News
4 min

Burnaby school board won’t extend deadline

'Gay is not a dirty word': parent

Some 40 students and their allies rallied outside the Burnaby School Board office in support of anti-homophobia policy 5.45 on May 24. Credit: Natasha Barsotti photo

“We think that we’ve given ample opportunity for people to have feedback,” Burnaby School Board chair Larry Hayes told media following a May 24 board meeting where critics of a gay-friendly policy called for a further 90 days to accommodate more consultation.  

Hayes said the June 3 deadline set to formally end consultations is sufficient to allow the board to receive the information it needs to review the policy and, “if necessary,” make changes.

But the policy’s critics continue to accuse the school board of having a “hidden agenda,” citing in part a lack of response to freedom of information requests pertaining to 5.45.

“We’re not hiding anything,” Hayes said, noting that staff is working on those requests. “There are thousands and thousands of pages that they’ve asked for,” he added.

“Are these public consultations simply a charade to make us feel like we’ve had our say on this matter?” asked Parents’ Voice member Gordon World. “It would seem to me that one way or another 5.45 is going through, either as is, or with a little makeup,” added World, one of nine persons who spoke either for or against the policy at the May 24 board meeting.

“There’s been material on our website right since we started this process,” Hayes later told the media. “We just made it more accessible to people because of the feedback that we have been getting from the community.

“We’re more than willing to accept feedback as we are doing [from] delegations and in emails,” Hayes added.

That said, the board is “not hearing really anything new,” he noted. “There’s the same concerns that we’re hearing from those opposed to the policy [and] also hearing the same issues of support from those supporting the policy.”

Like other 5.45 critics, World spoke of the “frightening and illogical” language of the policy, specifically citing its heading “Homophobia/Heterosexism” as something that “a rational person should find shocking.”

He says homophobia means “literally an irrational fear of man” or “an irrational fear of a homosexual or lesbian lifestyle.”

World said he didn’t hold an irrational fear of either but had “a rational fear of where this propaganda is coming from and where it’s headed if it becomes codified in District 41.”

In a riveting account of his own childhood confrontation with homophobia, Shahraz Kassam, who’s lived in Burnaby for over 30 years, argued in favour of 5.45.

A self-described Muslim-Canadian, Kassam said his classmates at a British school he attended in Africa found his accent “gay.”

“I was too young to know what I was – straight or gay,” he told trustees. “But like the protesters’ families here, my family spoke of gay people as abnormal, weird and not acceptable.”

“I was pushed into lockers, called a fag, gay, queer, Paki, Hindu and the list goes on.

“I was kicked in the stomach and punched,” he continued. “That pain is gone but the pain from the name-calling remains.”  More often than not, Kassam noted, he hid in school after the final bell, waiting for the bullies to leave so he wouldn’t get beaten up on the way home.

“Teachers never saw anything, the school board was not there for me, my fellow students were not there for me, and I never told my parents,” he recalled.

“In high school, I planned to kill myself,” he told the captive room.

“In a secular country, there’s an obligation to teach future leaders about tolerance and acceptance,” Kassam contended, not only so they can live among others in society, but also to “prepare them if they have a gay child to be better able to understand their child’s needs.”

The gate to education and knowledge has to “remain wide open,” he added. “Gay is not a dirty word.”

Another 5.45 critic, Belinda Bai, questioned why there was need for the policy when a code of conduct exists that already makes discrimination based on sexual orientation unacceptable. 

Hayes said it’s the board’s feeling that queers as a group “require some extra protection just as other groups [have] in the past.”

Hayes said he’s confident there’ll be “more and more” BC school districts looking to be proactive rather than reactive “when unfortunate incidents happen.”

“We’re trying to create safe and caring environments in our schools, and want to protect LGBTQ students, because statistics show that they do need protection in our schools and in our district.”

As the various delegations aired their grievances about or support for the proposed policy, 5.45’s supporters and opponents yet again staked out their respective turfs outside the school board, but in a markedly less confrontational manner than on May 10. This time, between 150 to 200 parents and religious-group members gathered near the back of a church parking lot opposite the board’s office, establishing some distance from the 40-odd students and their allies, some clad in pink T-shirts, who held up pro-5.45 placards on the grassy frontage of the board office’s property.

“My concern all along is that we were getting feedback from people who hadn’t even read the policy,” Hayes said.

“We can’t be responsible for people who are just against it without looking at all the facts,” he argued.

“Our job as elected trustees is to do what we feel is right for the district, for all our students, and that includes LGBTQ students who have been persecuted in the past,” Hayes said.

A May 24 school board release indicates that the policy committee will meet June 7 and 13 to review all feedback and “may make recommendations regarding possible adjustments to the draft policy.”

“We know what this policy wants to do and we don’t want to water it down to the extent that it becomes a non-policy,” Hayes told Xtra.

Hayes couldn’t say if a final vote is in the cards for either June 14 or 28.

“We’d like to have this done and put to bed by the end of the school year; that’s what we’re aiming for,” he said. “It depends on the work of our policy committee.”