4 min

Education activist’s invitation to address conference rescinded

School decided it 'might not be appropriate for you to speak at our conference': student email

A queer education activist who was invited and then uninvited to speak at a student social-justice conference for two Vancouver Roman Catholic high schools says the situation is a further example of church intolerance.

James Chamberlain was invited Jan 15 to speak at the student-led One World One Heart (OWOH) conference to be held jointly April 21 by Vancouver College and Little Flower Academy. (The first is all male, the second all female.)

“We believe that through OWOH, students can become better global citizens by understanding the problems which plague our world, and taking initiative in being part of the solution of these issues,” the invitation reads.

“We urge you to provide direct and tangible ways in which students can get involved with a cause related to your presentation,” it further states. “This might be volunteer opportunities or student initiative projects. Many young people today may be inspired to take action and be a part of the solution; however, they often lose interest due to a lack of opportunities to do so.”

The invitation asked speakers to formulate a topic on the theme “YOU CAN______.”

Chamberlain, assistant director of professional and social issues for the BC Teachers’ Federation, replied Jan 20 that he would be happy to participate with discussion on two issues.

“One is the issue of child poverty and the other is homophobia,” Chamberlain wrote. “I can easily meld these topics together into a “YOU CAN______” format focusing on student agency and activism, in a local and global context.”

Chamberlain heard nothing back for a while.

Then, on Feb 19, he learned by email that the invitation had been withdrawn.

“Unfortunately, our school has decided that it might not be appropriate for you to speak at our conference. Our school is funded by the Vancouver Arch Dioceses, and there are certain matters that they do not approve upon,” the email states.

Chamberlain says the about-face disappointed him.

“Their One World, One Heart conference theme seems like a glaring misnomer to me. I think it should more aptly be called Myopic World, Closed Hearts,” he says.

In a Feb 22 statement to Xtra, Vancouver College principal John McFarland said OWOH “is an annual conference that brings students from various high schools together to focus their minds and hearts towards social justice issues around the world. It is organized entirely by high school students from Vancouver College and Little Flower Academy.”

McFarland says the student organizing committee asked members to present a slate of possible speakers.

“Names of recommended speakers were to be submitted to the student organizing committee and the teacher moderator,” McFarland says in the statement. He says one of the students, who contacted Chamberlain by email to inquire about his availability to speak at the conference, did not have the authority to invite anyone and was not authorized to represent the school.”

Little Flower principal Diane Little did not return Xtra‘s calls. Little Flower is the school from which teacher Lisa Reimer was fired in April 2010 after parents began complaining when they found out she and her partner were expecting a child.

Chamberlain questions how the schools can support a conference on social justice issues while continuing to be exclusionary. “They don’t even want to look at anti-homophobia education and how students can be change makers in the world. It speaks to their own intolerance.”

Chamberlain points the finger at the Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver. “They don’t even want students at a student-led conference to learn about this form of oppression,” he says. Xtra‘s attempts to reach archdiocese spokesperson Paul Schratz were also unsuccessful.

Moreover, Chamberlain finds it disturbing that the school receives public funding.

The BC Teachers’ Federation says that private schools are eligible to receive up to 50 percent of their funding from the public purse. According to the Ministry of Education, for 2011/2012, Vancouver College will receive more than $1.9 million in public funding, while Little Flower Academy will receive $845,254.

Chamberlain says it’s another indication that private schools should not be publicly funded if they are going to continue to be exclusionary.

Pride Education Network spokesperson Faune Johnson, who has several clergy members in her family, tells Xtra that early Christianity was a beacon to the oppressed.

“To use it in a way that stops people from being active in a socially just way runs contrary to the way the belief system started out,” the teacher says. “If you don’t allow young people to be socially active and make social change, then they begin to act socially inappropriately or be in despair,” she says.

She says the schools are missing the chance to educate students and empower them. “We have to deal with this thing,” Johnson adds. “Most of the bullying is homophobic.”

On Jan 9, Pope Benedict XVI told the Vatican press corps that gay marriage is a threat to the traditional family unit, undermining “the future of humanity itself.”

The pope told diplomats from nearly 180 countries that the education of children needed proper “settings” and that “pride of place goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman.”

The current archbishop of Vancouver is Michael Miller, who in 2003 was named by Pope John Paul II to be secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education.

According to the diocesan website, “he has written seven books on topics ranging from the Holy See’s teaching on Catholic schools, to the development of the papacy and the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II. His book “The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools” is currently in use in the 45 schools of the Archdiocese.”

Across the country, Ontario has become a flashpoint in the fight for gay-straight alliances in Catholic schools.

In January, Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association president Nancy Kirby told the National Post, “we won’t be promoting a lifestyle because with our students who are all minors, we’re teaching about chastity. Chastity is taught to all students whether they’re gay or straight and the mandate of the gay-straight alliance is different from the mandate of our ‘Respecting Differences’ group.”