By Charlie Senack
For the first time ever, Pride flags will fly outside of Ottawa Catholic schools during Pride Month. The decision was made after a motion put forward by Barrhaven-Gloucester-South Nepean Catholic Board Trustee Spencer Warren was passed by Ottawa Catholic School Board Trustees.
The flag will first be raised over the board’s education centre next month, and in the future will be raised at all 83 Catholic schools during Pride Month, which is in June. Additional flag polls will be installed over the next year at a cost of $230,000.
Before the May 25 vote, the board heard from about 20 speakers — many whom opposed the motion. In the end, the motion was approved with only one trustee voting against and nine in favour.
Michele Pierce, president of Ottawa Catholic Teachers, told the board she supported the motion, and said it was an important step for the board’s “equity journey”, which would send a strong message of inclusivity to students in the LGBTQ+ community.
“Flying the flag is a small step toward building a culture that affects the health and well-being of our LGBTQ+ students,” she said. “According to the Canadian mental health association, LGBTQ youth face approximately 14 times the risk of suicide and substance abuse than heterosexual kids. All students deserve the same love and support as their classmates.”
Marcel Damphousse, The Archbishop of Ottawa-Cornwall, pleaded with the board to reject the motion, saying it’s “well meaning but divisive.” Damphousse said he heard from many concerned Catholics regarding the motion, and felt the Canada flag and the cross should be the only two symbols in schools.
“These two symbols include us all,” he said. “The gay Pride flag, on the contrary, endorses one political agenda over others. It divides, it does not unite. (It) is a political statement that endorses behaviours and lifestyles contradicting the Catholic Church’s teachings on the dignity of the human person.”
The board also heard from one mother who said she is bisexual and has a transgender child, all while being a proud Christian family. She said the Catholic Church has a long way to go in making up for the hardships LGBTQ+ members have faced. Now, she told the board, they just want to be seen and heard.
During the comment portion of the meeting, trustees gave powerful words on why this motion should be passed. Zone 9 trustee Shelley Lawrence said if just one child benefited from this motion, it’s worth it. She held up a pin expressing Jesus’ love for all.
Stittsville Trustee John Curry added this is an important step in ensuring all students feel accepted and heard when they go to school. “This action, in my view, has nothing to do with the teachings of the Catholic Church; rather, it has everything to do with my responsibility as a trustee of a publicly funded education system,” he said.
Trustee Glen Armstrong, who is also running for the federal conservative nomination in Nepean, was the only trustee to vote against the motion. While Armstrong denied Barrhaven Independent’s request for comment, he has been very vocal with his views on Twitter.
“There is a Pride flag motion being brought forward next Tuesday,” he tweeted. “It is my opinion that it is being rushed. We need to give more notice so the public is able to bring their delegations forward prior to the vote. Just my opinion.”
Armstrong cited the high expense for his reasoning, along with stepping away from the Catholic faith and teachings, and opening the door to flying any flag other than the Canada flag.
“Pride flags are flown by those who hold control,” Armstrong said. “To fly the pride flag at Catholic schools would simply mean the loss of Catholic education (and) that Catholic children would not be receiving authentic Catholic education in our schools. Catholic children should not be formed by the vice of Pride, but in the virtue of humility.”
Trustee Spencer Warren, who moved the motion with Trustee Jeremy Wittet, has been working on bringing this motion forward for quite some time. He says it’s an important step to demonstrate the ongoing commitment to fostering students’ wellbeing.
“The flying of the Rainbow Flag tells our community our schools are inclusive environments that are safe and welcoming places for 2SLGBTQ+ students,” he said. “This is something I’m very proud to support and something that will have a positive impact on our Catholic schools for generations to come.”
Director of Education Thomas D’Amico said he was also pleased to see the motion passed, one of many efforts the Catholic school board is taking to support LGBTQ+ students. A number of clubs and events are also being undertaken in schools.
“Pride month needs to be much more than a discussion about the flag; and in our Board, it includes prayers and practices that focus on inclusion, acceptance and human dignity,” he said.
D’Amico added the Catholic faith believes everyone should be treated with respect in a safe, inclusive and caring school environment.
The Ottawa Catholic School board is the third Catholic board in Ontario to pass a motion to fly the pride flag. Boards in Toronto and Waterloo voted in favour, however a similar motion in Halted was voted down.
Warren, who says while the topic is an emotional one, it shouldn’t be difficult or uncomfortable. He hopes students in the board will now feel more comfortable to be themselves.
“More than ever mental health is at the forefront for growing concerns for children and youth who don’t feel a sense of belonging, or a system where they feel safe,” he said. “We have the opportunity (as trustees) to do what’s right and show our unconditional love to our students, teachers and staff by voting yes. I truly believe love is love.”