A number of students from York Catholic District School Board schools held a walkout June 8 to protest the board’s decision to not fly the Pride flag at its offices in Aurora, Ont. It drew a counter-protest at one school where it is alleged students were assaulted. Photo from Twitter

Pride divide engulfs student body

  • June 14, 2023

A divide among York Catholic school stakeholders made its way down to the student body when a June 8 walkout to protest the board not flying the Pride flag turned violent at a Markham, Ont., school.

Students from 11 Catholic schools in the York Region north of Toronto walked out — many wrapped in Pride flags — to protest York Catholic District School Board trustees voting 6-4 on May 29 against raising the Pride flag outside its headquarters in Aurora, Ont. The dozens of students who demonstrated outside St. Brother André Catholic High School were disrupted by a group of student counter-protesters, who tore up Pride signs, stomped on them, shouted slurs and threw objects.

YCDSB spokesperson Mark Brosens said board staff are aware of one assault being investigated by law enforcement.

“It is unfortunate that we saw a small number of incidents that violate our code of conduct,” said Brosens. “We do have a report of a student being assaulted during a protest. In such matters, assault against people trying to express their opinions will not be tolerated by the YCDSB. In that case, the incident has been reported to the police.”

This June, Pride celebrations in schools have been marked by plenty of protest, at the York board but elsewhere too. Brosens told The Catholic Register “that the polarized and divided opinion” over issues of gender identity and sexual orientation “is not just a YCDSB phenomenon, but something we are seeing across society in a number of ways.”

“Something that YCDSB has tried to tell our students and staff is that we are all members of the same community of Christ,” said Brosens. “That should be the guiding principle in how we interact with each other — that all children are children of God, and that we are all worthy of dignity and respect. We can have different opinions on how to best spread the Gospel message, but at the end of the day if you’re a member of the York Catholic community, there is a need to respect and value the other members of the community.”

Brosens said staff at Brother André were working with students affected by what happened in the days following the protest.

The student confrontation follows the contentious May 29 school board meeting, and previous meetings on the issue of flying the Pride flag to mark Pride month, where police had to be called to restore order. A number of parents and other stakeholders fought a loud and ultimately successful battle to keep the board from flying the flag at its headquarters.

Among the arguments against the flag from the six trustees who voted against raising it was that the Cross is already the ideal unifying symbol for the school community as Jesus Christ died for all our sins, whether you be heterosexual or a member of the LGBT community. End-of-year Masses and sacramental liturgies will help communicate this principle, said Brosens. And it is emphasized on the boulevard sign in front of every YCDSB school, which reads, “We are diverse. We are one in Christ.”

Brosens said the YCDSB team endeavours not to fixate over the polarized debates being waged on a variety of cultural fronts. Helping elementary, junior high and high school students develop is what drives this school community.

“The main focus of the YCDSB staff is to look after and nurture the whole person of all our students,” said Brosens. “We have amazing staff in our schools, and they have been doing a lot of work with our students to ensure everyone is feeling secure and good about what is happening within their school despite the conversations that are taking place outside the school.

“If you’re an educator, you cannot fix all the world’s problems. You can’t make everyone happy with the decisions you have made. At the end of the day, it is about ensuring the student in front of you has everything they need so they can thrive in every aspect of their lives.”

Meanwhile, external backlash — and support — to the YCDSB’s decision came swiftly. The Pflagcanada chapter for the York Region quickly declared that “YCDSB is not safe for York Region’s LGBTQ2IA+ community.” Renewed calls were made in some media editorial sections to defund Ontario Catholic schools. A chorus of voices online implored the provincial ministry of education to intervene and force the board to display the flag.

Others, including the advocacy group Parents as First Educators (P.A.F.E.), praised the decision. Organization founder Teresa Pierre wrote on the P.A.F.E website that she spoke to supporters after the decision, who expressed they were “pleased with — and somewhat shocked by — the outcome.” Pierre wrote that these parents also stated “they hoped this indicated a political shift toward recognition that the flag is politicizing, sexualizing and dividing children.”

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