Justin Trudeau’s visit to Orleans school, other ‘scandals’ prompt revision to Ottawa Catholic School Board policy
By Neco Cockburn
OTTAWA CITIZEN July 3, 2013
Parents concerned about “scandals” such as federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s visit to a Catholic elementary school appear to have spurred a policy review by their school board.
But a revised Ottawa Catholic School Board policy that calls for partnerships to be directed by “moral teaching” doesn’t go far enough to ensure that speakers such as Trudeau — who supports same-sex marriage and has said a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion is a “fundamental right” — are vetted before being brought into schools, some parents say.
The policy was changed this month to state that partnerships and sponsorships with individuals, parish and community groups, business, industry and government “shall be forged to ensure respect for the distinctive nature of Catholic education and adherence to the Roman Catholic tradition.”
Such relationships also are to be directed by the board’s philosophy, vision statement and “Catholic Social and Moral Teaching,” the policy now says.
The board says it regularly reviews all its policies and procedures. The revisions came as some parents have called for tighter rules around relationships that schools establish with external groups and speakers.
The parents cite Trudeau’s visit to St. Clare School in Orléans during anti-bullying week in November as one of a handful of “scandals” that occurred over the past year. Each has caused concern about losing a truly Catholic school system, they say.
Although his visit to the school was about bullying, “if you google anything about Justin Trudeau, it comes up very clearly that he is strongly against some important Catholic teachings,” said parent Gillian Keenan.
A similar outcry over Trudeau’s visits has come from parents and officials in other Catholic boards.
“What it suggests is that the Catholic school and anyone supporting the Catholic school, therefore supports his platform,” Keenan said.
“He’s not all bad, but my point is just that we don’t need the star factor like him if what he stands for is contrary to Catholic teachings.”
How the policy changes might affect school speakers and other relationships the parents see as a concern in Ottawa was not immediately clear because the board — stating it was busy with year-end events and a professional development day — only issued a statement in response to a list of questions provided by the Citizen late last week.
The revised policy is an improvement and a “clearer statement of purpose,” but some parents wanted a vetting procedure to establish whether speakers “have made statements in opposition to the church teachings,” said Teresa Pierre, president of Parents As First Educators. The Toronto-based parent advocacy group says it has more than 15,000 supporters across the province and “monitors and intervenes to ensure Board officials keep their activities transparent to the public,” while expecting them to promote teachings of the Catholic Church.
Though she appreciates the overall changes to the policy, relying on principals to make the call about a particular speaker is not enough, Keenan said, and the concern “is that our Catholic schools will be made redundant because we won’t be different than the public school at all.”
A committee of school parents might be one way to screen speakers, Keenan suggested.
Parents have pointed to Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast’s cancellation in 2011 of presentations by Father Luis Arriaga, director of the Miguel Agustin Pro Juárez Human Rights Center in Mexico, because of the centre’s ties to groups that support abortion rights.
“If he’s going to set that as our example concerning speaking to an adult audience, I think then we should hold the same standard when it comes to speakers coming and talking to our children,” Keenan said.
At a school board meeting this month, Bruce Clark, representing Parents As First Educators, called for the policy to make it clear that “partnerships including those involving speakers, events, trips or projects, shall only be with those who do not publicly advocate, or assist others who advocate ideas that are contrary to the social and moral teachings of the Catholic Church,” according to presentation slides from the meeting.
Clark also asked for an amendment stating that whoever approves partnerships “will research and vet prospective partners’ voting records, major donations, oral or written statements, etc. and decline those who publicly advocate, or assist others who advocate ideas that are contrary to the social and moral teachings of the Catholic Church.”
The requested amendments weren’t added to the policy.
Other concerns raised by parents about “incompatible” partnerships have included proposed student trips to El Salvador (because of the stance of some groups students would meet), students’ involvement with Save The Children on hunger, poverty, and equity issues (over perceptions of the group’s views on abortion), and a student who reportedly received co-op credit by working for an organization involved in efforts to eliminate bullying, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination (the group is seen as promoting “the normalization of homosexuality,” as one parent put it.)
Some of the criticism has been amplified by LifeSiteNews, a website launched by the Campaign Life Coalition, a Canadian national anti-abortion organization based in Toronto. A trip by high school students to help “Get out the vote” for the U.S. election last fall was cancelled after controversy generated over an article on the website that characterized the teacher organizing the trip as a Barack Obama advocate. Parents also had fears that the students would be campaigning for Obama, who is pro-choice.
The revised policy states that students won’t be involved in partisan political activity. It also says that sponsorships involving “influences contrary to Catholic social and moral teaching” are to be avoided.
When asked for an interview, a board spokeswoman replied that it was an unusually busy time of year, with the last day of school on Thursday and a board-wide professional development day on Friday. The board provided a statement saying that it reviews its policies and procedures each year, “including ones brought to our attention by concerned parents or groups of ratepayers.”
(Several changes to various policies were approved at the same board meeting, including revisions stating that field trips and excursions are to be linked to “the distinctive culture of Catholic curriculum,” and that students must attend Sunday Mass on all weekend field trips.)
“This year, the Board’s Policies and Procedure Steering Committee gathered and reflected on all input from all stakeholders including parents, community groups and the Archbishop of Ottawa,” the board stated.
“The ideas behind this comprehensive policy review process is to build better policies and we are pleased with this year’s revisions.”
More public consultation was needed before the changes were made, said Pierre.
“The partnerships policy should have been begun with a notice of motion by trustees. Trustees need to write policies, not just rubber stamp them, and each policy needs to be put in view of the taxpayers through public motions.”
How the Ottawa Catholic School Board has amended some of its policies for partnerships and field trips.
Partnerships, sponsorships and donations
Old policy: “Partnerships and sponsorships with individuals, parish and community groups, business, industry and government shall be consistent with the Board’s philosophy, Vision Statement and Catholic Social Teaching. The principles of Catholic Social Teaching include reference to the dignity of the human person, human rights and responsibilities, common good, solidarity, the preferential option for the poor, and the value and dignity of human work. The international image and dealings of a corporation shall be just as important as local concerns in the decision to form partnerships.”
Revised policy: “Partnerships and sponsorships with individuals, parish and community groups, business, industry and government shall be forged to ensure respect for the distinctive nature of Catholic education and adherence to the Roman Catholic tradition. The Board’s philosophy, vision statement, as well as Catholic Social and Moral Teaching, will also direct partnerships and sponsorships.”
Old policy: “Students shall not be involved in promoting commercial products in any way.”
Revised policy: “Students shall not be involved in promoting commercial products in any way and shall not be involved in partisan political activity.”
Old policy: “Any business sponsoring activities within the Board or its schools will be accepted as environmentally safe, and be consistent with a healthy lifestyle. Controversial products and services are to be avoided (e.g., alcoholic beverages and tobacco products).”
Revised policy: “Any business sponsoring activities within the Board or its schools will be accepted as environmentally safe, and be consistent with a healthy lifestyle and aligned with Catholic Graduate Expectations. Controversial products and services are to be avoided (e.g., alcoholic beverages and tobacco products), as well as influences contrary to Catholic social and moral teaching.”
Field trips and excursions
Old policy: “The Board shall endorse and encourage field trips of an educational nature.”
Revised policy: “The Board recognizes the educational value for students and staff to participate in field trip experiences and encourages field trips and excursions as part of an enriching Catholic educational program for all students.”
Old policy: “Opportunities will be provided for Sunday worship on all weekend field trips.”
Revised policy: “Attendance at Sunday Mass on all weekend field trips is required.”
New policy: “Field trips and excursions will be linked to the Ontario Catholic School Graduate Expectations (CGE’s) and the distinctive culture of Catholic curriculum.”