Pride flag choice by Catholic board disappoints, confuses student activist

A Catholic high school student who petitioned the Waterloo Catholic District School Board last year to raise the Pride flag says she's disappointed the board opted to fly a flag of its own design rather than the traditional rainbow flag.

Board says new flag design intended as a symbol of God's love

Student Lauren Ehrenworth says it's a step forward to see the Catholic board marking Pride month, but hopes it will fly the rainbow Pride flag in the future. (Submitted by Lauren Ehrenworth)

A Catholic high school student who petitioned the Waterloo Catholic District School Board last year to raise the Pride flag says she's disappointed the board has opted to fly a flag of its own design, rather than the traditional rainbow flag.

"I was kind of shocked," said Lauren Ehrenworth, 16, who attends St. David Catholic Secondary School. "I wouldn't have known [the board's flag] was a Pride representation."

This board's flag design was revealed in a report that went before a trustees' meeting Monday.

The Waterloo Catholic District School Board is using this design on flags to mark Pride month in June. (Waterloo Catholic District School Board)

The sketch style design shows a group of multicoloured figures looking up at a figure of Jesus. Underneath are the words "We are all wonderfully made — we love because he first loved us."

Trustee Melanie van Alphen said she, too, was disappointed by the board's response to the petition to fly the Pride flag.

"You have spent a significant amount of time meeting, discussing and designing a flag that you feel represents Pride month, but there is already a flag for that and it's the rainbow flag," Van Alphen said during the board meeting.

"With all due respect. I feel putting this design up as a symbol for Pride month is disrespectful and insulting, in my opinion, to the LGBTQ community."

Flag 'not about acceptance'

Parent and queer organizer Suzie Taka said "it would be so easy" to simply use the Pride flag. The fact that the board opted against it, she said, is telling. 

"By ignoring the symbol created for my community ... I think what it does is it erases queer folks," Taka said.

"It's very blatant that [the board's flag] is not actually about acceptance, it's about, 'We won't be explicitly harmful.' But you don't have to be explicit to be harmful. You can do it in these more subtle ways."

Suzie Taka is pictured at home with her family. (Michelle Somerville)

During the meeting on Monday, Catholic board trustee Greg Reitzel said, "pride is the deadliest of the deadly sins."

On Thursday, Reitzel issued a statement saying his words were taken out of context and that he supports the board's flag because "it is truly inclusive of all."

Former Catholic school board trustee Jan Jagiellowicz said he thinks the situation shows the board still does not entirely accept the LGBTQ community.

"If they accepted [the community] fully … they would be flying the proper flag instead of making up this flag," said Jagiellowicz.

Both Taka and Jagiellowicz said if the board won't fly the traditional rainbow Pride flag, it would be better off with no flag at all.

Board says intent to reflect 'God's love'

When asked if the school board accepts LGBTQ people, director of education Loretta Notten said "of course."

Notten said the decision to design a flag for Pride month was intended as a positive gesture. The idea was to represent a theme of inclusion and the religious foundation of Catholic education at the same time, she said. 

"We always talk about distinct nature of Catholic education ... so perhaps it's not entirely surprising we chose a flag that includes an image of Jesus," Notten told CBC News.

"We're all a part of God's family, it's what we believe in Catholic schools and it's a direct reflection of that fact when we're sending out this public declaration that our schools are places of inclusion welcome for all of our students and where God loves them."

The local Catholic board didn't come up with the flag on its own, Notten said in the meeting. The Ontario Institute for Catholic Education had developed five designs — three with variations of the image featuring Jesus and two showing a rainbow fingerprint design — and Notten said the local board chose what it thought was the best one for the flag.

"Those were the images that were possible for Catholic boards to choose if they chose to fly the flag," said Notten. 

In response to a request from CBC News, the institute said it developed a series of website and social media images for school boards to use at their discretion to "promote equity and inclusion" during Pride month. The decision to adapt one of the images into a flag design was made by the local school board, the institute said. 

"School boards are autonomous organizations and make independent decisions with respect to operational matters," the statement said.

"The Institute for Catholic Education has offered no advice to school boards regarding local decisions about flying the PRIDE flag."

Flags to fly next week

Ehrenworth said she thinks the board's move is a step forward from last year, but still hopes it will fly the traditional rainbow Pride flag in the future.

At this point, Notten said the board has no plans to fly both the rainbow Pride flag and its own flag, or to otherwise alter the rollout of its new flag design. 

Starting Monday, Notten said between 55 and 60 of its flags will fly at schools across the region for the month of June.

Meantime, a rainbow flag will be flown at St. Jerome's University, a Catholic university federated with the University of Waterloo.

The Waterloo office of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association will also fly a rainbow flag, said unit president Patrick Etmanski. 

So will the Waterloo Region District School Board. 

The rainbow Pride flag will also be on display outside of city halls in Kitchener and Waterloo.