Rainbow Pride flags still a rare sight at Ontario Catholic schools

During the first week of Pride month, it's still rare for Catholic school boards in Ontario to mark the occasion by flying a rainbow flag.

Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board the only known English board exception

The Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board is believed to be the only Catholic board in Ontario that flies the rainbow flag at its board office, according to Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association unit head Patrick Etmanski. (Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press)

As we enter the first week of Pride month, it's still rare for Catholic school boards in Ontario to mark the occasion by flying a rainbow flag.

The Waterloo Catholic District School Board faced criticism last week after revealing the flag the board intended to fly this month was a new design, rather than the traditional rainbow flag. By Friday evening the board reversed course and said it wouldn't fly any flag at all. 

But the WCDSB isn't alone in declining to fly the flag, at least for now.

CBC News reached out to 10 English Catholic school boards in the province to ask if they were flying rainbow flags this year.

Only the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board confirmed it flies the rainbow flag at its board office.

Patrick Etmanski, Waterloo president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, said he believes the Thunder Bay board is indeed the only English Catholic school board in the province that fly the rainbow flag. 

The French Catholic board that serves the area, the Conseil Scolaire de District Catholique des Aurores Boréales, also flies the flag, said Jason Veltri, chair of Thunder Pride. 

The Thunder Bay English and Catholic school boards have begun flying rainbow Pride flags following conversation with Thunder Pride, said the organization's chair Jason Veltri. (Submitted by Jason Veltri)

Flag policies

Boards have different reasons for why they choose not to fly the flag. 

Some say it's about the flag pole. 

The London District Catholic School Board says it receives many requests from community groups to fly different flags, and so has implemented a policy to only fly the Canadian, Ontarian and Franco-Ontarian flags.

The Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board said it, too, only flies the Canadian flag but that individual schools have displayed flags indoors at different times.

Other boards say they plan to mark Pride month in other ways. 

The Wellington Catholic District School Board and the St. Clair Catholic District School Board said they won't fly flags this year but will post about Pride month online or on social media.

The Bruce-Grey Catholic District School Board said it is not flying the rainbow flag but that it is committed to nurturing safe and inclusive communities. 

'Questionable' support

Kristina Llewellyn, a University of Waterloo professor who studies equity in education, questions how Catholic boards can be truly inclusive if they aren't willing to display an obvious symbol of the LGBTQ community. 

"I think it's questionable that you can say that you don't oppose [the community] yet you're not willing to take the action to visibly say that you support it," Llewellyn, who is an associate professor of social development studies, told CBC News. 

As institutions that receive public dollars, Llewellyn said Catholic school boards have a responsibility to support LGBTQ students. Displaying a rainbow flag would go a long way, she said.

"To not have that symbol up … you're basically telling those who are already part of the community, and you're telling others who might become part of that community, that they don't belong," said Llewellyn.

"And that has no place in any educational institution."

'Our schools can be inclusive'

There are signs of change, conceeded Llewellyn. To see the Thunder Bay Catholic board fly the flag is a sign of things to come, she said. 

So is the move by St. Jerome's University, a Catholic university affiliated with the University of Waterloo, to raise a rainbow Pride Progress flag for the first time this week, she said. 

"I think that this shows that there's still there are progressives within the Catholic system that see this as more of a basic human rights issue than a Catholicism issue," said Thunder Pride chair Jason Veltri, who had encouraged the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board to fly the flag. 

"Our schools can be that welcoming and inclusive space ... no matter if you're in the Catholic system or if you're in the public system, we're all in this together."

Scott Kline, interim president of St. Jerome's, said flying the flag is a way of sending a message about the university's values.

"In the past when we weren't flying the flag, we were sending an unintended message that we were not hospitable toward the LGBTQ community," Kline told CBC News.

"That was never the case — in fact it's opposed to our mission, which is about community building and working together in the pursuit of love, peace and justice."

Veltri said he thinks it's time for all Catholic boards to "get on board" with inclusivity. He hopes what happened in Thunder Bay will encourage others to raise flags in the years to come.

As for the Waterloo Catholic District School Board, chief managing officer John Shewchuk said Friday the board will display its newly-designed flags inside school foyers in the coming year. 

The board is now in conversation with the local LGBTQ community about plans for 2021, he said.