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BC faces opposition to queer teaching materials

They're asking us to teach intolerance: Quesnel chair

OBJECTIONABLE CURRICULUM?: Don Johannson thinks the Abbotsford school board was pressured by groups like the Catholic Civil Rights League to affirm parental control over what's taught in school. Credit: (Tallulah photo)

The Abbotsford school board is challenging the drive for queer-positive education, saying parents should have the final say over what their children are taught in the classroom.

The school district is becoming a test case in a curriculum revision battle that has been heating up since gay education activists Peter and Murray Corren reached an agreement last spring with the education ministry requiring inclusion of course material about queer lives in the BC curriculum.

In the wake of that agreement, school boards across British Columbia have been receiving a flurry of correspondence from the Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) demanding to know what stance and actions districts will take to ensure students are not compelled “to attend classes or lessons that their parents find morally objectionable or subversive or offensive with respect to their religious, moral and cultural traditions.”

In January, Abbotsford school trustee Korky Neufeld tabled–then withdrew–a motion that exactly mirrored the language of CCRL letters regarding parental rights over what their children are privy to in the classroom. Concern over legal liabilities the district might face led to the motion being tabled pending “further research.”

A month later, Neufeld opted for the less controversial route of introducing and gaining support for a motion affirming Principle 7 of the United Nations declaration on children’s rights. It states in part: “The best interests of the child shall be the guiding principle of those responsible for his/her education and guidance; that responsibility lies in the first place with his/her parents.”

The UN declaration-based argument is also one the CCRL used in its letter-writing campaign to school districts and the Ministry of Education to buttress its parental rights’ argument.

Abbotsford District Teachers’ Association president Don Johannson questioned the push to adopt only Principle 7 to the exclusion of the other nine principles.

At the next school board meeting Apr 23, trustee George Peary, who was not at the Feb 19 meeting when Principle 7 was passed, brought forward his own motion to affirm all 10 principles of the UN declaration. He was defeated 5 to 2.

Peary says he is “disgusted” with the defeat.

“The Corren agreement has got five of the trustees bent out of shape,” he says.

“What’s behind this is some parents who are against the Corren agreement and [are] paranoid over what is going to come out of it.

“They don’t understand that BC has a human rights code and a charter of rights and freedoms that [speaks to] inclusion, protections and accommodation. They choose selectively and ignore the stuff they don’t agree with. The law applies to everyone,” Peary contends.

“Why would you choose among the principles of the UN?” he asks pointedly.

“Either take the UN flag and wrap yourself in it, or discard it and say [you] don’t want it at all. But don’t clip a corner of it and say we’re going to hide behind this piece. It’ll look like Adam’s fig leaf,” Peary quips.

Johannson thinks the Abbotsford school board was being pressured by certain organizations, namely the Catholic Civil Rights League and the Christian Coalition of Canada. “I think it’s a special interest group that has come forward, claiming that they represent parents and the community of Abbotsford,” he told Xtra West in March.

It’s a claim one delegation of concerned parents denied prior to the Apr 23 meeting.

“We wish to make it known we are not affiliated with either the Catholic Civil Rights League or the Christian Coalition of Canada as suggested by Mr Johannson in the Xtra West nor were we pressured by any organizations to appear. We do so as concerned parents of the Abbotsford School District,” they told the board.

Meanwhile, the Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows school district has also been on the receiving end of “numerous letters” from the CCRL repeatedly asking the district to explain its position regarding parents’ rights.

CCRL also asked the district to spell out whether teachers will be able to exercise freedom of conscience if they are faced with having to “deliver curriculum material to which they object…”

At an October 2006 board meeting, Laurie Geschke, vice president of the conservative group REAL Women BC, presented four pre-prepared motions to the board. The first motion called for affirmation of Principle 7 only. The second requested a resolution that would guarantee parents’ ability to opt for alternative curriculum delivery if the subject matter is of a “sexually sensitive nature.”

The third called on the board to define “sexually sensitive” as broadly as possible, and required teachers to inform parents in writing and “well in advance of the teaching of sexually sensitive material.”

The last motion asked the board to write to the education ministry conveying district parents’ concern over the “oversight and influence given to an advocacy group” in the review of curriculum and the need for parental input in that process.

Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows is a very inclusive district, respectful of everyone’s beliefs and rights, according to board chair Cheryl Ashlie. The main focus is the kids and always the kids, she maintains, and the district “is not going to be narrowing [its] perspective in any way.”

Passing pre-formulated motions validating REAL Women’s position–motions the group could then use to lobby the government–was not an option, says Ashlie. The district is mindful it is in the business of public education, and “that means everybody,” she asserts.

Ashlie says the idea that the Correns have greater influence over the review process is not valid. Anyone can give feedback on the Social Justice 12 elective scheduled for introduction this fall, as well as other curriculum guides, she notes.

“We are managing our district. We are making sure students’ needs are met. We will work with parents if they have a problem.”

In Quesnel, district chair Caroline Nielsen acknowledges receipt of “multiple letters” from the CCRL, but says her board is not in agreement with what the group “is trying to bring forward.”

“We have replied a couple of times, and they don’t particularly get what we said, because we aren’t in 100 percent agreement with them.”

The CCRL is asking us to teach intolerance, she maintains.

The Quesnel board will deal with parents’ complaints, should any arise, on a case-by-case basis, Nielsen continues. But, she says, “it will never be our policy to further intolerance.”

President of Howe Sound Teachers’ Association John Hall says the board there “repeated thrice” to CCRL that it will comply with the BC School Act.

“We believe in public education here. It’s the ministry that controls what public education is and this board does believe it has the obligation to comply with the ministry. I don’t have a sense there is one trustee who’s in support of the kind of measure the CCRL is seeking.”

Vernon district chair Bill Turanski says BC’s secular school system has “an obligation to reflect values of accommodation, tolerance, respect for diversity and understanding of difference in accordance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

The CCRL’s letter-writing campaign isn’t gaining any traction in the province, contends James Chamberlain of Gay and Lesbian Educators BC.

“I don’t think trustees are bowing to pressure from the CCRL. They see CCRL as an agitated fringe group that is trying to manipulate the provincial curriculum,” says Chamberlain.

While he doesn’t see other school boards following the Abbotsford route, he notes there is still lack of leadership on the part of boards to make curriculum changes. There is no momentum because the ministry is not putting the onus on boards to make change, he argues.

“Even when curriculum guides are rolled out, teachers still have the professional autonomy to decide what objectives in the curriculum they are going to teach or not teach. And many teachers will continue to shy away from LGBT issues or ignore them unless they know a kid is in the room who is from a same gender family, or who is LGBT.”