Advocates criticize Saskatoon Catholic Schools directive to keep kids from Rainbow Tent at children's festival

The Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools superintendent of education wrote that the school division would not support engagement and participation in the Rainbow Tent at the Nutrient Children's Festival of Saskatchewan.

Rainbow Tent meant to promote inclusivity and diversity: Nutrien Childen's Festival organizer

Kids playing at a festival.
The Nutrien Children's Festival of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon will feature a Rainbow Tent for the first time this year. (CBC)

An email the superintendent of education for Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools (GSCS) sent to his elementary school principals has sparked outrage.

Tom Hickey directed the principals to keep students away from the Rainbow Tent at this year's Nutrien Children's Festival of Saskatchewan. Advocates say the directive sends a regressive message.

The Rainbow Tent will offer programming "from Drag Queen Storytime to inclusive dress up performances filled with colour and fun," according to the festival's website.

Hickey wrote to principals that "engagement and participation by our students in that particular offering would not be supported" because of the description on the festival website.

"Please be assured that GSCS schools are still welcome to attend the Children's Festival," Hickey wrote. "However we ask that you speak with the teachers who may be taking students and inform them that the Rainbow Tent shouldn't be part of their visit."

Hickey added that chaperones should also be aware of the directive.

Screenshot of the email Tom Hickey, Superintendent of Education for the Greater Saskatoon Catholic School's district, sent to elementary school principles.
A screenshoot of the email Tom Hickey, superintendent of education for Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools, sent to elementary school principals. (Submitted by Logan Roberts)

Performer says tent is about inclusion

Skylar Forsberg, one of the Rainbow Tent performers, says she was livid about the email.

"The Rainbow Tent is about inclusion. It's about showing people that we're in this together and that we're not going to back down just because some people are having a little hissy fit about some drag queens wanting to perform in the park," Forsberg said. 

"It's about entertainment and coming on down and having some fun."

Forsberg said LGBTQ children attending Catholic schools need the type of support offered in places like the Rainbow Tent —something she says was missing while she attended Bishop Murray High School in Saskatoon, where a gay-straight alliance wasn't allowed.

"A lot of people in the Catholic school system are hidden and they shouldn't be hidden," Forsberg said. 

"They should have those supports in those groups, and I just can't believe that the higher-ups have decided not to let those kids experience that."

A mother and daughter pictured together in a selfie
Skylar Forsberg, right, is one of the Rainbow Tent performers. Fran Forsberg, left, is the family co-ordinator for the Saskatoon Pride Festival. (Submitted by Fran Forsberg)

Step in the wrong direction: advocates

Skylar's mom Fran Forsberg, the family co-ordinator for Saskatoon's Pride Festival, said the GSCS needs to be better.

"This is an organization that's supposed to be about love and acceptance, and that is bigotry and hypocrisy," Forsberg said. 

OUTSaskatoon, an LGBTQ advocacy group in Saskatoon, said in a statement Thursday that the GSCS's directive was "deeply regrettable."

"Whether GSCS children, youth, families and staff choose to stay closeted or eventually let their light shine, much of what shapes their sense of belonging and wellbeing happens within the school system," an OUTSaskatoon Instagram post read. 

"We encourage GSCS to not be a barrier but rather contribute to health and inclusion in this province." 

Division releases statement on email

On Friday, after the email received media attention, GSCS issued a statement to staff members, families and the media that it said was meant "to give clarity and context."

François Rivard, director of education for GSCS, said in the statement that the school division believes parents and caregivers are the primary educators of their children. Parents who send their children to Catholic schools have a reasonable expectation that their children's education is "consistent with Catholic teachings and is age-appropriate," Rivard said.

As a result, he said, parents and caregivers are best positioned to decide on their children's participation in the festival's programming.

"We recognize the internal email has been viewed by some as one of judgment, hate and exclusion. That was never the intent, nor does that view represent our division's beliefs. We acknowledge the deep hurt, and for that, we apologize," Rivard said.

Rivard said GSCS continues to welcome members of the LGBTQ community and is committed to having dialogue so that it "may pastorally serve each family based on their unique needs." 

First year of Rainbow Tent

Darcie Young, the general manager of the Nutrien's Children Festival of Saskatchewan, said this will be the first year the festival has featured the Rainbow Tent.

"It's an attempt to celebrate being inclusive and diverse," Young told CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning host Leisha Grebinski. 

"It's a tent that is on site to embrace as many children as possible." 

LISTEN | An email from a Catholic School District superintendent has sparked controversey:
The internal email was sent to principals by superintendent Tom Hickey. It said that based on the description on the Nutrien Children's festival website, engagement by students in the "Rainbow Tent" site would not be supported. Host Leisha Grebinski speaks with the festival's general manager Darcie Young about the unfolding situation.

Young noted that the festival had LGBTQ initiatives in previous years. She said the festival organizers became aware of the email earlier this week.

"If you don't want to take part, you don't have to," Young said. "But we absolutely believe that every child should feel heard, loved and accepted."

The children's festival runs from June 1 to 4 at Saskatoon's Kinsmen Park.

With files from Saskatoon Morning and Laurence Taschereau