Saskatoon Catholic schools keeping kids away from Rainbow Tent ignores need for inclusivity: community members

The Nutrien Children's Festival of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon starts June 1. Last week, Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools principals were directed to prohibit teachers from allowing students to participate in the festival's Rainbow Tent, an inclusive event that will feature storytelling with a drag queen and dress-up performances. (CBC - image credit)

Community members say a recent directive from a Saskatoon Catholic school system to forbid students from participating in an inclusive children's festival event doesn't consider why inclusivity is so important for LGBTQ youth.

For retired Saskatoon public school teacher Patti Rowley, the issue amounts to "moving backward decades."

"This is doing a huge disservice to some vulnerable youth," said Rowley, who was raised Catholic and said she was an advocate for LGBTQ students during her career.

"It's not validating who they are. It's not allowing them to be who they are, to celebrate who they are with confidence and safety."

Last week, Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools superintendent of education Tom Hickey wrote an email to principals, directing them to prohibit teachers from allowing students to participate in the Nutrien Children's Festival of Saskatchewan's Rainbow Tent, an inclusive event that will feature storytelling with a drag queen and dress-up performances.

The division later issued a statement saying families at Catholic schools have "a reasonable expectation" students will be taught "age-appropriate" material that is "consistent with Catholic teachings."

That statement also apologized for any harm caused by the initial message and said the division welcomes members of the LGBTQ community.

But Hickey's email struck a chord with many, some of whom wrote to him urging him to reconsider the division's stance — including both Rowley and the head of the union representing some of the division's staff.

Judy Henley, president of CUPE Saskatchewan, the union representing support staff within Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools, issued a statement on Friday calling for Hickey to retract the division's stance on the Rainbow Tent.

That email paints the school division in a negative light and creates a "hostile environment" for staff and students who are part of the LGBTQ community, Henley's statement said.

Henley called out the school division for going against its own mission statement to be "a welcoming community," and said the division's stance on the matter doesn't reflect the views of educational support staff in Saskatoon's Catholic schools.

Alexander Quon/CBC
Alexander Quon/CBC

Although the school division issued an apology and explained the thinking behind Hickey's initial directive, it did not explicitly say it was switching its position.

That, Rowley said, puts teachers in a tough spot. Even if the directive goes against a teacher's beliefs, they might not feel comfortable sharing that — which means LGBTQ students in their classes may not know they have someone supportive of them at school.

Mental health effects

Faith Bodnar, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association's Saskatoon branch, said it's important to let kids in particular connect with different people and viewpoints, because they're still developing their beliefs about themselves and those around them.

Bodnar said people working for the mental health association often see the harm caused by excluding people for who they are, which can include developing mental illness.

"A human rights issue is really, fundamentally, at the heart of it," said Bodnar, whose organization is a sponsor for the Rainbow Tent.

"We need to open our arms to everyone. When we do that, our communities are resilient and strong."