BC’s representative for children and youth is calling on the provincial government to implement a provincewide anti-homophobia policy.
“There’s great diversity in British Columbia, but one thing we see in every community is LGBT youth,” says Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who has served as BC’s youth advocate since 2006. “The supports have to be there.”
Turpel-Lafond called on the government to actively support gay youth as her office released an It Gets Better video on Nov 18 for National Child Day, featuring personal stories and words of support from gay British Columbians and their allies.
The representative for children and youth is an independent office of the legislative assembly that provides oversight to the Ministry of Children and Family Development but does not report through a ministry.
“This is above politics,” Turpel-Lafond says. “This is not about partisanship. This is about fundamental human rights and fundamental acceptance and inclusion.”
In a letter to Liberal Premier Christy Clark and Education Minister George Abbott, Turpel-Lafond endorses the aims of the recent Purple Letter campaign. “I join them in urging your government to implement a provincewide sexual orientation and gender identity policy for BC schools, to ensure LGBT students in all parts of BC are supported and protected,” she writes.
“As BC’s Representative for Children and Youth, I have an ongoing concern about the great harm that bullying and homophobia can cause to those youth who need and deserve our support. We need to help LGBT youth find their voice and encourage them to reach out to those who respect and support them.”
Turpel-Lafond says she is speaking out because she believes there are places in BC where the voices of queer youth are not heard.
“This is a conversation that needs to start between LGBT youth and services they have in their lives and important people in their lives,” she says. “We need to change this conversation so that they are heard.”
While the representative for children and youth advocates for all British Columbians under the age of 19, Turpel-Lafond’s emphasis is to oversee the well-being of children receiving government services, such as young people in foster homes, group homes and youth custody. She believes the message of the It Gets Better campaign is especially critical for queer youth in government care.
“I work closely with LGBT youth in care, and they face a very different process of questioning because they don’t always have the natural supports of family,” she says. “Sometimes they move around from place to place or live on their own before maturity because they are not supported. We need to carve out a space so their voice can be heard. They really need the support of their peers.”
Vancouver-West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert, who appears in Turpel-Lafond’s It Gets Better video, says he’s pleased to stand beside her as she calls on the Liberal government to take action. “If it’s going to get better, we have to make it better,” Chandra Herbert says. “Both of us called on the provincial government yet again to enact a BC-wide policy that explicitly protects lesbian, gay, bi and trans students in our schools.”
Chandra Herbert criticizes the Liberal government’s record on protecting and supporting gay youth. Only 15 of BC’s 60 school districts have anti-homophobia policies, he points out.
“In 2003 Christy Clark, as minister of education, released a task force on bullying which included zero recommendations on how to deal with homophobia and transphobia,” Chandra Herbert says. “Even though the report identified it was a huge problem, the government decided to do nothing about it then. Despite Christy Clark’s promises that dealing with homophobia in schools would be her top priority, she continues to do nothing and actually claims that every school has a policy to deal with it when that is clearly false.”
Chandra Herbert is hopeful that the representative’s voice will compel the government to act.
“So far we have Adrian Dix and the entire NDP caucus, the Pride Education Network, 15 of the school boards making this call as well, the BCTF and the district student council in Vancouver. Everybody seems to be onside except the Liberals. I’m hoping by having Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond raise this we may finally get action, but so far we just have denial from government,” he says.
Despite repeated calls spanning several days, Clark could not be reached for comment. But a spokesperson from the BC Education Ministry directed Xtra to an exchange in the legislature on Nov 23.
Chandra Herbert asked Clark in question period if she would implement a provincewide policy to ensure that queer students across BC have explicit protection.
“There is more to come on this,” Clark replied. “We are going to act on this. My government is going to make sure we do more to make sure that every child, as much as possible, is protected from bullying in their school. No matter what the cause or reason of that bullying, it is unacceptable.
“I’d say to the member: I welcome the opportunity to work with him and anyone else who’s interested in this issue. The only way we will defeat bullying is if we stand together united and say, ‘No matter who you are, no matter what side of the aisle you might sit on, bullying is not acceptable.’”