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Edmonton Catholic local sends message to public and trustees

November 17, 2015 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor

Letters ask trustees to tone down public conflict around LGBTQ issue

Edmonton Catholic Local No. 54 is raising its voice on the issue of LGBTQ inclusion with a letter campaign.

With Edmonton Catholic Schools’ handling of the issue garnering media attention for months, the local has sent a letter to the editors of various Edmonton newspapers assuring the public that district teachers have been unwavering in their efforts to care for all their students throughout the time that the controversy has been playing out. A second letter, sent directly to the district’s trustees, asks that they refrain from airing their disagreements in public.

“We’re just saying [with the letters] that your actions are now coming down on us. We’re having to justify your actions and we can’t; they’re not our actions,” said local president Greg Carabine.

The letters are the result of a meeting of school representatives in late October. Carabine said that teachers within Edmonton Catholic are being asked, “What’s going on?” These questions are coming mostly from friends and family, but also from some members of the public, he said.

In the letter sent to newspapers, the local points out that the Association’s Code of Professional Conduct, which governs all teachers, explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Efforts by some Edmonton Catholic School trustees to do the same in board policy have been marked by dissention that has garnered considerable attention.

Carabine noted that the situation has even garnered media interest beyond Canada’s borders.

“It’s widespread attention and not good attention,” he said.

The Edmonton Catholic school board has been a regular fixture in the news since the spring when the mother of a seven-year-old transgender girl complained publicly that officials at her daughter’s school were requiring her to use a gender neutral washroom rather than allowing her preference of using the girls’ bathroom.

Prior to a Sept. 15 meeting during which the board was scheduled to discuss the transgender issue in an attempt to form an inclusion policy, trustee Larry Kowalczyk created controversy by saying in a CBC interview that transgender students should be considered as having a mental illness.

The subsequent public meeting was marked by tension. Trustees shouted at each other, made inflammatory remarks, and one trustee wept. The situation prompted Education Minister David Eggen to order the board to form a transgender policy, and he warned of consequences if it failed. He stopped short of dissolving the board, which some pundits suggested he should.

It’s the public nature of the disagreement that the local is urging trustees to abandon.

“Don’t have any big fights in public,” Carabine said. “Nothing wrong with disagreeing. Nothing wrong with vehemently disagreeing with each other, maybe just don’t do it in front of the camera.”

He said the tone of the letters is respectful but direct.

“They are our employer, so there are limits to what we can say,” he said.

The board has also been involved in a number of instances of documents leaked to the media. The recording of a closed-door meeting was allegedly erased, recovered and leaked to media, triggering a police mischief investigation and a meeting with a provincial mediator.

On Oct. 13, the board released a draft policy that is now undergoing consultations.

When reached for comment, board chair Marilyn Bergstra acknowledged that the Sept. 15 meeting “went a little south.”

“Even though there’s a lot of passion associated with the issue, we need to maintain a professional decorum on behalf of the district,” she said.

When the board next discusses the issue at its Dec. 1 meeting, she plans to employ new rules of debate that will allow trustees to speak freely when it’s their turn without being cut off.

She also said that she’s confident the board will arrive at a policy that represents the numerous stakeholders involved, including teachers.

“The ATA local can rest assured that this board is committed to supporting teachers,” she said. ❚

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