York Catholic school board votes against flying Pride flag at education centre

York Catholic school board votes against flying Pride flag at education centre

The York Catholic District School Board has voted against flying the Pride flag at its Catholic Education Center in June.

At a board meeting on Monday night, trustees defeated a motion to fly the flag with a vote of six to four.

The decision came after advocates and critics clashed for months over the issue. Police have been called to at least three recent board meetings.

Demonstrators shouted at trustees immediately after the vote and were escorted out of the room. Some spectators were cheering the results.

Trustees Angela Saggese, Theresa McNicol, Maria Iafrate, Michaela Barbieri, Frank SD Alexander and Joseph DiMeo voted against the motion. Elizabeth Crowe, Carol Cotton, Jennifer Wigston and Angela Grella supported it, along with student trustees Jonah James and Anthea Peta-Dragos.

James and Peta-Dragos told reporters after the vote that the outcome was very upsetting.

“Students have been wanting this for very long… it is extremely disappointing,” said James. “We tried our best to convey our message to trustees… but we remain hopeful for the future, we’ll continue fighting,” he said.

Peta-Dragos said she’s “feeling very upset, I see the students from my school in the audience, and all the schools, crying in tears after hearing this decision, it brought me to tears as well. I’m shaking.”

She said she and James would continue to advocate for student voices and that she was hopeful that some trustees who voted yes understood their perspective.

Committee recommended supports for LGBTQ students

Prior to the vote, trustees discussed a report presented to them by the YCDSB Gender, Sexuality and Catholic Education Committee. It had recommended the flag be flown at the centre, which is the board’s primary office in Aurora.

The committee, which was established in March of last year, also recommended the board release a statement in support of the LGTBQ community and standing against hate. It also prompted a group to be created to support LGBTQ students and encourage students to report instances of bullying.

Explaining her decision to vote yes prior to the vote, trustee Elizabeth Crowe said that students and staff who identify as LGTBQ must feel safe and welcome, and board statistics show many are struggling with mental health issues and feel unsupported.

Despite the board’s commitment to the Catholic church’s teachings, student health must be prioritized at the same time, she said.

Sharing her support for the motion, trustee Carol Cotton said “we have heard through the tears of children that they do not feel loved, welcomed and safe. I challenge each of my colleagues to support this motion … as a deliberate gesture of commitment to our students.”

An audience sits in front of a board
Audience members wait for the YCDSB to vote on raising the pride flag. Trustees voted no on Monday night. (CBC)

But those who ended up voting no kept their speeches focused on their commitment to God.

“Jesus gives us his vision … he tells us to love everyone and treat them with respect and kindness. We all stand with the cross,” said Trustee Maria Iafrate.

Some trustees show lack of care for students, say advocates

Paolo De Buono, a Catholic teacher at another school board and the parent of students who attended the YCDSB, told CBC News following the vote he’s calling on the Ontario Ministry of Education to step in.

“[LGBTQ] students are seriously at risk because of this board,” he said. “The students made it clear that [the flag] would be a clear symbol that they are seen, respected and accepted … that is so important to their well being,” he said. “This fight will not end this evening.”

A sticker showing the Pride progress flag and the words 'safe space' is shown stuck to a classroom door.
A ‘safe space’ sticker used to signal safety to LGBTQ students at the York Catholic District School Board. (Paolo du Buono/Twitter)

In question period Tuesday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the province has been consistent in its support for the LGBTQ community.

“Every child in a publicly funded school should be supported, should feel heard, and should feel safe … and that’s been our position in the province since the issue arose and we’ll continue to make that the case,” Lecce said.

Lecce said he won’t force the board to fly the flag by issuing a mandate.

“I’ve expressed my disappointment in the decision. I’ve been clear and consistent for the last several weeks, and frankly, years. I think Pride is something that brings us together as a society. We’ve come a long way as a country in respecting that there are different kids in our schools. And they should feel the same level of love, respect and sense of safety in a school environment,” he said.

“I’m going to continue to encourage school boards to do the right thing.”

In response to the decision, Pflag, an advocacy group that supports the LGBTQ community, said in a statement that the school board is not safe for LGBTQ people and has concerns about the impact of the decision on mental and physical health.

A man in brown shirt stands near a recorder
Tristan Coolman, president of the York Region chapter of Pflag, told CBC News Monday night that some trustees show a lack of care for students. (Patrick Swadden/CBC News)

“This school board is unsafe for York Region’s LGBTQ2IA+ community and it is kept unsafe by a group of York Catholic Board Trustees who weaponize their faith against marginalized communities,” said Tristan Coolman, president of the York Region chapter of Pflag in a statement Tuesday.

He told CBC News Monday night that trustees who voted no claimed they had done their own learning, but overall illustrated a lack of empathy. “They do so to hide behind their faith, they’re hiding their faith with their own bigotry,” he said.

The group also said the board of trustees had shown a lack of support or care for other issues including discrimination against students of color and programming cuts for children with autism.

“The board of trustees is simply incapable of fostering an environment in which marginalized communities feel a strong sense of belonging,” said Coolman.

In late February, angry parents disrupted a board meeting over the issue of “safe spaces” stickers for LGBTQ students.

The Pride flag to be flown in York Region was the Progress Pride flag.

This flag, originally designed by an American artist in 2018, has the original rainbow colors but also five triangle-shaped stripes in black, brown, blue, pink and white to represent Black, Indigenous and people of color and transgender communities.