Culture
Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

L.I.F.E. at St. Pat's

An LGBTQ group at Yellowknife's Catholic high school is changing attitudes and lives

Late last year, a group of students at École St. Patrick High School sent a survey around the school. 'Is your life affected by LGBTQ issues?' it asked. 'Perhaps you yourself are queer or questioning, or perhaps you have a friend or a family member who is?'

Eighty-seven students and teachers, out of around 200 surveyed, responded with a yes. But the survey also asked whether people knew much about LGBTQ issues.

“We had almost 150 students say they had a very poor, or little to no knowledge about that kind of stuff,” says Emma Cameron, one of the students behind both the survey and a new group called Lived Inclusion For Everyone, or L.I.F.E. for short, that started at St. Pat’s this year. The group — not quite a gay-straight alliance, but along those lines — is in a sense a response to the central fact identified in the survey: LGBTQ issues affect many, if not most, of us, yet the levels of knowledge aren’t always there.

"The students at the school, we know they have higher risk for suicide, self harm, mental health, for bullying, all that kind of stuff. So if we as Christians have the opportunity to help them and show compassion, and that’s what we’re all about, then we should be jumping at that chance.”

For Cameron, 17 and in Grade 11, this became clear when within a single year, four or five of her close friends came out: “Very suddenly I was like, oh my goodness, this isn’t that one kid you hear about in the city, it’s a bunch of people you know and are close to. And they started talking about some of the things they face in the school, just hearing gay slurs, having people talk about them in ways that were completely inaccurate and so we felt maybe there was a way we could change this.”

She and her friend Damian Benoit, also 17 and in Grade 11, decided to start a group and put together a whopping 30-page document explaining the needs they hoped to fill and their desire to create a more inclusive and educated school. The staff liked the idea, the school board and the bishop signed off on it, and the group was off.

So far they’ve hosted one event using art to explore identity, and they have several more planned before the end of the school year. On Wednesday, they had a booth set up in the school's lobby over lunchtime to promote the Days of Pink events going on this weekOn top of that, the group’s very presence in the school is already making a difference; two students who wrote anonymous letters in support of the group’s formation last fall but weren’t out at the time have since come out.

“They’re now very confident in themselves… just feeling they had someone to talk to and just represent them in the school,” says Benoit. “Having this group, especially in the school where it’s so easy to go to, people are way more likely to come out sooner and when they want to.”

To some, the notion of a group focused on LGBTQ inclusion popping up at a Catholic school might seem surprising. But not to the students and staff themselves.

“I was never raised with any religion,” says student and group member Kendra Sibbeston, “so these two [Cameron and Benoit] have been my first education source on the queer community and religious groups... and how they actually coexist quite happily.”

“Versus public opinion, which would say if you’re Christian you can’t possibly ally with us,” adds Lori Tutt, the school board’s Religious Education Coordinator and the group’s teacher facilitator. “That’s part of my thing, saying woah, woah, don’t write us off. We want to be here because we want to support you.”

Cameron, a practicing Christian and Sunday school teacher, though not a Catholic, explains it this way: “Everybody has dignity… [and] regardless of your orientation, you deserve to be loved and treated with respect. And the students at the school, we know they are at risk, for whatever reason they are, they have higher risk for suicide, self harm, mental health, for bullying, all that kind of stuff. So if we as Christians have the opportunity to help them and show compassion, and that’s what we’re all about, then we should be jumping at that chance.”

Along with providing a voice and a support network for LGBTQ students in the school, the group is also working to make teachers more aware of inclusivity in their classrooms.

“We find often teachers are not scared, but a little tentative to bring up subjects like that; we had teachers fill out the survey too, and again, not a lot of understanding or education,” says Sibbeston. Though this is changing.

“Just the other day,” says Cameron, “the teacher said, ‘I want a boy and a girl up at the front,’ and we just kind of looked up, and he was like, ‘or anybody, orientation, whatever, come on up.’ Just a change like that changes the life of a student in the class.”