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York Catholic board votes against raising Pride flag

'That board of trustees need to walk away and resign because they certainly did not do their job today,' teachers union president says after vote rejecting Pride flag, despite pleas of students, supporters, and provincial scrutiny

York Catholic District School Board trustees faced jeers and a walkout of student members after voting against raising the Pride flag this year.

Despite the pleas of student trustees and 2SLGBTQI+ students and supporters, the board of trustees defeated a motion 6-4 to fly the flag outside its headquarters at the Catholic Education Centre in Aurora. 

The vote resulted in shouts and tears from audience members.

“It is the bare minimum that you can do! You can’t even fly a piece of cloth. How can students feel safe?” one audience member shouted at trustees before leaving the room.

“I’m filled with emotion,” student trustee Jonah James said after he and fellow student trustee, Anthea Peta-Dragos, walked out of the meeting following the vote. “It is disappointing, extremely disappointing it didn’t go in favour of students.”

“It brought me to tears, as well. I’m shaking,” Peta-Dragos said in reaction to the vote.

The vote came after months of board meetings disrupted over issues relating to 2SLGBTQI+, first with Pride stickers outside of classrooms and then with the idea of raising the Pride flag at the board for the first time. After a video featuring people jeering at a supporter of flying the flag went viral, the board faces scrutiny over the past month as it weighed whether or not it would fly the flag.

Those who voted in favour of raising the flag included trustees Elizabeth Crowe (Aurora, King and Whitchurch-Stouffville), Jennifer Wigston (Vaughan), Carol Cotton (Markham) and Angela Grella (Vaughan). Trustees who voted against included chair Frank Alexander (Markham), Theresa McNicol (Newmarket, East Gwillimbury and Georgina), vice-chair Maria Iafrate (Richmond Hill), Joseph DiMeo (Richmond Hill), Angela Saggese (Vaughan) and Michaela Barbieri (Vaughan).

Most trustees made lengthy statements arguing for or against flying the Pride flag. After several spoke out against the idea, James pleaded for them to fly the flag, cheered on by those in the crowd hoping for the same.

“There is a massive campaign of hate going around the world against 2SLGBTQI+,” he said. “It hurts knowing our board is making national headlines for being the place where that hate is demonstrated.” 

The resolution on the table fell short of even calling for Pride flags to be flown at all schools, as other Catholic boards, including Toronto Catholic District School Board, have done. Instead, if it had passed, the flag would have only been flown outside the board’s headquarters. James and other trustees lamented that the resolution would not mean flags fly at all schools. 

But even that resolution was added onto the agenda at the last minute, put on by student trustees with the support of Crowe. She said that chair Alexander had called the issue a “poison pill” at the executive committee level, which decides what makes it to the public portion of the board of trustee meetings. She said the chair tried to prevent it from appearing on the board agenda.

Crowe voted in favour of flying the flag. She said all students must be felt welcomed and safe. She added consideration for how this debate makes Catholic boards look to the greater public, as well as pressure from the minister of education to fly the Pride flag.

“The recent negative media coverage of our board meetings has surely called into question the very existence of publicly funded Catholic schools in the minds of the general public,” she said. 

But other trustees defended a position of voting against the Pride flag. Trustee Barbieri said she acknowledges the struggles of 2SLGBTQIA+ students but said flying a flag would not bring an end to those struggles, and more work is needed.

“I have heard and read many people’s responses to the flags. One line truly speaks to me, which is eliminating division. I find there to be great hypocrisy within that line. Just having a discussion about raising a flag has created a division within our community,” she said. “

But she added she opposes the heckling seen at the board meetings in recent months.

“I believe these children deserve more than just flying the flag. They deserve the help and support they deserve to deal with struggles and inequities,” she said. “I will work toward fostering a safe and inclusive school environment for all through policy and governance.” 

Others questioned the Pride flag as a symbol. That issue has remained contentious in the Catholic faith. A staff report from the Sexuality and Catholic Education Committee noted that it includes Bishop John Boissonneau from the Archdiocese of Toronto. The report referenced a March 2023 presentation from Boissoneau, which stated in part that the flag “does attach to values of welcome and acceptance. It also attaches to advocacy movements that call for change in social values and legislation, such as same-sex marriage, which the church does not accept.”

“We are Catholic educators. We need to look at a clear, consistent message,” Saggese said. “That clear consistent message comes from the fact we are proud to be Catholics. The cross is the symbol that we need.” 

The board increased security at the meeting after the past three months have been disrupted by jeers and hecklers. Security escorted some audience members out during the meeting for heckling. Several audience members shouted at the board as the room cleared following the vote on the Pride flag.

York Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association president Mike Totten said trustees did not heed the student voice in their decision.

“That board of trustees need to walk away and resign because they certainly did not do their job today,” Totten said. “Their job is to respect the students, and their job is to listen to the students.” 

Totten said the association will be marching in the York Region Pride parade in Newmarket, along with students. 

Alexander has scheduled a news event later today to discuss last night’s board meeting. This story will be updated with his comments.

Despite the setback, student trustees said they would continue their efforts.

“We believe in expressing the voice of the students of the entire board,” Peta-Dragos said.

“We will continue to be hopeful. That’s all we can do,” James said. “Pray that trustees and board members will hopefully come along.”