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Gender + Sexuality

Across BC, Right-Wing Candidates Are Bashing How Schools Teach

They’re waging a ‘parents rights’ campaign against sex education and SOGI. We talked with some. A Tyee special report.

Katie Hyslop 10 Oct 2022TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them by email.

A social conservative push against gender and sexuality inclusion in schools was a contentious topic in the 2018 B.C. school board elections.

A 2016 change to protect queer and trans kids and the introduction of optional learning resources focusing on sexual orientation and gender brought out candidates opposed to the changes.

Four years later, with a global pandemic wreaking havoc on education and the advancement of gay and trans people, you could be forgiven for thinking fights about these issues in schools were over.

They’re not.

School board candidates continue to bring up SOGI — the Education Ministry’s sexuality orientation and gender identity initiative — and related issues, often paired with concerns about school boards not seeking parents’ consent on decisions.

Some of the same candidates have also been spreading misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, saying mask-wearing is unhealthy, and that vaccines are dangerous and unnecessary for young people.

As part of its election coverage, The Tyee reached out to trustee candidates with conservative-leaning platforms in four of the province’s 60 school districts — Abbotsford, Maple Ridge, Nechako Lakes and Chilliwack — to ask about their stance on education issues including supports and resources for queer and trans students, including the SOGI 123 resources; their districts’ anti-racism initiatives; their views on police officer school programs; the role of parents in education; and their thoughts on masks in schools and districts’ current COVID-19 protocols.

The Tyee selected candidates based on their association with parties and individuals running on a "parental rights" agenda, like those running under the Parents Voice BC banner, their previous record of anti-SOGI or anti-vaccine statements or who were alleged to have such views by other reporting.

Each candidate received the same set of questions, with the exception of one question based on an individual candidate’s public comments.

Only six of the 15 candidates responded in full, with another candidate linking us to their online platform.

Abbotsford

In Abbotsford we reached out to five candidates: incumbents Phil Anderson and Korky Neufeld, along with trustee hopefuls Mike Rauch, Jared White and Earl Storey.

Only Neufeld, White and Rauch responded.

Neufeld, seeking his fifth term on the board, ran on an anti-SOGI platform in 2018. In an emailed response to The Tyee’s question about his stance now, Neufeld said: “I still believe that Parents and Guardians need to be directly involved in the discussion and education resources of ALL minors in the public school system.”

Neufeld went on to praise the district’s anti-bullying and anti-racism efforts, pointing to its restorative justice program. He also supported the presence of police officers in Abbotsford schools for their “positive impression” and “great examples.”

Neufeld takes no issue with COVID-19 protocols, but criticized the Education Ministry's insufficient capital funding that effectively forces the district to use operational funding for capital projects, cuts to electives such as music and art and inadequate support for students with disabilities.

He proposes a stronger parental presence in school board decision-making — for example, by creating a policy clearly outlining district-parent communication processes and adding a parents’ feedback portal on the district website.

White and Rauch, who are both running under the Abbotsford Partners in Education slate, also want to see parents more directly involved and engaged.

White, who ran in 2018 under the Parents First Abbotsford slate, proposes polling parents online for their feedback, as well as engaging them through school board meetings and a stronger relationship between the board and Parent Advisory Committees.

The main concern for both White and Rauch relates to district decisions that made it harder for students to attend schools outside of their catchment area, as well as removing Grade 6 and 7 from some rural elementary schools — including the school White’s kids attend.

“There was widespread parental disapproval of this decision and even though they embarked on a ‘consultation process,’ it was clear the decision was already made,” White told The Tyee via email, adding he heard from almost 500 parents who felt ignored by the district over the rural school issue.

Rauch said if elected he would push for more school board meetings to be held publicly, versus “in camera” meetings held behind closed doors.

“I don’t want to sound negative, but there really isn’t an open culture of openness towards parents and transparency,” he said.

Like many of the candidates who responded to The Tyee’s questions, White sees the queer and trans learning resources provided by SOGI 123 as a “mixed bag.”

“There are lesson plans that teach kids the harm of name-calling. What parent would ever oppose that lesson? However, there are other lesson plans that introduce concepts that are not, in my opinion, age-appropriate,” he wrote, such as introducing “sexual attractiveness” in Grade 4.

“My son is nine years old and in Grade 4. I can tell you that Grade 4 kids don't use that kind of language and I am not personally comfortable with my nine-year-old being introduced to that concept.”

White believes teachers should consult parents on sex education delivery and is concerned secondary students have access to books at school that discuss casual and multiple-partner sex. He declined to name titles, but said if elected, he would look into the issue.

Twenty years ago, the Surrey school board lost its fight to ban age-appropriate books with same-sex parents from classrooms when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against them in 2002. This has not stopped some Chilliwack trustees for calling for the ban of certain books from schools for their queer content.

“I think every child needs support,” Rauch said, when asked for his thoughts on SOGI supports in schools. He listed kids with disabilities and those who are facing racism, dealing with substance misuse or struggling with their gender or sexuality as all needing help.

“I don’t think we can single it out to one issue when it comes to supporting children.”

The SOGI 123 learning resources are optional and not part of the curriculum set by the Education Ministry, says Elizabeth Saewyc, executive director of the Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre at the University of British Columbia, where she is also director of the school of nursing.

But they can be used as resources to introduce issues of diversity and inclusion in the required curriculum, she says.

“Those resources that are available are evidence-based, are drawing on developmentally appropriate materials that have been created by teachers and by folks in the UBC faculty of education, so experts,” Saewyc said.

But schools and districts are required to have policies reflecting BC Human Rights Code protections against discrimination based on sexuality, gender and gender expression.

Research has shown that all children, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity, benefit from school environments that are inclusive of all children and families, Saewyc said.

“Some of the research that we’ve done has documented that in fact when you have inclusive policies in schools,” she said, as well as Gay Straight Alliances, “that not only do you see gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender youth doing better, but it actually ends up being a safer and more supportive environment for heterosexual and cis-gender youth, as well.”

Rauch and White also agree the presence of police liaison officers in the district’s schools is positive. Similar programs in the New Westminster and Vancouver districts were cancelled in 2021 over concerns that Black, Indigenous, queer and trans students are put at increased risk by police in schools.

Phil Anderson, who is running for his third term on the school board, temporarily stepped away from the board in 2021 after sharing a Facebook meme comparing the wearing of medical masks to slavery.

He ran an anti-SOGI campaign in 2018, but Anderson’s current campaign website does not mention the teaching resource.

Anderson’s site does say: “When it comes to controversial subjects, I feel strongly that we must ensure that parents and guardians are notified about these controversial subjects and that their permission is given in order for the student to attend."

In 2019, the Abbotsford district passed a policy preventing parents from opting their children out of learning resources — other than for sex education — that contradict their values.

Earl Storey also campaigned on anti-SOGI and “parental participation in education” positions in 2018. Storey does not have an online campaign presence for this election and did not respond to The Tyee’s emails.

Nechako Lakes

The Tyee sent email interview requests and questions to five candidates in the most northern district on our list, School District 91 Nechako Lakes. All are running under the Parents Voice BC slate, which has candidates in eight districts and is run by Marc Vella and Fritz Radandt, who have ties to the Conservative Party of Canada.

According to its website, Parents Voice BC is a non-partisan “electoral organization” only focused on school board elections and doesn’t have a platform beyond parental rights in education.

“School boards, teachers unions/federations and government bureaucrats fight very hard to prevent parents from knowing what’s happening with their children in school or from knowing what their children are being taught, hence their ongoing battle to prevent open and transparent access to school board decisions and school curriculum content,” its website reads.

The group, whose tagline is “Take Back Our Schools” says it isn’t supported by the Conservative Party of Canada or run by conservative Christians.

“The CPC has not supported the PVBC initiative in any manner whatsoever. New leader Pierre Poilievre has encouraged Conservatives to vote in local elections for non-woke candidates. We would welcome his endorsement of our candidates,” the Parents Voice BC website reads.

While Parents Voice says candidates were not questioned on their religious beliefs, CBC News has reported support for the Parents Voice from the politically conservative Christian groups National Leadership Briefing and the Association for Reformed Political Action.

None of the Nechako Lakes candidates responded to our emails.

Three of the five candidates, Dave Forsberg, Terah Albertson and Daniel Albertson, were mentioned in a post on the website Unmask the Right because of their views on vaccines, the so-called “Freedom Convoy” and gun control. Unmask the Right is a website claiming to provide information about right-wing activists. It does not provide information about organizers, citing fear of retaliation.

The Albertsons, who are brothers, are active in their school district. They have presented petitions to defend the celebration of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in schools and against teaching “activism,” including critical race theory, as well as against the district’s day against homophobia, transphobia and biphobia.

Forsberg, a farmer and country musician, performed at a June barbecue in Vanderhoof hosted by Action 4 Canada, a COVID-19 conspiracy organization.

Forsberg shares the Albertsons’ issues with what is taught in Nechako Lakes schools.

“He has a passion to see children raised and taught in a healthy environment in which parents have the primary role in the direction of education, with a focus on academics over ideology,” his candidate page reads.

Trustee candidate Carroll Walker did not respond to The Tyee’s questions either, including whether he is the same Carroll Walker with a Vanderhoof postal code who donated $150 to convoy participants through the crowdfunding platform GiveSendGo earlier this year with the message: “Don’t give up stand strong.” The same email used to donate the money was listed under Walker’s name in the CivicInfo BC candidates page for the Nechako Lakes elections.

“I am very concerned about the education students are receiving in SD91. The current administration no longer supports the values of the parents but, rather seeks to change them,” Walker’s Parents Voice BC candidate page reads.

“There is a disconnection between the managers of SD91 and the parents of the students in this district. The view that parents ‘need to be better educated’ on issues of disagreement, demonstrates the unwillingness of the administration to listen to the concerns parents are expressing.”

Janina Vanden Bos, a bookkeeper involved in youth sports, has a very brief Parents Voice BC candidate page where she says she is “looking forward to bringing forward what is being taught in our schools and being able to bring it out to the community.”

Overall, parents have very little control over what is taught in schools, says Travers, a sociology professor at Simon Fraser University who uses a mononym and is the author of The Trans Generation: How Trans Kids (and Their Parents) Are Creating a Gender Revolution.

Whether that should be the case is a broader political discussion, Travers told The Tyee, though they personally believe parents should have little say over curriculum, which is based on educational research.

“For example, the kind of anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism that is prevalent north and south of the border, if we allow parents who are racist to set the agenda, that’s really harmful and it’s not OK,” they said.

“I think that educational institutions should be community hubs and a place that leads in terms of helping families become more genuinely inclusive.”

That doesn’t mean denying the cultures people come from, Travers added. “But we have to conform to the highest standards around human rights. That is where educational institutions should be leading.”

Maple Ridge

Brian Dominick is one of two Parents Voice BC candidates running in School District 42 Maple Ridge. A parent of two, Dominick owns his own e-bike and scooter shop in the city and serves as an executive on the district Parents’ Advisory Committee.

The Unmask the Right website links to a video allegedly of Dominick speaking at an anti-COVID mandates event in May, where he says, “This is not a Canadian problem, folks. This is a global, elitist parasite problem and they are the ones that need to be exterminated.”

Dominick did not respond to Tyee questions asking about his stance on education issues. He did not deny he had made the comments about exterminating global parasites when questioned at a candidates’ forum.

Dominick’s fellow Parents Voice BC candidate in the district, Johnnie Day, did respond to The Tyee’s interview request. In campaign materials she says she is concerned about “political interference and political indoctrination” in schools because districts have stopped focusing on teaching academics.

“Instead, we’re focusing on the fads of the day,” she wrote.

Day did not elaborate on what these “fads” are.

“Parents' concerns aren't being listened to anymore. We want to put students first by returning parents to their rightful role as the primary directors of their children’s education,” Day wrote.

“We also want to make the principles of openness and transparency mandatory at all levels of our public education system so parents know that what is being taught to their children aligns with their core values and those of their community.”

Sexual orientations and genders outside of heterosexuality and the man/woman binary are not “fads,” says Daniel Gallardo, a PhD student and research assistant with the UBC education faculty’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Inclusive Education initiative.

Gallardo points to the work of John Hopkins University history professor Jules Gill-Peterson, whose book Histories of the Transgender Child, documents cases of American children transitioning dating back to the early 20th century.

“She uncovers how much of those desires and even ways of being trans have always existed, and that’s in that more western medical side,” Gallardo said.

Chilliwack

While a few of the candidates mentioned above have made local news with their views, the anti-SOGI stances of some incumbent Chilliwack trustees are well-established in provincial media coverage.

That includes incumbents Darrell Furgason, Heather Maahs and Barry Neufeld — the latter of whom has a defamation suit against former BC Teachers’ Federation president Glen Hansman that will be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada just days before the election Oct. 15.

Neufeld, who has been on the board for more than 25 years, initially sparked controversy with an anti-SOGI Facebook post in 2017 that many denounced as homophobic and transphobic. He faced calls to resign by the board and Ministry of Education in 2018 and 2020 over his Facebook posts.

In 2018, Neufeld filed the defamation suit against Hansman, who had said the trustee “shouldn’t be anywhere near students” because of his anti-SOGI post.

In 2020, the Chilliwack school board censured Neufeld after he made a Facebook post claiming chief public health officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam could not be trusted because she was transgender. (Tam’s gender identity has not been made public.)

He has not been allowed to participate in any district events with students since.

In 2018, Maahs told The Tyee she was concerned that SOGI 123 learning resources had not been peer-reviewed — though according to both Hansman and Saewyc many of the studies SOGI 123 is based on have been peer-reviewed and are evidence-based.

“We don’t know what the long-term effect of presenting all these gender options to students are,” Maahs said at the time. “Kids are not guinea pigs.”

Earlier this month, the Chilliwack Progress reported Maahs would not have voted for the district’s long-range facilities plan had she realized it included creating gender-neutral washrooms — featuring stalls with floor-to-ceiling walls — in schools.

Maahs, who has been on the board for 14 years, was not able to respond to The Tyee’s questions by deadline. Instead she referred to a news article outlining her platform, which focuses on improving reading and math scores, but also advocating for “parental rights” in education.

“There should never be topics, subject matter or books that are not fully transparent. Nothing should take place in schools without their full knowledge and consent,” Maahs said in the article, adding parents “can never again be prevented from being in their children’s schools” like they were during the initial COVID-19 school year.

Furgason, who is running for his second board term, told The Tyee his concerns about “parents’ rights” in the district in 2018: “Parents have been excluded — if you look at the sex ed class and the SOGI platform — parents are not to be told if a child expresses a point of view about male or female and the teacher happens to be pro-SOGI.”

Furgason’s own website in 2018 linked to “websites expressing Islamophobia, homophobia and claims that the world is actually 6,000 years old,” according to a report in the Chilliwack Progress newspaper. He declined our latest interview request, citing his concern about The Tyee’s past reporting. Neufeld did not respond to our emails.

This past May, Maahs, Furgason and Neufeld went live online with Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson, an anti-SOGI trustee candidate in Burnaby in 2018, to talk about “the negligence in protecting children from incredibly sexual content in the Canadian school systems, and what is being done about it.”

During the talk, Maahs accused one book, the memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue, which discusses the author’s homosexuality and sexual abuse experience, of “grooming” children.

In August, Furgason and Neufeld called for an RCMP investigation of their fellow trustees who did not support their efforts to ban books they deemed “pornographic” from schools.

Terms like “groomer” and the backlash against books dealing with sexuality, gender and race is coming up from conservative battles in the U.S., says Travers.

“They’re infusing Canadian conservatives with energy and a greater sense of legitimacy,” they said.

“Canadians tend to be a bit smug and self-satisfied in thinking that racism is prevalent south of the border but not here, and Canada is a haven for LGBT people. But it isn’t. There are definitely very welcoming pockets in Canadian society, but in places where conservative Christianity is prevalent, those are not welcoming places.”

Two candidates from the district, Kaethe Jones, who also ran in 2018, and Richard Procee, who is one of three candidates running under the Parents Voice BC slate in Chilliwack, responded to our emails.

Jones, a former teacher whose specialization includes working with students with disabilities, is concerned about inadequate support for these students.

But she also told The Tyee she personally believes mask-wearing is unhealthy, that the vaccines are dangerous and unnecessary for young people and that the province has been “blackmailed” by “a gay activist couple” into creating the Social Justice 11 and 12 course curriculum.

She did not name the couple, but Jones is likely referring to Murray and Peter Corren, a Vancouver couple and parents themselves, who took the provincial government to the BC Human Rights Tribunal in the early 2000s over a lack of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and other gender and sexuality representation in the education curriculum.

The resulting settlement led to the creation of the Social Justice 12 course, as well as establishing limits to what contents students could opt out of due to “controversial” subject matter, as well as review of the kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum to ensure positive representation of queer and trans people.

Jones also attacked the SOGI initiative.

"To confuse our young children with this concept when they are hardly in a position to refute what the teacher says is abuse," Jones wrote.

“Parents have not always been privy to know everything that happens or is taught in the classroom but there has definitely been an ‘agenda’ since 2006 to intentionally keep from parents some of what is being taught.”

Jones went on to describe the district’s anti-racism efforts as “jumping on the bandwagon of the current social justice issue.”

“It is not that we should not teach against racism but what is happening is that this progressive group is doing exactly what they are against. They are promoting anti-white racist behaviour by naming white people white supremists, colonialists,” Jones wrote.

“Racism goes both ways. We are all the same inside. What ethnicity we were born into or the colour of our skin is not something we can change. We all bleed red. We all have the same social-emotional needs, to belong, be wanted and have our basic needs met.”

Many anti-racist scholars and advocates contend “reverse racism” does not exist because white people do not experience the same level of negative outcomes of discrimination based on skin colour— like loss of income, work or educational opportunities — that Indigenous, Black and people of colour do. It’s a term that tends to pop up when white people are being asked to acknowledge systemic racism and their role in maintaining it.

Procee sent The Tyee a word-for-word repeat of what Maple Ridge candidate Johnnie Day sent in response to our questions, including the reference to schools no longer focusing on core academics but “fads of the day.”

Elliott Friesen and Lewis Point, the two other Parents Voice BC candidates in the district, did not respond to our emails.

Friesen’s candidate page speaks of his concern about “ideology” being taught in classes instead of academics, as well as believing family are the main educators.

Point, whose father Steven Point was B.C.’s first First Nations lieutenant-governor and is the current UBC chancellor, alludes to similar but vague concerns about the content taught in classes on his candidate page: “If a 10-year-old can’t watch an 18-plus movie at the movie theatres, why would something like that be allowed in classrooms.”

Fears that schools are showing students R-rated movies or using materials not appropriate for their age shows people don’t actually know what is being taught in classrooms, despite the fact that both the SOGI 123 learning resources and the B.C. curriculum are publicly accessible online, says Gallardo.

“When you are a teacher, your main concern is a lot of creating places that are inclusive, that are places of belonging for your students, so your students can be their authentic selves,” they said.

Tomorrow: How a social conservative slate is aiming to change the school board and council in one B.C. city.

Municipal elections take place Saturday, Oct. 15 throughout B.C. The provincial government has information about voter eligibility and voting in local elections.

With files from Tegwyn Hughes  [Tyee]

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