Members of the three Whitehorse Catholic school councils and the Department of Education listened to almost two hours of concerns and feedback about the schools’ draft same-sex policy on Thursday night at Holy Family Elementary School.
The councils and the department will take that feedback and use it, in consultation with Whitehorse Bishop Gary Gordon, to craft a final policy governing school supports and safeguards for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer students at Whitehorse Catholic schools.
But despite Gordon’s role in the policy work and invitations from parents and the department, he wasn’t at the meeting Thursday night.
“You all know many of us wanted the bishop here tonight to answer our questions about a policy that, ostensibly, he alone wants implemented at our publicly-funded Catholic schools,” said Tjitske van der Eide, a parent with children at Vanier Catholic Secondary.
“The bishop doesn’t seem to think that this document is important enough to defend and justify here tonight. Or does that show his arrogance?” she asked.
Deputy Education Minister Valerie Royle said that while she encouraged the bishop to attend, she can’t force him to.
“We try to work co-operatively with the bishop and we do, but we don’t mandate the bishop and his actions or whether he wants to come to a public meeting or not,” Royle said.
Gordon did not immediately return the News’ request for comment.
The current draft policy was posted to the Catholic schools’ websites last month, with a letter from the councils asking for public feedback. Parents and parishioners were asked to either submit their concerns in writing, through a dedicated website or in person at last night’s meeting. The deadline for comments is Oct. 11.
The new document, once finalized, will serve as a replacement for a former policy that called homosexuality a “disorder” and an “intrinsic moral evil” – words that echo the church’s official views on the matter.
The controversial language found in the old policy is gone, although the new document still cites the same church documents that describe homosexual acts as sinful – the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a 1986 letter from the Church to its bishops are both listed as footnotes on the new policy.
Once the feedback is collected, the department, the bishop and the school councils will meet to discuss how to strike a balance that works for everyone, Royle said.
But Royle would not say who will have the ultimate final say over the policy.
“I really hope we don’t end up having to pull a final say on a policy. I think that we want to strike a balance that will work for everyone and keep kids safe and feeling included at the school,” she said.
Last night’s meeting wasn’t about debate or discussion, but rather an opportunity for the school community to voice its opinion, explained Vanier school council president Paul Flaherty as the meeting began.
Those opinions varied widely. Many parents spoke out against the current policy, echoing van der Eide’s comments, calling it “an example of homophobia in the name of religion,” and asking the school councils to put it to a public vote.
Sandra Orban, another parent unhappy with the document, pointed out that while Vanier has bucked the overall enrolment trends in Whitehorse for most of the past decade, attracting many passionate students, in the past two years the numbers have slipped dramatically.
In Sept. 2012, the overall urban high school enrolment decreased by seven, but 40 students left Vanier alone. This spring, the overall enrolment increased by 23, but Vanier lost another 24 students.
“The real question isn’t about the details of this policy. The real question is about the Yukon public paying for such a policy to exist in a public school. It doesn’t matter what the policy says. It just shouldn’t be there. There should be just one policy for the schools,” Orban said.
Brian Kitchen, a policy analyst who has had three children go through Vanier, said that while removing the offending language from the original document is an improvement, keeping it entrenched in the footnotes means nothing has actually changed.
Other speakers said they were in favour of the policy.
Judy Douglas spoke about her fear that teaching or counselling homosexual behavior is dangerous.
“It talks a lot about honour and dignity and respect for people with same-sex attraction, which I believe in…. However, it is very unbalanced because it doesn’t talk about the sin of it. It’s unclean. There’s too much honour and dignity and not enough of the sin factor,” Douglas said.
“If you read the account of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis, whole cities were wiped out because they were involved in homosexual behaviour. I don’t want anything like that to happen to our city. I love our city,” she said.
Brent Harper, who went to the old Christ the King high school, said the policy doesn’t go far enough. He encouraged codes of behaviour barring physical contact in schools.
He also said that Whitehorse has enough supports for gay students without introducing more of them at a Catholic school.
“The policy is vague. It is geared to one group and uses bullying to defend them. Whitehorse has great educational resources for people who want same-sex education. You have Blood Ties, you have the Boys and Girls Club. You have other organizations. It’s available there and it’s free.”
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