4 min

Activists hold social justice conference in Abbotsford

Last fall's rally galvanized people: Dow

 Just days after the Abbotsford School Board decided to allow its secondary schools to offer Social Justice 12 this fall, educators, students and parents gathered to debate the tension between sexuality and religion, and the place of parental consent in education, at a social justice conference in the district.

“Let’s be very clear that when we talk about sexual orientation, we’re talking about the very basic human right we have to have a close, personal, confiding, intimate relationship with the person we choose to  — whether that person is of the same sex or the opposite sex,” author and conference keynote speaker Alex Sanchez told an audience of about 160 persons Feb 20.

“Nobody else’s particular religious or moral views  — whether they be Christian, Muslim, or anything else  — gives them the right to stop another human being from pursuing that basic human right,” says Sanchez, who was raised Catholic and is gay.

People’s right to their religious beliefs in their own lives does not allow them to impose their religious beliefs on others through “censoring school discussions on the topic of sexual orientation, which was attempted here by the withdrawal of SJ 12.” (See page 13)

Analyzing the issue in terms of religious positions is divisive and beyond resolution, he adds, saying the focus should be on making schools safe for all students.

But learning is not safe and “shouldn’t be,” says Martha Dow, a lesbian sociology professor at the University of the Fraser Valley.

“What I would argue is we need to decide who we want to silence, and it’s not a very comfortable conversation for everyone,” she told the conference during her workshop.

“As we give voice to people who haven’t had a voice, we will create a great deal of angst for our students and we need to find some care for them as we create… not safety.

“If my students leave feeling comfortable, then I have not done my job,” she says.

Dow also raised the controversial issue of the place of parental involvement in their children’s education.

While she supports the idea of bringing parents into the conversation, what educators need to work out is how to let students know their parents’ beliefs can be discriminatory and hurtful  — “and that’s hard,” she admits.

“When Johnny and say, Mom or Dad or Mom and Mom, come and you have the conversation, the way I’d have that conversation is making sure you have principal support [and] administrative support because that conversation is not going to go terribly well  — likely,” Dow advises.

Following her workshop, Dow told Xtra West that she’s seeing a shift in people’s awareness and attitudes in Abbotsford following the Dec 6 social justice rally to protest the district’s withdrawal of the Social Justice 12 course last fall.

“It was tremendously important in terms of young people and adults realizing they could have a voice around what is seen as a very contentious issue,” Dow says.

“And then to have a result,” she continues, referring to the district’s recent decision to reinstate the course. “You don’t generally see a result happen this quickly, so the fact that the board has now said that they will offer it…

“I mean, what does that look like, in what schools, how will they do the enrollment  — all of those sorts of things are still out there,” she points out. “And certainly the parental consent question,” she adds.

In a Feb 10 press release, the school board stated that the “sensitive nature” of some of the course content requires students to get parental consent before enrolling.

Dow says the post-rally climate and the recent board decision to offer the course have galvanized people. “I think now what you’re seeing is people saying, ‘Okay, well that happened and now we’re not satisfied with the parental consent aspect of this, so we’re not actually done.’

“We’re going to now push and say, ‘Well, I don’t think that’s a reasonable qualifier in terms of offering it.’

“I think in times past there would be such amazement that the board actually agreed to offer it that people would feel completely satisfied around that outcome  — and people aren’t,” Dow notes.

WJ Mouat student Katie Stobbart, a principal organizer of the first student protest against the board’s pulling of the elective last fall, says she’s happy students will soon be able to take the course  — “even though I wasn’t able to take it.”

She say it’s “a little ridiculous” that parental consent is required for students to take the course because of its “sensitive nature.”

“I’d like to know what they think that sensitive nature is  — if they’re referring to the content of the course that’s about cultural imperialism, social responsibility or homosexuality, for example,” she wonders.

“And isn’t deeming that such content as homosexuality, for example, or sexual orientation is sensitive, isn’t that discrimination itself?” Stobbart asks.

She too says there’s been a “huge ripple effect” in Abbotsford as a result of the protest actions last fall.

“It’s got people talking, and even if it’s negative talking there are people talking and addressing these issues that before were swept under the rug,” she says.

“Even this social justice regional conference  — which who knows if it would have even happened if the rally and the awareness of these issues had not taken place,” she adds.

Stobbart says one of the developments that has taken place is the formation of a new network, the Fraser Valley Social Justice Society (FVSJS), tasked with creating space for those who are marginalized to have their voice heard. Stobbart is the organization’s secretary.

Noble Kelly of Gay and Lesbian Educators BC predicts the momentum from the Abbotsford experience will provide the impetus for more schools to offer Social Justice 12.

“I think more schools who have been on the fence  — school boards that have been on the fence  — are going to watch and say, ‘You know what? Okay, let’s see what we can do to offer this course,’” Kelly speculates.

The next step, he adds, is ensuring more follow-up and reinforcement regarding codes of conduct. He says it’s not enough for government to say it passed legislation that refers to the BC Human Rights Code and that they’ve done their part.

“They’ve given some tips and some advice and some information on how to go about creating that code, but again they just left it up to the school boards to do it,” Kelly says. “They should actually go out there, find out which ones are doing it, who’s doing it effectively, use those as models and samples, and show the rest of the boards  — if they’re not doing it  — how can we help you as a government to do it,” he suggests.

“I think that’s the aspect that needs to be stepped up a bit.”