Edmonton Catholic trustees pass 'inclusive' policy for schools

Edmonton Catholic school trustees approved a new policy Tuesday that supporters insist will protect all students from discrimination and fulfill guidelines issued by the province earlier this year.

'I will continue to uphold the Catholic faith, and defend it,' says trustee Larry Kowalczyk

Board chair Marilyn Bergstra was one of two trustees to vote against the policy (CBC)

Edmonton Catholic school trustees approved a new policy Tuesday that supporters insist will protect students from discrimination and fulfil guidelines issued by the province earlier this year.

In a 5-2 vote, trustees approved policy GP14, titled "Commitment to Inclusive Communities in Edmonton Catholic Schools."

The policy language promises to provide all students with "an environment that is free from discrimination of any type, including but not limited to discrimination based on race, colour, gender identity, gender expression, age, physical and mental characteristics, nationality, sexual orientation, family status or marital status."

Trustee Patricia Grell, who first spoke out about the issue last spring, voted against the policy and called it too general and too generic to be of much help to LGBTQ students.

Board chair Marilyn Bergstra also voted against the policy. She spoke about the pervasive "myth, fear and a general lack of understanding" that continues to hamper efforts to embrace LGBTQ students.

She told fellow trustees she had been subjected to an outpouring of anger for her position on the divisive issue.

'I will ... uphold the Catholic faith'

"Sadly, some of the commentary I received was so over the top, so full of bias and hate, that I questioned my own safety at times," she said.

When his turn to speak came, Trustee Larry Kowalczyk, who last fall offered the opinion that transgender people have a "mental disorder," cited the archbishop as an authority on the issue and read part of a statement issued by the archdiocese earlier this year.

"I will continue to uphold the Catholic faith, and defend it," he said.

Former chair Debbie Engel said she was proud of the board for drafting the policy.

"I personally don't want to make a decision about who is most vulnerable," she said. "All children need to be supported in the manner that best fits what they need."

The Catholic board has been wrestling with the issue since May, when an Edmonton mother filed a human rights complaint saying her seven-year-old transgender daughter had been denied the right to use the girls' washroom at her school.

Trustees battled over the issue during several raucous board meetings last fall. The debate at times was heated and emotional.

At one meeting in December, trustees spent much of their discussion focused on a single word, arguing about the difference between "just" and "unjust" discrimination.

Boards given guidelines by minister

In January, Education Minister David Eggen released guidelines for boards and instructed them to draft policies to support and protect all students, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

The minister's 21-page document made it clear that students have the right to self-identify their gender and be addressed by the name and pronoun of their choice.

Policies outlined in the document would allow students to dress in clothing and participate on the sports team that reflect their gender identity and expression.

The provincial document said students must be allowed to use the washroom they are most comfortable with, and all schools must have at least one single-stall washroom, but students should not be forced to use it unless they want to.

Marni Panas, a social advocate and transgender woman, attended Tuesday's meeting and said the policy will do nothing to make LGBTQ students feel safer in their schools.

"Nothing has changed, and it's very disappointing," Panas said.

The board, by voting for the policy, missed an opportunity to be on the right side of a crucial human rights issue, Panas said.

"Nothing in this policy tells me that a child will be safe to use the washroom that they identify with."

Education Minister David Eggen issued a statement after the meeting.

"We know that the Edmonton Catholic school board made an effort to agree on a policy, and we commend it for its effort," he said. "I will review it after it has been submitted. I will then provide feedback, keeping in mind the government's commitment to ensuring all students are guaranteed basic human rights, and that all schools are welcoming, caring, respectful and safe."