The Halton Catholic District School Board is facing some serious repercussions from it’s decision not to fly the pride flag this June. On June 1st the Ontario Human Rights Commission sent a letter to the board, addressed to Chair Patrick Murphy as well as Education Director Pat Daly. In the letter the Commission took specific issue with the debate and ultimate refusal of the Board to fly the flag at its schools. While praising the Halton Catholic Board for taking action to promote safe spaces within schools, and to implement LGBTQ2S+ awareness for it’s staff, it stated “Nonetheless, the OHRC was disappointed to hear that the Board refused to accept the request that the Pride flag be raised at all HCDSB schools.” The letter also emphasizes that by not flying the flag, the Board risks further stigmatizing members of the LGBTQ2S+ community who already exist within it’s community. Going on to cite two court cases to demonstrate that the board may in fact be violating the human rights of the LGBTQ2S+ community, the letter stated “the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario has recognized that an organization’s failure to symbolically acknowledge Pride events can in some cases amount to a violation of the rights of people who are LGBTQ2+ to equal treatment in services under the Code (see, e.g. Oliver v Hamilton (City) (No. 2), 1995 CanLII 18157 (ON HRT) and Hudler v London (City), 1997 CanLII 24809 (ON HRT)).”
When asked about the letter itself, spokesperson for the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Adewonuola Johnson stated that the commission has been keeping an eye on the Halton Catholic board since it’s decision on April 26th to not fly the flag. When asked why the board’s actions necessitated the Commission issuing a letter, Ms. Johnson stated, “While we are aware that not all Catholic District School Board schools have raised a Pride flag, we are not aware of the circumstances for each Board. In this case, the OHRC sent a letter to HCDSB because we were aware that a request was made to the Board for the Pride flag to be raised at all HCDSB schools.”
The board has come under fire in recent months by parents and advocates of the LGBTQ2S+ community. In April, after two meetings that both ran past the scheduled 3 hour agenda, the Halton Catholic Board rejected a proposal put forward by Trustee Brenda Agnew to fly the pride flag at schools in the board. The debate was a contentious one between the trustees, the community at large and many advocates for the LGBTQ2S+ community. A predominantly pro flag movement emerged within the Catholic school community. Many students both current and past, along with their parents and faculty petitioned the board to fly the flag at their schools. Yet by the end of the meetings, an amended motion was passed which purposely struck out language concerning raising the flag.
Since that meeting, a number of other Catholic school boards, including Toronto, Ottawa, Durham, and London Catholic Boards, have passed motions to promote the pride flag and have it wave at their schools during Pride Month. In the aftermath of the Halton Catholic School Board decision, a grassroots organization called Halton Parent Allies has formed, with the explicit mandate to encourage the board to reverse its flag decision. Alex Power, a spokesperson for the organization said in regards to the letter, “The 2SLBGTQ+ community has not always felt welcome and accepted within our Catholic community. It is long past time we acknowledge this and act to ensure that all of our students feel that deep sense of belonging. The first step in this journey is for the Halton Catholic District School Board to raise the Pride Flag. We hope that this letter from OHRC reminds the Trustees of their duty to their students and to their community. We look forward to their response and to seeing the Pride Flag fly across all of Halton.”
Whitney Ross, Co Lead of Halton Pflag, an organization which advocates for LGBTQ2S+ rights in Halton, responded to the Commission’s letter by saying: “Pflag Halton supports the letter sent by the Ontario Human Rights Commission to the Halton Catholic District School Board. HCDSB continues to be under a provincial and national spotlight for their refusal to raise the Pride flag during the month of June. The overall message from the OHRC supports what Pflag Halton and numerous other advocacy, support, and ally groups have been saying: the Pride flag is a ubiquitous symbol for the 2SLGBTQIA+ community and the board’s refusal to fly it sends a very disconcerting message to its students and staff.”
In terms of what happens next in regards to the letter, Ms. Johnson said that the Commission is waiting to see what the response will be from the Halton Catholic District School Board, before taking any further steps. When asked for a response to the letter, Chair Patrick Murphy and Education Director Pat Daly did not reply to our questions.