Edmonton Catholic policy fails LGBTQ students, critics say

The Edmonton Catholic school board’s new policy to address sexual orientation and gender identity does not protect LGBTQ students and fails to meet the Alberta government’s directive, critics say.

Students still ‘don’t have the protection’ under board that triggered province-wide debate

The shadows of the mother, with her transgender daughter, who says documents show the church has too much influence on Edmonton Catholic LGBTQ policy. (CBC)

The Edmonton Catholic school board's new policy to address sexual orientation and gender identity does not protect LGBTQ students and fails to meet the Alberta government's directive,  critics say.

"LGBTQ students are no safer than they were before," said former education minister Thomas Lukaszuk. "They don't have the protection that they should be having under the law."

Last November, Education Minister David Eggen issued a ministerial directive requiring boards to submit policies that "specifically address the board's responsibility as it relates to the LGBTQ community."

All boards had to submit the policies to the ministry by March 31.

Policy skirts around directive

Kris Wells, assistant professor with the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies at the University of Alberta, gave Edmonton Catholic's policy a D.

"(The board) hasn't addressed the whole substantive issue of the human rights complaint and the need to create policy to clarify the kinds of supports and resources that are available to the LGBT community," said Wells. "They're doing everything they can to skirt around or tap dance around the government's legislation and directives on these issues."

Former Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk's said "LGBTQ students are no safer than they were before." (CBC News)

Wells said he could find no specific mention of gay-straight alliance clubs in the main body of the policy or any reference to the LGBTQ community. While GSAs, gender identity and sexual orientation are cited in a reference link to address inclusion in "a Catholic context," Wells said those terms need to be included directly in the policy.

"Naming matters," said Wells. "Naming gives people recognition of their identity, it tells them that they're persons, that they're valued, that they're included."

"If you can't even recognize that the community exists how are you going to support it?"

What is needed is one clear, stand-alone and clear policy students and parents can understand, he added.

'The policy does not state that a transgender student can use the washroom consistent with their gender identity.- Kris Wells

Last month, Eggen wrote an open letter telling students they had the right to use the washroom of their gender identity and to form gay-straight alliances..

But Lukaszuk, a Catholic, said LGBTQ children returning this school year have "no idea what the new reality will be" as it is still up to staff  to "interpret their rights."

Single use washrooms 'whenever possible'

In March, in response to Eggen's directive, the Edmonton Catholic board submitted a package of 17 documents, policies and regulations to the education department.

"All efforts to support the inclusive, safe, and caring learning and working communities within our District must be in accordance with the teaching of the Catholic Church," reads one part of the policy called Commitment to Inclusive Communities in Edmonton Catholic Schools, which is three paragraphs long.

A regulation accompanying that policy says staff will provide single-use washrooms "whenever possible" and support the establishment of school clubs that focus on non-discrimination "from a Catholic holistic approach."

The policy also refers to an earlier controversial document that states: "To attempt 'gender transitioning' is contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church."

Kris Wells said the board is tap dancing around government legislation. (CBC)

"The premise of all those policies is that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church prevail," said Lukaszuk. "That is the major dilemma — when disputes are to be resolved or when situations arise relevant to bathrooms or clubs or accommodations, the teachings of the church prevail over the legislation."

He said the minister should impose regulation for all Alberta schools. Existing legislation supports that action, he argued.

The question around bathrooms is how the issue first arose. In May 2015, a mother's fight for her seven-year-old transgender daughter to use the female washroom at an Edmonton Catholic school set off a bitter debate.

The premise of all those policies is that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church prevail.- Thomas Lukaszuk

Wells lamented the issue is still not resolved sixteen months later.

"The policy does not state that a transgender student can use the washroom consistent with their gender identity," he said.

The Edmonton Catholic board declined an interview request but provided a brief statement to CBC News.

"We will not be making any additional comments," it reads.

Bishops involved in gender policy

Last October, Eggen told the Edmonton Journal: "The trustees make the law. Not the archbishop. That's ultimately what's going to happen."

But Lukaszuk expressed concern about the church's influence on the policy, saying trustees "should not have to defer to an unelected head of church."

Documents obtained by the transgender girl's mother through freedom of information and provided to CBC News reveal Archbishop Richard Smith was involved in the development of earlier LGBTQ policy for the Edmonton board.

The trustees make the law. Not the archbishop. That's ultimately what's going to happen.- David Eggen

In an email from Smith to trustee John Acheson on Aug 20, 2015, Smith said he was "very surprised" to learn a committee of the board was working on a policy for "students with gender dysphoria."

He said a group of superintendents, established at his and Calgary Bishop Fred Henry's request, had been formulating protocol for months for use of districts throughout the province.

He wrote: "Our communion demands this, so my expectation is that each district of the Archdiocese will follow the common protocol, and not act on their own."

"My request of the Edmonton Catholic board then, is to wait for, and follow, the protocol produced by the superintendents' group and, therefore, not to proceed any further with the work of your committee."

Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith was involved in reviewing LGBTQ policy in 2015. (CBC)

On May 24, 2015, Edmonton board Supt. Joan Carr sent an email to the board advising that superintendents would meet to develop a draft policy.

"His Grace and Bishop Henry will be involved in reviewing our draft," she wrote.

On Aug. 20, 2015 Edmonton board chair Marilyn Bergstra authored an email to board members and administration that stated: "We are inviting the Archbishop to attend the meeting Monday and have always maintained that the Draft will receive input by his Grace" before the board's approval.

"I think it's just confirmation that the church has more say in the direction of the school systems in Alberta than what we were led to believe," said the mother, who CBC is not naming to protect the identity of her daughter.

"(The minister) went on record saying that it's him that makes the law and it's the church that needs to abide by it, but clearly it's the church that's making the law and the minister that needs to abide by the church's law."

Eggen's press secretary Larissa Liepins said boards "can consult whomever they wish" in drafting the policies, providing they follow laws that protect the rights of LGBTQ students.

"We are still working with boards, including Edmonton Catholic, to make any revisions to their policies we deem necessary," said Liepins. "We are not giving policies a pass or fail grade; we continue striving for a collaborative process."



Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and justice. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca