When Ellen Chambers Picard found out her son Gabe was being viciously bullied every day at his high school, she took action, beginning a five-year battle to make schools in Thunder Bay safer places for gay, lesbian and trans students.
It isn’t just the Lakehead District School Board that has changed as a result. Thanks to her fierce activism, Thunder Bay will celebrate its first ever Pride this summer. Not bad for a mom on a mission.
“I knew damn well he wasn’t the only student in Canada that experienced this,” says Ellen, proudly holding up the board’s positive-space action kit. “Schools have a duty to ensure all students are safe.”
Ellen told her story to a roomful of hundreds of teachers at And Still We Rise, a women’s conference for members of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) at the Royal York Hotel on Feb 11. At the end of her inspiring story, every teacher stood and cheered.
Gabe sat at a table in front, beaming at his mom as she spoke. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
“Because of my mom, students don’t have to go through what I went through,” Gabe tells Xtra. Overcome with emotion, he wipes away tears and continues, “It’s really cool. I’m just so proud.”
Ellen’s venture into activism started in 2003 when Gabe, then 17, came home from school and told his mom he’d been kicked out for fighting; he had smashed another student against a locker. Gabe had had enough of being called a fag.
Gabe said to his mom, “Please make this go away. Don’t let this happen to anyone else.”
The next day, Ellen – then an elementary teacher – marched into the office demanding answers. A school staffer asked, “How was your son teased?”
“This isn’t teasing,” she shot back. “This is abuse.”
It was suggested that Gabe change schools. “Why should he have to change schools? I didn’t know anything about this. My son taught me everything.”
The vice-principal told Gabe it was impossible to change the school culture. “So I told the vice-principal that if she couldn’t change the culture she failed as an educator. I was a bit of a smart-ass,” Gabe, now a plucky 25-year-old, tells Xtra.
“It was a dark time. It was awful. No one wants things thrown at them or to be called a fag, but I was never one to be a victim.”
Ellen wrote searing letters, slamming the school’s lack of action. In 2004 she filed the first of two Ontario Human Rights complaints against Lakehead District School Board because the board had failed to take any measures to protect Gabe from bullying.
“I became obsessed,” she admits. “It’s all I talked about. In my house, it became known as ‘the complaint.’”
Her family started to worry about her. “They asked, ‘Ellen, is this good for you?’ This is very good for me. I need to do this for my son. I just knew I was right and they were wrong.”
She worried she would jeopardize her job, which was with the same board. But in the end she didn’t care. Her son was more important.
“I became a teacher because I wanted to change the world,” she says, a ferocious look in her eye. “My son was harassed since the age of eight. I didn’t see it and neither did his teachers. Where was I? Obviously not paying attention.”
Gay, lesbian and trans students should be visible at school, she says. “Can you imagine going to school from junior kindergarten to Grade 12 and not seeing any gay boy or girl in class, not one in any of the stories, not one in the history books?
“There wasn’t one textbook approved by the Ministry of Education with a picture of two boys holding hands. Not one book telling the story of a family with two moms. No wonder gay kids feel isolated.”
Together she and Gabe pushed for gay-straight alliances (GSA) in all four Thunder Bay public high schools. “The school board lied to us. There were no GSAs in any schools.”
When Gabe was in Grade 12, they went public. The normally media-shy family held a press conference. Ellen had grown frustrated with the board’s lack of action.
“My son was outed on the front page of the local newspaper,” she says. “There was both backlash and support from the community. What upset me most was we didn’t get one call from any of Gabe’s teachers.
“Anytime someone calls you a fucking faggot, go public.”
Gabe took his mom to gay dances, drag shows and queer youth groups. She immersed herself in gay culture. “I met so many queer youth. These are fabulous kids.”
The students who joined the newly created GSAs became leaders in their schools. “The kids are fine. It’s the adults that were holding everything back,” she says.
“I learned this is a heterosexist world,” she says. “It gets better? We have to make it better.
“Through it all I was driven by my son’s courage. It’s been seven years since the first complaint. The board was supposed to train teachers in recognizing homophobia. They still haven’t done that yet. So the fight continues.”
As a result of her astonishing advocacy, Ellen was honoured with the ETFO’s humanitarian award. She’s no longer a teacher; she is now the local ETFO union president.
Today high school teachers in Thunder Bay participate in an anti-homophobia workshop; there are lesbian, gay, bi and trans resources at each school; every high school has a GSA; human rights are discussed at every staff meeting; and schools have dedicated anti-homophobia trainers.