Socially conservative school trustee candidates made a lot of noise during the recent municipal elections about "parental rights" and taking “political ideology” out of classrooms.
Yet when the dust settled, just a handful of those candidates were elected to school boards.
In Chilliwack — where most of the backlash against Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, or SOGI, lessons and supports in schools has been centred since 2017 — voters rejected three of the four most vocal opponents and elected Teri Westerby, who is thought to be the first trans man elected to municipal office in Canada.
“My running brought a lot of attention to what’s been going on in the schools and a lot of the anti-SOGI rhetoric, because I know that the misinformation was rampant,” said Westerby, who credited his win to trans and queer advocates who came before him.
The Chilliwack school board, once known for its anti-SOGI trustees, now has a board that consists of Westerby and more women than men. The board also includes another LBGTQ+ trustee. This shows most Chilliwack voters don’t support the anti-SOGI message, says Westerby.
Harper Keenan, the Robert Quartermain assistant professor of gender and sexuality research in education at the University of British Columbia, agrees.
“I think that when people think about public education, they are prioritizing things like the safety, well-being and academic development of their children and the children in their communities,” said Keenan. “And the idea of adults bullying marginalized kids is not as popular as some conservative or right-wing folks might like to believe.”
Richard Procee, who was also elected to the seven-person Chilliwack school board on Oct. 15, was one of three out of 28 candidates running under the ParentsVoice BC platform in several districts who were successfully elected to schools boards. Carroll Walker and Daniel Albertson in the Nechako Lakes school district were the other two.
This election was the first time ParentsVoice BC, an “electoral organization” started by Marc Vella, who has ties to the Conservative Party of Canada, put forward candidates in school board elections.
Running under the pledge to “Take Back Our Schools,” ParentsVoice BC candidates were supposed to be independent and non-partisan. But their near-unifying belief was that parents deserve the right to dictate what their kids learn in school.
The candidates were careful not to include explicit anti-SOGI statements on their campaign pages. But they were less vigilant outside of election time.
For example, Daniel Albertson and his brother Terah Albertson, who also ran for the Chilliwack board but lost, made a presentation to the school board last October about their opposition to schools holding an anti-homophobia, biphobia and transphobia day, as well as claiming “Caucasian” children were harmed by learning Indigenous history.
And Teresa Docksteader, in a speech at a rally held during her campaign for the Central Okanagan school board that was posted to YouTube earlier this month, said: “There’s a male and a female flower, there’s a male and a female human. That’s science, those are facts, we cannot change facts.”
The ParentsVoice BC website argues education should not include “trends of the day,” or “hot-button issues such as sex, race, and schools [sic] response to COVID-19, with little or no input from parents or the local community.”
Such statements are thinly veiled calls for censorship of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, Two Spirit, or LGBTQ2S+, community, says Kristopher Wells, the Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth at MacEwan University.
“And you see this in particular happen by the kind of content that these groups are challenging,” he said.
The motivation for the censorship, Wells added, is the discriminatory belief that simply telling children about queer and trans people will make them queer or trans.
“[It’s] this notion that somehow 2SLGBTQ is a contagion, a disease or a pathology that you must protect children from,” Wells said.
The start of SOGI angst
This is the second municipal election in a row in which SOGI lessons and supports in schools have been a campaign issue.
The pushback started in earnest in 2016 when the B.C. Ministry of Education directed all 60 school districts and private schools to update their anti-bullying policies to include gender identity and sexual orientation as a prohibited grounds for discrimination — along with race, religion, place of origin, Indigenity, disablity, sex and other identities — under the BC Human Rights Code.
Then, in 2017, the ministry introduced SOGI 123 learning resources, teacher professional development, and school and district policy templates. SOGI 123 provides optional, age-appropriate learning resources teachers can use to introduce sexuality and gender identity content into their lessons.
For example, kids in elementary schools can learn about different family structures, pronouns, gender expression and gender stereotypes. High school students can learn about intersex individuals, Indigenous perspectives on gender and how gender roles have changed over time.
Created through a partnership between the ministry, the ARC Foundation, the BC Teachers' Federation, the University of British Columbia and some school districts themselves, SOGI 123 is not part of the province’s curriculum and as such is not mandatory to teach.
During the last municipal campaign in 2018, three of the five trustee candidates in Chilliwack who ran on platforms that included their opposition to SOGI resources and supports in schools were elected. In Richmond, one anti-SOGI trustee was elected out of the three who ran.
But even though the SOGI 123 resources are available online for anyone to read, misinformation about the lessons and what they include has not stopped.
“I think that there’s often a fear around the idea that someone is sexualizing childhood or exposing children to adult content,” said Keenan, adding it often comes from people removed from the day-to-day realities of kids and what happens in their classrooms.
“We hire, as a province, excellent teachers who received excellent education on how to take any topic and talk about it with their students in an age-appropriate, developmentally appropriate way. And there’s certainly a way to do that with gender and sexuality.”
SOGI is not sex education
ParentsVoice BC did not have a monopoly on candidates citing support for parental rights in the 2022 election.
In Abbotsford, Mike Rauch and Jared White, who created their own Partners in Education Abbotsford slate, both won seats on the school board. White, whose concerns about parents’ rights in education extended to boards not consulting parents about school reconfigurations and catchment area rules, told The Tyee he liked the anti-bullying messages in the SOGI 123 learning resources.
But White, who previously served as the spokesperson for Abbotsford Right to Life in the early 2010s, said he disliked the introduction of the concept of sexual attractiveness in Grade 4. While the SOGI 123 lesson plan doesn’t specifically mention anything about sexual attraction, White points to a poster, often referred to as the Genderbread Person, that is suggested as a resource, which does include mention of sexual attraction.
“I value that many things in this resource help students that identify as LGBTQ feel respected, protected and valued,” White wrote in a subsequent email to The Tyee.
Reg Krake, executive director of the ARC Foundation, says some parents critical of SOGI 123 sometimes confuse SOGI 123 resources with sex ed.*
“Sexual health education is an established component of the school health curriculum in B.C., whereas SOGI 123 is a set of tools and resources to help create safer and more inclusive schools for students of all sexual orientations and gender identities,” he told The Tyee via email.
“SOGI 123 does not ‘take away’ from delivering math, language arts, social studies, or other core elements of the curriculum; it is simply a set of resources to help incorporate SOGI-inclusivity into teaching practices.”
Korky Neufeld, an incumbent trustee on the Abbotsford board, was also re-elected. When he ran in 2018, Neufeld, a former pastor and Conservative Party of Canada federal candidate, campaigned explicitly against SOGI resources in schools.
This election, Neufeld was more subdued, starting his platform with a pledge to respect parents’ “fundamental right” to be directly involved in their children’s education.
When asked by The Tyee for his position on SOGI 123 resources and supports for students, Neufeld wrote via email: “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.”
In Greater Victoria, all six VIVA Victoria trustee candidates lost their races. The new party, which has ties to the right-wing People’s Party of Canada, put out a sparse education platform that included the statement “parents are the primary stakeholders in their children’s education.”
But individual candidates spoke — without evidence — of "perverted adults" exposing their children to pornography in school, and referenced wanting to make sex education optional and only taught with parental consent in the secondary school grades.
Most Independents unsuccessful
Not every candidate with anti-SOGI views ran on a slate or with a political party. Cathy Fortin, who ran and lost as an Independent candidate in Prince George, told a debate audience this election that SOGI resources should be banned from schools and that anti-racism initiatives only made racism worse.
In Kamloops, unsuccessful Independent trustee candidate Jennifer Rowse made headlines for her Facebook post stating Satan created genders outside the man/woman binary, her desire to cancel sex education in schools and her plan to ban several books from school libraries for their gender, sexuality and anti-racism content.
Incumbent Chilliwack trustees Barry Neufeld, Darrell Furgason and Heather Maahs shared similar views on book banning in a podcast appearance this past June, with Maahs accusing one young adult book of “grooming” children.
In August, Neufeld and Furgason encouraged their supporters to file RCMP reports against “woke” trustee candidates for “sexualizing children” and allowing “pornography” in schools.
All three, along with trustee candidate Kaethe Jones, have repeatedly shared their anti-SOGI beliefs in public. Neufeld, whose 2017 anti-SOGI Facebook post led to calls for his resignation by his fellow trustees, the head of the BC Teachers’ Federation and the province’s education minister, is currently waiting for a Supreme Court of Canada decision on whether his defamation lawsuit against former teachers’ union president Glen Hansman — who called Neufeld transphobic and said he should not be around children — can go ahead.
Only Maahs, who told moderators during a televised election debate that she was “offended” by the suggestion systemic racism existed in district schools, won re-election.
In Vancouver, Independent candidates Karin Litzcke, Zelda Levine and Amanda Tengco ran explicitly transphobic campaigns, spoke out against COVID-19 mandates and anti-racism efforts in schools, and claimed SOGI 123 “sexualizes” children. None were elected.
Josh Zhang, a trustee candidate with ABC Vancouver, was part of the party’s successful wave of hopefuls elected to the Vancouver School Board this election. He sparked some controversy early in the campaign when screenshots appeared of transphobic tweets Zhang’s account had liked. Zhang maintained he and his fellow trustee candidates support SOGI 123 resources being used in schools.
ABC Vancouver trustees, who now hold five of the nine school board seats, campaigned on remaking and returning the School Liaison Officer program to Vancouver schools, which had stationed 17 police officers in public schools for nearly 50 years.
In 2021, the then-board voted to cancel the program — operated by the Vancouver Police Department — after consultations with students, parents, teachers and the public revealed more than half of Indigenous respondents and 60 per cent of Black respondents viewed the program negatively because of bad experiences with or anxiety around police officers.
‘We need to be watchful’
No matter what ideology trustee candidates campaign on, there are safeguards in place to ensure that no school board can ban age-appropriate books, SOGI 123 lessons plans or stop following the provincial curriculum at the demand of parents.
Yet despite their heavy losses, ParentsVoice BC is already fundraising to put more so-called "parental rights" candidates on the school board ballot for the 2026 municipal elections.
Even though he received more votes than any Chilliwack candidate who promoted anti-SOGI views, Westerby does not think this will be the last time SOGI 123 and supports for queer and trans kids in schools will be an election issue.
“Progress is a bit of a pendulum, because we make progress, like today: everyone’s excited and we get complacent, thinking, ‘We’re moving forward, why would we need to vote?’” he said. “So then the voter turnout is low again and we see the hate rise up again.”
With a voter turnout of less than 25 per cent in Chilliwack this election, Westerby believes many voters were effectively disenfranchised by having to research 41 candidates for 14 positions on top of dealing with rising inflation, high gas prices, unaffordable housing and other daily concerns.
MacEwan University’s Wells adds that transphobic and homophobic candidates get a boost from what’s happening in the U.S., where Republican politicians at the local and state levels have introduced and passed bills preventing teachers from saying the word “gay” in schools, banned books and labelled gender-affirming health care as child abuse.
“I think we need to be watchful and we need to be vigilant and not take the rights that we have here and we fought for in Canadian society for granted,” Wells said.
“Because we know that they can go backwards. This is why school board elections matter.”
* Story updated on Nov. 10 at 2:33 p.m. to clarify Jared White’s position on SOGI 123 resources and to correct an error stating sexual attractiveness was not covered in SOGI 123 resources.