A lot can change in a year.
It’s been 15 months since Liam Finnegan squared off against Bishop Gary Gordon over his policy on homosexuality at Yukon Catholic schools and, looking back, Finnegan says the experience has been a good one overall.
“I didn’t imagine it would end so positively and have such an impact on our school. I feel like it was a really wonderful experience in a sort of ironic way. I was able to learn a lot about our school, and I think we really evolved in how we are accepting and looking at minorities,” Finnegan said.
After he and fellow Vanier Catholic Secondary Student Shara Layne accused the bishop and the school of having homophobic policies, it touched off a year-long controversy that ultimately resulted in Yukon’s education minister overturning the bishop’s policy and replacing it with a department-wide one that allowed gay-straight alliances to form at Catholic schools.
Before the controversy exploded, Finnegan had been going to the GSA at neighbouring F.H. Collins Secondary School because Vanier wasn’t allowed to have one.
Kristy Sibbeston remembers that. At the time, she spoke about the importance of having a gay-straight alliance and supported Finnegan in advocating for one at Vanier.
“I think it (the controversy) was kind of ridiculous, actually, but it was great to see how people got involved. People were really shocked about it,” she said.
“I’m glad that they were shocked. They didn’t know about it, and they were upset when they heard about the policy and what it said. I’m glad people weren’t indifferent to it,” she said.
A year later, Sibbeston has actually been attending the Vanier GSA lately, because it’s thriving.
“I’m really happy about that. We haven’t had anything planned from the F.H. Collins GSA for a while so I started going over there and sitting in,” she said.
At the Vanier’s graduation ceremony two weeks ago, Finnegan’s classmates wore rainbow-coloured socks under their gowns as a way of showing support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students.
“I was somewhat shocked at first,” Finnegan said of the socks.
“I knew it was happening, but I didn’t know it would feel so welcoming. I felt a lot closer with my grad class. I felt a lot more accepted, and I felt a lot better for students in our school and how we’re seen in the Yukon,” he said.
Vanier’s controversy left the school with the stigma of being homophobic in some people’s eyes, said Finnegan. The statement with the socks, he said, proves that wrong.
“We are a very loving school, and it helps solidify that,” he said. “Even though we’re a Catholic school we can have a really wonderful gay-straight alliance and a wonderful, supportive school.”
Finnegan and Sibbeston are both graduating this year, and moving on from Whitehorse. Finnegan will study neuroscience at Dalhousie University in Halifax and Sibbeston is headed to Nicaragua to volunteer with Canada World Youth for six months.
While a lot has changed for the students and the school, the pace of bureaucratic change is painfully slow.
It’s been more than a year since the Education Department made a string of promises about Catholic education in the territory, and they have yet to make good on any of them.
In the wake of the same sex policy outcry, deputy education minister Valerie Royle placated parents by promising to have a new Catholic-specific policy rewritten. She also pledged the same for the Catholic school’s hiring policy and said a new memorandum of understanding would be drafted to clarify exactly what roles and powers the bishop has at a publicly funded Catholic school.
To date, none of those things have been accomplished. Until the work is finished, the department wide-policy will stay, but that appears to be the end of things, at least for now. The department has blamed the bishop for holding things up, but it doesn’t look like much will change anytime soon.
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