Teachers at Vanier Catholic Secondary School appear to be in a bind, caught between two competing policies on sexual orientation at the religious school.
Yukon Teachers’ Association president Katherine Mackwood said while she understands the difficulty in both upholding the church’s teachings and meeting the requirements of the Education Department’s policy on sexual orientation, she hopes her members will do the latter.
“I would hope that they do. I would hope that our students feel safe in identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. It has to be that way. If it’s not, then we as a community, as a society here in Yukon, must rail against it. Because, quite frankly, it is promoting discrimination and hatred. It’s deplorable,” said Mackwood.
In her eyes, it is a conflict of authority – Bishop Gary Gordon’s power to direct the school’s religious curriculum versus Education Minister Scott Kent’s responsibility to enforce the government’s policies in a publicly funded school system.
“There is some question as to where the buck stops. Does the buck stop with the bishop or with the minister of education? I believe that the minster of education needs to assert his authority in this regard when it has to do with our students,” Mackwood said.
Mackwood said one saving grace for Vanier’s teachers is that the religious education is taught by only one teacher, leaving the rest free to abide by the Education Department’s policy, which is seen as supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer and questioning students. Even so, there has been an exodus of teachers from Vanier to other Yukon schools, something Mackwood said is a reflection of the discomfort many feel with the growing conservatism at Vanier.
“Until we get it established who runs the show, I believe there will be a continuation of that,” she said.
The controversy blew up earlier this month, when a parent complained that Vanier’s policy on homosexuality runs afoul of the Education Department’s own policy, in part because the Vanier document – written by Bishop Gary Gordon – refuses to allow students to form a Gay-Straight Alliance. The document also says that homosexuality is always morally wrong and that homosexual acts are an “intrinsic moral evil.”
Last week Minister Kent said the Vanier policy had to go, and it was pulled from the school’s website. But Bishop Gordon then announced on CBC Radio that the document would continue to guide policy at the school.
On Monday, Kent said that he is waiting until after spring break so he can meet with the school council, parents and students to develop a solution to the situation.
“This is obviously an issue that’s top of mind for me. The input not only of school council, but of parents and teachers and students is the best way we can move forward on this. There’s an awful lot of work going on internally on this subject and I’ll have more to say on this very soon,” Kent said.
Kris Wells, an expert in sexual minority studies at the University of Alberta, says the bishop’s comments point to a disconnect between the Catholic Church and modern society, one further highlighted by a generation of queer youth who refuse to stay silent on the matter.
“The youth today are no longer willing to hide who they are and they’re not going to be victims of homophobia. This is ‘Generation Queer.’ It’s the first generation that’s fully been out, often with the full support of their parents in their school environment. They don’t need to change; it’s the school system that needs to change,” Wells said.
“If a school receives even one taxpayer dollar, they are beholden to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and they cannot discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation,” Wells said.
The same battle has been fought in Ontario, thanks in large part to Mark Hall, an openly gay student from Windsor who fought for the right to bring his boyfriend to his Roman Catholic high school’s prom. He won, and the case became a cause celebre for gay students across the country.
“There are many people who believe that bishops are not a publicly elected official and should have no say in a public system. That’s why we elect trustees and school board members. The bishop is overstepping his responsibility and authority to dictate within a publicly funded school system,” said Wells.
But there is one key difference between Ontario and the Yukon. In Ontario, there is a separate Catholic school board to accompany the separate Catholic school system.
“The Yukon Education Act is the only education act that I know of in Canada that cites the bishop in the actual section on Catholic schools. No other province with separate schools has that,” said Mark McGowan, an expert in Catholic history and a professor at the University of Toronto.
“That is what makes the Yukon situation particularly tricky. Because you have no Catholic school board, there is no buffer between the educational governance and the church governance,” said McGowan.
While the right of the Catholic Church to have a separate school system is enshrined in the Yukon Act, McGowan said that amending the Education Act to create a Catholic school board and invest it with the powers currently held by the bishop could be done fairly easily in the Yukon legislature.
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