The Ugliness After the Edmonton Catholic School Board Learned It Had a Trans Student

At just seven years old, the girl told her mother she wanted to die.

by Mack Lamoureux
Oct 20 2015, 6:02pm

Archbishop Oscar Romero school in Edmonton. Photo via Flickr user Oscar Romero

One year ago, a mother in Edmonton had her seven-year-old child saunter up to her and explain that she, in fact, wasn't her son but instead her daughter.

A few months later that same child asked her mother to end her life.

The young girl, whose name will not be used in this article to protect her identity, is an attendee of the publicly funded Edmonton Catholic School District (ECSD). Unfortunately, the Catholic School Boards in the Greater Edmonton Area don't have the greatest track records when it comes to their transgender students and staff.

In 2008 Jan Buterman, a transgender substitute teacher, was fired from the St. Albert Catholic School District. The reason he was given was that his gender transition didn't align with church teachings. Just last year, Buterman won the right to argue a wrongful dismissal case in front of the Canadian human rights tribunal, but in the intervening seven years, it seems that the area's Catholic School Districts haven't progressed very much.

This VICE Canada Reports deals with Canadian access to trans healthcare.

After learning about her child's gender, her mother decided that the best plan would be to have a meeting with school officials and religious leaders in regards to her daughter's transition. It was the start of what would become an extremely long process all centered on the location of where her daughter would pee.

In this meeting, which the mother recorded, she found herself discussing her daughter's gender with an Edmonton Catholic priest and there is one particular exchange that stands out.

"I'm just wondering, what are some of the disciplinary measures that are provided at home," Father Dean Dowle asked the mother. "Provisions, parameters, boundaries?"

The child's mother took pause before replying to Dowle's question.

"Father, may I ask you when you knew you were a boy? There's no difference with my child."

After the meeting the mother filed a human rights report against the school for banning her daughter from using the girls' restroom. A day later, on May 15, the decision was made for her daughter to only use the school's gender neutral washroom. The school board was adamant they had done their research and the decision was a sufficient action.

They urged the mother to "see the good in this situation."

But even though this was deemed the "final decision," it was merely the catalyst for this discrimination to come to light publicly. The decision prompted ECSD school board trustee Patricia Grell to write an impassioned blog post about the fact that she thought it was out of line with Catholic compassion. The blog was picked up by local media and pressure was almost immediately put on the ECSD. Under scrutiny, they quickly backpedaled and decided that the little girl would actually be able to use the girls' washroom. But there was still a catch.

Shortly after the decision was made, the mother received a call from a reporter telling her that when her little girl would go to the girls' washroom, an escort was required. No other child in the school needed an escort.

"I said to myself, no way, no way the school would be dumb enough to do that. Sure enough, I called my daughter over and I asked, 'When you go to the bathroom what happens?'" the mother told VICE. "And she said 'Oh, the teacher picks one or two girls and they have to come with me. I asked, 'What happens if you want to go on your own?' and she said 'No, I'm not allowed, one of the two girls have to come with me.'"

It was around this time that the little girl told her mom that she didn't want to be alive anymore.

Infighting over this issue in the ECSD board of trustees broke out when Patricia Grell decided to spearhead a new transgender policy. Over the summer, Grell consulted with psychologists, transgender activists, and doctors in order to draft the policy. But at the same time across town, the school's bishop was busy drafting his own parallel policy. One that would be more "aligned" to traditional Catholic values.

"I think what we're seeing is a lot of interference from unelected bishops who are trying to make school boards policy and operational decisions," Dr. Kris Wells, Faculty Director for Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services told VICE. "That really calls into question for a lot of people—why do we elect Catholic school board trustees if they actually don't have the power to make decisions."

"Bishops are not accountable to the public."

This issue came to a head on September 15 when an open house meeting was held and a discussion about the district's transgender policies was scheduled to take place. Easy peasy, right? This group of adults could easily set aside their own thoughts and biases to come up with a policy that would protect at-risk children, right? Nope, the ECSD instead decided that it's never too early for children to learn how much some people truly, truly suck.

It was anarchy.

This seemingly simple subject was just too much for these people to handle. The trustees screamed at each other, some broke down crying, one even tried to have a member of the audience escorted out for calling her homophobic in an email, (a claim she has since recanted).

One trustee, Larry Kowalczyk, is a perfect example of what's wrong in this debate. After the meeting, he told the CBC, "I see that as a mental disorder, my faith sees it as a mental disorder." It's a notion that appears to be common among the Edmonton Catholic community. Recently, Father Matthew-Anthony Hysel, an Edmonton Catholic Priest, penned an opinion piece for the Edmonton Journal defending the notion that transgender people are mentally ill.

"By self-identification as transgender, or even having gender reassignment surgery, one already admits of this 'mental disorder' by implication because she or he wishes to 'reorder' her or his biological sex to her or his gender identity, arguably a mental state," Hysel wrote.

The hysteria kept on keeping on after this, but this time the police got involved. A mischief complaint was filed against Patricia Grell and fellow trustee, and now board chair, Marilyn Bergstra who, like Grell, is pro trans rights. It was launched after Grell and Bergstra mistakenly erased a portion of recorded board meeting after their private conversation was caught on the same tape. Grell and Bergstra were informed via email on October 13th, nearly two weeks after the incident and two hours before the much anticipated second meeting in regards to trans rights.

"It's very unfair," Grell told the CBC. "I think this is a witch hunt."

As anticipated the Catholics went at it again on October 13th. The whole thing was a complete and utter clusterfuck, running at almost five hours long.

In the meeting, Kowalcyk attempted to pass an amendment reflecting the Bishop's views that, after a long pre-ramble, said "to attempt 'gender transitioning' is contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church." When that didn't pass he then tried to have the policy postponed indefinitely. But he really outdid himself when he quoted noted dickbag Jack Fonseca, a strategist at the anti-abortion Campaign Life Coalition, as a way to add some weight to his arguments. He said that if the board passed the policy they would be committing "serious heresy" against the bishop and Catholic church. He then went on to essentially say, while attributing it to Fonseca, that because suicide statistics are higher among LGBTQ youth we are leading them to death when we support their decision. These are but a few of the many repugnant things that Kowalyk said during the meeting.

Now to reiterate, this man isn't your shitty uncle that spouts off about "the gays" and "the Muslims" at a family holiday but an elected official responsible for the safety of many children within his district. Thankfully the ECSD Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation policy went on to pass it's first reading.

Kowalczyk was the only one to vote against it.

The whole issue was such an embarrassment that David Eggen, Alberta's Education Minister, announced that he would be issuing an expert advisor, on government dime, to help the board make it to and through their next meeting.

Back in the spring, when the mother of the girl first heard her daughter couldn't use the washroom, she asked what were the reasons that led the ECSD to this decision. She was given two answers, the first was that her daughter being in the bathroom violates the biological rights of the females, the second was that it violates their safety.

"I told them 'you better drop that defence pretty quick as it sounds like you're implying my child is a predator, which she isn't,'" the girl's mother said. "And two, you're stating in that statement that transgender people are predators which they are not."

Numerous studies have concluded transgender youth are far far far more likely to be assaulted than to assault people and are in fact one of the most at-risk groups in our society. So maybe it's time for this Bishop and the Catholic Church to start focusing on actual proven threats to the children's safety.

Maybe it's time for them to get on the right side of history.

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