Two leaders of the 2011 battle against the Burnaby school board’s anti-homophobia policy are running for office in the municipal election this November.
Former Parents’ Voice president and spokesperson Heather Leung and former school trustee candidate Helen Ward are running for school board and city council as part of the Burnaby First Coalition (BFC), which was established to challenge the ruling NDP-affiliated Burnaby Citizens’ Association (BCA).
BFC mayoral candidate and spokesperson Daren Hancott describes the new party as a pro-business, pro-sustainable development and pro-outreach alternative. “I’m going to try and do something that needs to happen to ensure that Burnaby is better represented at city hall,” he says. “In general, I want to change the culture with transparency, accountability and cooperation.”
Hancott, who abandoned his campaign for the Conservative nomination in the Burnaby North–Seymour federal riding to run for mayor, says he had no knowledge of Parents’ Voice’s stance on LGBT issues or the contentious debate that took place prior to his current campaign because his children were enrolled in private schools.
“I believe everyone is equal, and that is the premise of our policy,” he says. “I don’t know what happened in the past or the politics of it. We had discussions on lots of issues, and that’s not an election issue as far as I’m concerned. We are a multi-issue party. That issue has not come up in any of the meetings I have had with the general public, door knocking or during policy formation.”
Parents’ Voice formed to fight the passage of Burnaby’s anti-homophobia policy for schools. Despite several protests that attracted hundreds of opponents, the policy was unanimously adopted by the BCA-dominated school board. BCA subsequently won the mayoral race and took every seat on the school board and city council for the second election in a row.
Hancott downplays Parents’ Voice’s involvement with the new coalition and says they are not a “big part” of BFC. He says the new party’s support base consists of Conservatives, Liberals, Greens, independents and “a couple” of NDPers.
“I would say that human rights, dignity, acceptance and respect are pretty big issues,” says BCA trustee Larry Hayes, who was chair of the Burnaby school board in 2011. “And guess what, Mr Mayoral candidate: these are your people. Your team are people who have shown to have those Neanderthal ideas. So I think it’s something he certainly should be taking a lot more seriously.”
Initially, two former Burnaby Greens candidates were also involved with the new coalition, but Hancott says they were never board members or candidates and they are no longer involved with the BCF.
“The Green Party was not involved with this at all,” says Carrie McLaren, a former Burnaby Greens candidate. “It just happened to be a couple of us who were former candidates with the Burnaby Greens talking to all former non-BCA candidates trying to get a united opposition in Burnaby. We basically offered our previous policies to the rest of the group, saying, ‘Here are some good ideas. Run with them.’”
Adriane Carr, a Vancouver Green councillor, describes LGBT equality as a “make or break” issue for the Greens and says the party would never enter into any sort of coalition with a group like Parents’ Voice.
“This is so completely out of line with Green Party values that are deep and long-held,” Carr says. “Our commitment to support diversity and ardently support LGBT rights goes back to our constitutional beginnings. We were the first party to stand up nationally in support of same-sex marriage here in Canada, as well as Australia. So for me it was a shock, and I’m very happy to see that the Burnaby Greens and those individuals are not at all associated with that coalition any longer.”
BFC school board candidate Heather Leung, former president of Parents’ Voice, did not agree to Xtra’s request for a telephone interview prior to our deadline.
In her campaign biography she claims to have a “moral obligation to work with parents, to help protect their inherent right to primacy in the education of their children.” She also says she will protect parental rights and the moral integrity of children and ensure parents are notified in advance of any controversial lessons, speakers or events taking place in their child’s classroom.
Leung does not define what might count as controversial, but in June 2011, she described the passage of Burnaby’s anti-homophobia policy as “the darkest day of the Burnaby School Board history.”
“It is an irresponsible act to pass this policy,” she told Xtra at the time. “Administration, regulation and strategy in this policy — it opens a big window for the pro-gay community to recruit, recruit, recruit our children into their camp. In the meantime, they ignore the health risks behind it and the medical-expense burden in this country.”
Hancott says that even though Leung’s statement was neither useful nor helpful, she has a right to her beliefs. “Heather is a parent and her kids are in Burnaby schools, and all parents are entitled to their beliefs,” he says.
While he describes the passage of the anti-homophobia policy as a “foregone conclusion” and says he has no plans to revisit it, BFC council candidate Helen Ward says it should be amended to clarify the rights and duties of parents with respect to the education of their children.
“I’ve been working on kids’ and parents’ issues for many years, and the incursion of the state into the family sphere is increasing,” Ward says. “It’s important to respect parental authority over child-rearing. If you want a democracy, that’s a pretty baseline view, and all those agreements affirm that.”
She also believes the policy should be expanded to protect students who are bullied for reasons outside the scope of the BC Human Rights Code. “I think schools are legally concerned with their liability and certain words don’t trigger the Human Rights Code, so they are less concerned about other terms like ‘loser,’ ‘jerk’ or ‘obese.’”
Hayes says there are many opportunities to get involved in school activities and planning but notes that he has not seen any of the former Parents’ Voice members at school board activities since the last election. “I don’t begrudge people for putting their names forward and being part of the community to make a difference,” he says, “but sometimes it does amaze me how some people crawl from under the rocks every three years. As far as the school board is concerned, there’s ample opportunities for parents to attend meetings, committees, become involved, provide input and to help whatever situations that the groups feel need help.”