Sask. government under fire for funding independent schools run by anti-LGBTQ churches
Province says legislation lets families educate kids per their ‘conscientious beliefs’
Amid Pride celebrations across Saskatchewan, experts are raising concern over the provincial government's decision to boost funding for certain independent schools that are operated by churches with anti-LGBTQ policies.
Last month, the province formally announced the 21 independent and four "historical" schools in Saskatchewan that will receive $17.5 million in operating grants for the 2022-23 school year. Per the latest provincial budget, that includes $2.6 million toward a new "certified independent school" category. The province says the schools that will fall under the new category are still to be determined.
"We are dedicated to providing grants to our historical high schools and independent schools so parents and students continue to have more choice in education," Education Minister Dustin Duncan said in a news release on May 11.
Dr. Tamara Hinz, a child psychiatrist in Saskatoon, is among those who have recently responded to Duncan.
"It really concerns me. I don't think we can begin to estimate the harm that this can cause," Hinz said, noting she first heard about it on social media from Saskatchewan political blogger and commentator Tammy Robert.
"As a mental health professional, I know the excess burden these kids face already; 50 per cent of LGBTQ kids are bullied and are far more likely to attempt or complete suicide."
In a letter to the minister, Hinz pointed to those statistics and to Westgate Heights Academy in Saskatoon, which — according to the school's website — is run by Westgate Alliance Church.
That church's discipline and restoration policy reads that "homosexuality" is in "violation of scriptural moral standards" and is equivalent to crimes such as fraud and sexual assault.
In an emailed statement, Rev. Frank Jeske, the academy's lead pastor and school director, tells CBC News that this document only relates to members of Westgate Alliance Church.
"The school, its teachers and students are not members of the church and therefore this policy does not apply to the school," Jeske wrote.
"To suggest otherwise is false and misleading."
Jeske adds that "Westgate Alliance welcomes all people, no matter their ethnicity or personal lifestyles."
Still, LGBTQ advocate and community member Morgan Moats questions why the government is funding organizations with homophobic policies to run schools.
"They're allowed their religious beliefs — that's a freedom that we have in Canada, absolutely," they said, but added that taxpayer money should be kept away from church-linked schools.
NDP education critic Matt Love says there's no reason anti-LGBTQ sentiments should be tolerated in 2022, but notes there's no "blanket solution" when it comes to giving money to independent schools.
But, with many Saskatchewan school divisions having to cut teaching positions due to budget shortfalls, he says this money could be better used toward filling those gaps in public education.
Duncan, the education minister, wasn't made available for an interview. But a statement from the ministry to CBC News says all qualified independent schools are "visited and monitored closely." Teachers are also supervised a minimum of three times each school year, and are required to submit their course outlines and lesson plans, it said.
The ministry also says the Education Act, "allows parents of many faiths to educate their children in accordance with their conscientious beliefs."
The statement also mentions that "the decision on where to enrol a student is up to the parent or caregiver."
The power of an affirming school environment
Adding to the opposition, Raylee Perkins, a teacher-librarian with Regina Public Schools, noted the province's Deepening the Discussion: Gender and Sexual Diversity framework. That 2015 document commits to making all Saskatchewan schools "safe and inclusive environments for all students, including those who identify as gender and/or sexually diverse."
It's something she wants all educators in Saskatchewan — no matter where they teach — to keep in mind.
For her part, Perkins says she always makes sure to include her pronouns on her library doors and to deck out the room with LGBTQ symbols, like Pride and transgender flags — because, to many, it's a sign they can be themselves.
"When a student comes in and looks at me and they know that I'm going to be a friend to them or a friend to someone they know or a friend to their family, their whole demeanour shifts," she explained.
"I don't even have to say anything."
As someone who openly identifies as queer at school, Perkins says she knows the value in creating safe environments.
"We know that [LGBTQ] kids exist — whether they are out or willing to come out or safe to come out — they're in your building, we are in your spaces all the time," she said.
"There's this misconception that you only need to teach about these LGBTQ-specific topics if you have an openly out student or a family in your classroom or in your community, but the reality is that everybody needs to learn about this."
Trina Crawford agrees.
As both an elementary school teacher and parent of a transgender person, she says it's vital schools are there to teach children about the LGBTQ community to stop homophobia and transphobia at an early age.
"It can be the difference between choosing suicide or not suicide for a child," Crawford said.
"I think a lot of people think, 'Well, I don't know anyone who's gay and I don't know anyone who's trans,' and they're wrong … it just hasn't been safe for them to come out."