A central Alberta school board's decision to reject plans for Pride celebrations and instead declare an official "Diversity Week" sends a callous message to queer students, LGBTQ advocates say.
A motion that would have seen students at Red Deer's public schools marking Pride Week each June was voted down this week by board trustees.
Officials at the Red School Public School Division say they remain committed to inclusion, maintaining that the newly declared celebration of diversity will recognize the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ students.
But critics say the vote diminishes the experiences of queer students.
'A giant cop-out'
Alex Pugatschew, vice-chair of the Central Alberta Queer Society, said many in the community are angry at the vote and fearful about the implications for students who already feel ostracized.
"It's a giant cop-out," Pugatschew said, noting that the society's letter of support was among more than a dozen submitted in support of the proposal. "It's homophobic."
Pugatschew said the idea behind "Diversity Week" is offensive. Pride is meant to empower marginalized people in the queer community and should not be lumped in with what she characterized as a generic lesson on school history.
Pugatschew hopes the board will reconsider.
"The reason why they put this forward in the first place is because these kids genuinely need this to survive and to gain a sense of identity.
"That's the big thing here. Once again, it's somebody standing in the way of students being told that it's all right to be different. It's all right to be queer. It's all right to be trans.'"
Rhys Pugatschew, who is the society's chair, said students across central Alberta are struggling.
"They don't feel included at all," he said. "This is saying they don't matter."
The motion for Pride Week was tabled in November by trustee Dianne Macaulay who argued that the celebration would reinforce the board's own mandate to garner acceptance in the classroom.
During Wednesday's vote, Macaulay and trustee Cathy Peacocke voted in favour of the motion.
Trustees Nicole Buchanan, Laurette Woodward, Bill Stuebing and Bev Manning rejected it.
The board instead voted to back the revised Diversity Week proposal, suggested by Manning
Celebrating all 'uniquenesses'
Bruce Buruma, spokesperson for the Red Deer Public Schools, said celebrating inclusion and diversity is important to the division.
"Our schools reflect the diversity of the communities we serve — we celebrate and are proud of the increased diversity we see across Red Deer and area," Buruma said in a statement.
"Diversity celebrations will encourage and include specific actions that recognize the challenges and struggles facing by LGBTQ+ individuals and the community."
Manning cited several events in the division's history that she wanted to highlight.
In her written motion, Manning recalled the introduction of the division's first gay-straight alliance and the Power of H Program — the official school theme of Hunting Hills High School, which promotes "Home, Honour, Health, Hope and Heart."
She also referenced a "Dye-versity Relay," which she described as an "incredible day of outdoor activities ... and celebrating diversity in a very open way.
"All these things considered leads me to believe that celebrating our diverse nature, embracing our differences, holding one another up with encouragement and love, is a more inclusive way to proceed with this motion," Manning wrote.
"I believe it brings ALL groups together, celebrates ALL of our uniquenesses, encourages ALL of us to become aware of diversity and will be an opportunity for ALL of us to learn and grow together."
Student proposals will be approved
Buchanan, who is the board's chair, pointed to the sexual orientation and gender diversity policy, adopted in 2015, as proof of the trustees' ongoing commitment to inclusion.
Buchanan said her decision to reject the Pride Week motion was a procedural one, based on wanting to see a proposal come from students, not the board.
"It's because there's already a mechanism in place for this to occur within regular public school divisions," she said.
Under the inclusion policy, if a student were to make a request for a Pride celebration, it would be automatically approved by their school principal with no need for a board vote.
"That policy specifically speaks to students having the opportunity to have a Pride Week in their school. But it comes from what they want, not from what the board wants. "
Sending a message of inclusion to our young people matters. - Kristopher Wells
Kristopher Wells, LGBTQ advocate and Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual & Gender Minority Youth, described the board's decision as disappointing and represents a "step backward."
He said the diversity celebration is a "catch-all" that diminishes the specific traumas young queer people still face.
"We're not talking about an abstract problem here," he said.
"We're talking about a very real problem that's happening in schools and society, the amount of discrimination, prejudice and hate that targets the LGBTQ community is particularly concerning for our young people.
"It's not being LGBTQ that's the problem. It's the environments that these young people find themselves in that are hostile and discriminatory."
Wells said Pride events have become commonplace at schools and a celebration of some of Alberta's most vulnerable students should not be controversial.
He said the trustees need to acknowledge their mistake and remedy it.
"Sending a message of inclusion to our young people matters."