Thursday 1 September 2011

The TCDSB and Me

I went to Catholic schools for my entire education. My Mom always felt it was important, that the values and compassion informed by Catholicism were invaluable life lessons. I didn’t put up much of a fuss; aside from the easy religion mark and the uniforms it seemed like any other school at the time.

I can’t say I was particularly astounded by the quality of the three Catholic schools I attended (although one was very good). Instead, there were individual teachers who stood out as going beyond. They demonstrated the passion for education and ability to understand the individual needs of students that marks a positive environment in which to grow.

The teacher who was best at this in my high school was also gay. He didn’t talk about it, but people knew. There were other gay teachers too, and they didn’t talk about it either. It never felt like a hostile environment, but looking back it probably could have been better. For instance, the individual in my grade who didn’t feel comfortable coming out until his second year of university might have had an easier time. Or students in general could have learned the Very Catholic lessons of greater empathy, inclusion and understanding.
The current slate of TCDSB trustees
Last night the Toronto Catholic District School Board chose different values. The subject was Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), a controversy that arose as Halton students were denied the right to form a GSA as it would ‘not be in accordance with the teachings of the church’. Board chair Alice Anne Lemay said at the time that, “we don’t allow Nazi teachings either”. This created tension with the province’s equity policy, which was then clarified to support the rights of GSAs. But clearly further clarification is needed, because the trustees of the TCDSB voted last night (led by John 'son of Mike' Del Grande) that denominational rights supersede ‘other rights’.

According to Professional Tweeters Andrea Houston (Xtra) and Jonathan Goldsbie (National Post, The Grid) the scene was ugly. The deputations were limited to ten even though more than that number correctly filled out and filed forms to speak. Nine of the ten opposed the GSA. Applause filled the room as people argued that homosexuality was unrepresentative of the Catholic faith. When a motion put forward by Del Grande to ban GSAs in the future lost 5-6, the audience was frustrated at the ‘weak language’ of the final policy. Some argued that the Trustees who voted against it weren’t real Catholics and should resign, others accused them of being communists (Aside: really? Can we get these people dictionaries?). Others prayed for Andrea Houston, possibly because of the colour of her hair. The audience was there as an affirmation of their values, to ensure that their constitutional right to express their religious teachings in an educational context (section 93, yo) was protected and enshrined.  

But by re-affirming their values by opposing GSAs the TCDSB and many of its speakers lost sight of some of the original reasons for which the separate Catholic system was established. They could well point to the fact that it was established to ensure that Catholic values were preserved (Pope Leo XIII even wrote an encyclical to this extent). But Catholic schools already teach that the ‘act of homosexuality’ and any premarital sex for that matter is against Church teaching. The design of any GSAs would be to foster an environment of support and inclusion to de-marginalize LGBTQ teens (who also have a much higher teen suicide rate than the national average).

At the school board’s founding Catholics were marginalized too. They were cast as the ‘other’ who threatened the mainstream integrity of the socio-political environment. They were said to poison the minds of youth and be stealth advocates of the Vatican sent to undermine values and democracy. The cartoon below by the notable anti-Catholic Thomas Nast illustrates this sentiment with Catholic priests as metaphoric alligators ready to sneak up, take away and eat unsuspecting children. 

It all sounds familiar given the rhetoric of last night’s TCDSB meeting. Catholics shouldn’t lose sight of that position of marginalization and difference; it’s from this place that an empathy and understanding can be extended and amplified.

Perhaps the proudest moment of my Catholic education was graduation day and not for the reason that I was getting out of there. I won an award that I didn’t know existed, for ‘best exemplifying Catholic values’. It was flattering, surprising and promising that as a non-religious individual with no involvement in the Peer Ministry at the school, I could win the award.

But, sadly, I have my doubts about the worth of the award today. The TCDSB acutely expressed their own values last night and they were intolerant, exclusionary and reactionary. I don’t think those were the values my Mom signed me up for and they certainly don’t represent me.  

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