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Gender + Sexuality

How Victoria’s Right-Wing Slate Targets What Kids Learn

VIVA’s candidates decry gender and sexuality initiatives and other efforts to make schools more inclusive.

Tegwyn Hughes 11 Oct 2022TheTyee.ca

Tegwyn Hughes is a Victoria-based journalist focusing on health, politics and equity. You can find her on Twitter @tegwynhughes.

Thirty candidates are battling to become school trustees in Greater Victoria. But much of the attention has focused on just six who are running on the VIVA Victoria slate and promoting a socially conservative agenda.

The group, which is also running seven candidates for council, says it believes "municipal representatives... should never bring pet projects or extreme ideologies to the decision-making process in city hall or at school boards."

Capital Daily reported some of the candidates for Greater Victoria’s School District 61 are or have been affiliated with the People’s Party of Canada, which has denounced vaccine mandates and backed the truckers’ occupation of Ottawa. Some VIVA candidates have also shared misinformation about vaccines and Canadian politics online.

In September, VIVA Victoria released a collective platform for its school trustee candidates, and each candidate has their own page on the VIVA website.

The Tyee asked VIVA Victoria if candidates were available for interviews, but the slate’s communications manager said none had the time.

Current Greater Victoria trustees and teachers say the language in some of VIVA’s online candidate profiles is a thinly veiled threat against equity-based initiatives in schools to ensure all students, including LGBTQ2S+ students, are safe and included.

In the B.C. curriculum, sex is not mentioned until Grade 9, while gender is referenced starting in Grade 4.

Candidate Salvetina Agba’s page on the VIVA website says she champions "the ability of parents to teach their children what is morally right according to their beliefs and values.” As a trustee, it says, she would foster an environment where "parents can have faith in their children getting an education that respects their faith, values, tradition and culture.”

On Sept. 20, Agba tweeted “I stand against sexualisation [sic] of kids! Leave the kids to their innocence! Let them be kids. Perverted adults leave them alone!”

A few days earlier on Sept. 17, she had responded to a tweet by Greater Victoria school board candidate Derek Gagnon, saying “I am against exposition of our kids to porn period!… Focus should be on education. Adult perverts should leave the kids ALONE.”

On her profile, candidate Leslie-Anne Goodall writes that she wants to get rid of "the pressure on children to follow an agenda that may not be inline [sic] with the families' values and beliefs" and would instead have "sex and gender education in any form offered as an optional program to the higher grades with full parental consent.” In fact, the curriculum requirements are set by the Education Ministry, not trustees.

VIVA trustee hopeful Roberta Solvey hopes to "encourage the return to dignity, modesty, privacy and reserve, and help children understand that good character is their most valuable asset.”

Solvey’s Twitter feed is mostly filled with anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and #TrudeauMustGo retweets, interspersed with a few campaign promises.

On Aug. 20, she responded to a post about celebrities and pedophilia, writing, “any curricula that sexualizes innocent children will be challenged if I am elected.” The day before, she retweeted a link to a Rebel News article that whipped up fears of “trans-pushing teachers” in the U.S. encouraging students to “gender transition.”

In a Sept. 28 Facebook post written in simplified Chinese, candidate Oliver Wu said elementary school gender and sexual education lessons are taught too early. He added students are being allowed to undergo sex-reassignment surgeries without their parent's consent. (In B.C., patients must be 19 to qualify for gender-affirming surgery, although exceptions can be made for younger patients with the consent of their legal guardians.) A similar post the same day in English did not include those statements.

Some community members say they are surprised VIVA Victoria exists in a city that’s considered fairly progressive.

But municipal candidates across B.C. are campaigning with a similar focus on countering inclusive school policies and promoting “parents’ rights.”

The main target of these candidates is the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity or SOGI framework for B.C. schools, and the accompanying SOGI 123 learning resource, which has been implemented by all 60 B.C. school districts since first being introduced in 2016.

‘I was pretty disheartened’

Cindy Bedi Ralph is an SD61 trustee candidate who is not affiliated with VIVA Victoria. She told The Tyee she believes VIVA members want to target inclusion policies in district schools.

Ralph has been planning to run for the local school board since 2018, inspired by her research into policy and legislation for special needs students and by having to advocate for her daughter, who has learning challenges.

She says when a friend sent her the link to VIVA’s website, it took her a few minutes to decode the candidates’ platforms.

“I felt a little confused by some of the language that was being used,” she said. “Faith and family values, traditions and modesty... I started to realize, ‘Oh, wow, OK, I'm connecting the dots on what this messaging is about.’ And I was pretty disheartened.”

As a parent of two, Ralph says she’s appreciated the culture of inclusion and acceptance in her daughters’ schools.

“What I've noticed through their experiences and being around the schools is that this generation of kids has come such a long way in their acceptance of each other, and in their abilities to feel seen and to be heard, to be included, to feel safe to express themselves,” she said.

The Canadian Anti-Hate Network is an independent organization focused on hate groups and hate crimes, with funding from a range of sources including the federal government.

On Sept. 22 it published an article about VIVA Victoria. It shared social media posts from trustee candidates Agba, Goodall and Solvey and outlined ties between VIVA leadership and the People’s Party of Canada.

“School boards are becoming the latest battleground in Canada’s culture war,” the article reads. Further research from the Anti-Hate Network shows Canadian religious organizations like Campaign Life Coalition and Parents as First Educators are creating voter guides, encouraging local candidates to run in school board elections and lobbying for social conservative school policies — all tactics borrowed from similar groups in the United States.

Most of the misinformation circulating in B.C. is related to the provincial government’s years-old commitment to SOGI inclusion.

In September 2016, the B.C. Ministry of Education announced that all B.C. school boards and independent school authorities were required to include sexual orientation and gender identity in district and school codes of conduct by the end of that year.

This change came because the B.C. Human Rights Code was amended in July 2016 to include gender identity and expression as prohibited grounds for discrimination. Sexual orientation was already a part of the code.

Schools are also required to appoint one staff member as a SOGI lead to help inform staff and incorporate discussions about discrimination and human rights into existing lesson plans.

Each school district can set specific policies, procedures and lesson plans incorporating SOGI, provided it follows provincial guidelines. SOGI 123 provides guidance for schools, including the SOGI-Inclusive Education Resource Guide. The guide helps teachers include sexual orientation and gender identity discussions in existing curriculum goals.

VIVA Victoria responds

Many other SD61 trustee candidates told The Tyee they believe the slate takes issue with SOGI resources and would implement policies that would harm LGBTQ2S+ students.

Alyson Culbert, who was a spokesperson for VIVA Victoria at the time of her interview, says its candidates simply want to move SD61 away from "political agendas.”

“The overall mission of the school board has been lost,” she said. “Many have had their own political agendas that they've been trying to push through — they've lost sight of their real purpose.”

Asked to elaborate on current trustees’ agendas, Culbert did not cite any specific examples. “Only one side of the story” is being taught to students, she said.

“Kids are not really learning how to research, how to have differences of opinion… and how to really critically think,” she said. “I just think that we're starting to see things become more and more politicized in the classroom.”

The Tyee asked Culbert to respond to other candidates’ claims that VIVA Victoria is against SOGI resources being provided to education staff and that it has transphobic members. She said the slate only has concerns the resource encourages staff to treat certain students differently.

“I wouldn't say we support it or we don't support it,” she said. “When you pick a very specific, identifiable group, and you make separate rules for them… I don't always understand the motivation for that.”

The B.C. Ministry of Education and Child Care’s materials about SOGI state that “SOGI is an inclusive term that represents all individuals regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.” Schools are not required to create separate policies for LGBTQ2S+ students under the SOGI framework.

Culbert also said immigrants may not agree with the SOGI approach.

“As we welcome more and more immigrants from around the world, and we have people from different cultural and religious backgrounds, they have different values in terms of how early their children should be learning about sexual issues. Some of them have concerns that the children are being exposed to explicit sexual material too early.”

Culbert was unable to provide any examples of explicit material in the Greater Victoria district, instead referencing a recent Ontario news story about a transgender teacher wearing prosthetic breasts.

In a text sent to The Tyee following her phone interview, Culbert also referenced a May 2022 incident where students in an Alert Bay elementary school kindergarten class were asked to “draw a picture of the private places where you can touch your penis or vulva if you want to.” Culbert emphasized that VIVA Victoria candidates had no interest in challenging policies under provincial jurisdiction. When asked to outline specifically how candidates would enhance parental choice if elected, she said the slate wants teachers to provide more transparency in course outlines about what children are being taught.

She said the school board should host open houses where parents and teachers can meet and noted parents in elementary school should be able to opt out of lessons about health and reproduction.

Culbert left her communications role with VIVA Victoria this week after evidence emerged suggesting she had used a fake account to pose as Island Health in an email to child-care providers endorsing VIVA candidates and a handful of others. In a statement, VIVA Victoria said the email was “a complete and utter surprise” to other members of the organization.

What trustees can do

School trustees do not have the power to amend provincial curriculum materials like sex education or overturn provincial education initiatives such as SOGI.

Further, many candidates’ ideas about how SOGI is implemented in school policies and lesson plans are unfounded, according to multiple educational professionals who spoke with The Tyee.

Greater Victoria teacher Kelli Kraft said SOGI does not have a major impact on lessons and curriculum. Instead, it’s incorporated into existing lessons.

Kraft, who uses both she and they pronouns, is a teacher at Spectrum Community School. She’s also the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance teacher sponsor and its SOGI lead — a role each school in B.C. is required to fill. According to the province, SOGI leads “raise awareness of SOGI within their schools by sharing, implementing and developing SOGI-inclusive practices and initiatives.”

Kraft says they’ve seen a fundamental misunderstanding of SOGI from both parents and teachers that’s led to confusion and misinformation.

“It's as simple as making sure that kids feel like they're being reflected in their curriculum,” she said. “It's as simple as making sure that other kids get a mirror into other people's lives so that they have empathy and humanity for those around them.”

The SOGI-inspired practices Kraft has seen teachers use in schools include asking students for their preferred name and pronouns at the start of the year, using gender-neutral pronouns in the occasional math problem and referring to their spouse as “partner” instead of “husband” or “wife.”

“We're simply tweaking our language to be more inclusive [and] acknowledging things that exist in real life,” they said. “People think it's a lot more indoctrination and ideology than it actually is.”

‘Ratcheting up of tensions’

While current trustees Jordan Watters and Ryan Painter believe the chance of VIVA Victoria gaining a majority of board seats is unlikely, they say any one trustee has the capacity to derail effective governance.

“Even if one VIVA Victoria representative were to get in School District 61, then conversation over the next four years becomes absorbed in this discussion,” said Painter, the current board chair, who is not running for re-election. “It allows the ratcheting up of tensions between a very fringe group of very vocal people who… don't fully comprehend what SOGI 123 is.”

Watters, who is running again this year, echoed Painter’s concerns and added seeing a trustee with harmful views would negatively impact parents and students.

She said LGBTQ2S+ students in particular could be impacted if members of their school board held harmful beliefs.

“If the leaders in their district question whether they exist, or whether they have a right to exist, that is going to cause damage and trauma.”

Ralph is frustrated by the space VIVA Victoria has already taken up in the election period and its focus on only a few issues.

“SOGI is a very important topic to discuss, and I was hoping that we would be able to discuss it from the point that the district is at currently.... But here we are, instead discussing if it should even be part of our schools,” she said. “I definitely believe there is potential for this topic to overrun the narrative of some of the other amazing trustee candidates and what they are wanting to bring forward.”

Ralph, meanwhile, is campaigning to improve the board’s governance structure, increase funding for special needs students and improve mental health resources in schools.

Among other candidates, support for SOGI

The Tyee spoke to 15 of the 24 trustee candidates not affiliated with VIVA and they all reiterated their support for SOGI resources and inclusivity in district schools.

“SOGI gives kids the language to understand themselves, their families, and the world around them,” wrote candidate Daphna Gelbart in an email.

Another trustee hopeful, Natalie Baillaut, said they’ve used SOGI resources as a teacher and “had productive and thoughtful conversations with students who always [brought] resources and knowledge of their own to the discussion.”

Jennifer Foster is one of several trustee candidates The Tyee spoke with who decided to run after learning about VIVA Victoria’s platform. Foster, who is queer and lives with her partner and daughter, says reading VIVA candidates’ statements about “ideology” and “tradition” showed her the board needs more visible LGBTQ2S+ members.

“Sometimes I really don't see myself in the politicians that are running,” she said. “I felt like I had this sort of unique perspective.”

As a queer mom who worked in schools over a decade ago, Foster says she’s been impressed with the progress B.C. has made regarding inclusive policies since she was an education employee. Her partner Reegan is an SD61 teacher and has kept Foster in the loop about SOGI, she adds.

Seeing how SOGI resources have been integrated into daily interactions at schools makes Foster excited for her daughter to enter the school system.

“I can't wait for my daughter to enter kindergarten knowing that her desire to explore her identity and her orientation is in a safe place. The teachers will be there to support her. I'll be there to support her,” she said. “Those same messages that we’re saying at home will be also supported in school. It fills my heart with joy.” Foster says she wants to ensure students feel safe and represented by trustees.

“School board trustees go to the school, Christmas concerts… to all the events,” she said. “I want all the queer kids to be able to see representation in their school board.”

The municipal election in Victoria takes place Saturday, Oct. 15, with citizens voting for one mayor, eight councillors, nine school trustees and three Capital Regional District directors. More information is at Victoria Votes.  [Tyee]

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