and if denied, would have forced students to appeal the decision through the courts.
“We’ve seen cases where some Catholic school boards have stood out on what’s seen as controversial issues, for example HPV vaccines, where the Catholic trustees here in Edmonton broke ranks from the Catholic bishops, and likewise, eventually the Calgary Catholic school trustees did the same,” said Wells. “Science, reason and the evidence moved trustees to make decisions that would support students in their schools, and we’re asking for the same kind of consideration here on this issue surrounding gay-straight alliances — let the science, let the research, and let the evidence speak, and let’s have discussions, rather than this curtain of silence being dropped on trustees, with no dialogue, no debate, and certainly no democracy being served.”
A Leger poll conducted in December suggests four out of five Catholics in Alberta are unopposed to implementing gay-straight alliances in schools. Gay-straight alliances already exist in 94 public schools in Edmonton and Calgary, but are currently non-existent in most rural or faith-based schools.
“The latest poll released in December shows that a majority of Catholics in Alberta support gay-straight alliances, so why aren’t the Catholic school trustees actually getting out and talking to their constituents, and representing their views?” questioned Wells. “Because we know there are many who want to see gay-straight alliances in Catholic schools, so if Catholic trustees are not doing their jobs as elected officials, then one wonders why we even have them.”
Wells urged Catholic trustees across the province — even if they don’t support GSAs — to begin opening a dialogue with their constituents on the issue.
“I certainly think the public, now that school’s back in, should be going to their school board meetings and asking their trustees why they aren’t speaking on these issues, why aren’t they consulting, why aren’t they holding community discussions, or putting these issues on the agenda of their board meetings? This is an issue that is not going to go away. The premier has paused the issue and said we need more consultation. So why aren’t the trustees doing that consultation?”
The issue of GSAs is much more than just a faith-based equation, but raises questions about freedom of association and freedom of expression, according to Wells.
“It’s turned from an issue that started by focusing on freedom of association, and student’s right to have these gay-straight alliances in publically-funded schools, to now also a freedom of expression issue. The fact that why are trustees afraid to speak out on an issue that matters to many Albertans, particularly an issue that the Leger poll shows is not an issue to many Catholic Albertans.”
Terry O’Donnell, board chair of Holy Spirit Catholic School Division in southern Alberta, which includes Taber’s St. Patrick’s Elementary and St. Mary’s School, indicated the GSA issue remains one of universal inclusiveness for the division.
“What we believe in under this, is that every student is equal and supported in our Catholic schools. We’ve addressed the issue before with our Safe and Caring Schools environment, the policy the government has put out. We endorse it as Catholic school trustees, and promote a safe and inclusive learning environment for all students, especially if they’re gay. If they suffer from bullying, isolation, abuse, or any type of violence, we don’t support any of that, and we want to stop all bullying in our schools.”
According to O’Donnell, who represents Holy Spirit’s Ward 3, students should not be “segregated” through GSAs in Catholic schools due to their sexual orientation.
“Those students shouldn’t be excluded, and everyone belongs to what’s happening in the schools, every child every day with no exceptions. A situation where one group would ignore other groups is not the answer, the answer is to provide a safe and inclusive learning environment. We don’t want to have just one group using a room, saying we’re different from the other people, so we want to segregate — we feel if we do that, then we’re promoting one group as opposed to the other.”
While the GSA legislation included in Bill 10 grabbed headlines across the province in more urban environments, the issue has not been as high profile a consideration for more rural divisions and had not been on the radar for the Holy Spirit division prior to fall 2014.
“I can tell you no,” said O’Donnell. “I’ve never heard of anybody being treated wrongly in our division, because we also believe as Catholic teachers and board members, everyone belongs and no one is excluded. Everyone has the same rights as anybody else. In the rural areas — and this is just my opinion — I really don’t believe that we have the problems that they do elsewhere.”
Creating GSA groups in divisional schools could potentially lead to more problems than it solves, asserts O’Donnell.
“We’ve addressed this as Catholics. Lately this problem has really come to the surface. I think if you take these kids and put them into a group together, they’re not interacting as much with other students in the school. And that’s an issue, I think there’s going to be different opinions on that. If I had an openly gay child, I would rather they deal with it within the whole school, nobody is different from anybody else. Segregation I don’t think will work.”
Responding to any allegations that the Catholic Church or Catholic school system hierarchy is actively discouraging free dialogue on the issue of GSAs in Catholic schools in Alberta, O’Donnell suggested nothing could be further from the truth.
“I really don’t think it’s a faith-based thing. We want to get out to our local newspapers and media, to speak about what Catholic education does. I don’t have any problem with that at all. We’re not a whole lot different, except that we’re Catholics. We feel we’ve addressed this through the Safe and Caring Schools environment, and we have the bishop on side in what we’re doing.”