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Gay youth vying for vacant school board seat

Ward 17 trustee by-election set for Feb 27

Tyler Johnson is running for trustee in the upcoming Toronto District School Board by-election Feb 27. Credit: Courtesy of Johnson

If elected on Feb 27, Tyler Johnson, 23, will be the youngest trustee in the history of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).

As a gay youth, Johnson says he can relate to many of the everyday struggles students experience. Johnson’s personal story includes time spent homeless on the streets of Toronto — he was kicked out after his stepmother found out he is gay.

The former Pride Toronto youth coordinator is one of 12 candidates running in the upcoming Don Valley East by-election.

“I represent a very diverse minority group, and I have experienced a lot of what our students are experiencing, such as single-parent families, homelessness, and I am a queer youth of colour,” he says.

Johnson grew up in poverty, moving through 14 different schools from kindergarten to Grade 12. 

At age 16, Johnson was kicked out of his family home because he is gay. That’s when he moved into Covenant House. “That drastically changed my life. They got me a job, housing and I started getting involved in the community.”

Two years later, in 2007, he was approached by TDSB chair Chris Bolton who offered him a job in his office. Johnson quickly seized the opportunity.

Working at the TDSB sparked a passion for education, and Johnson decided to work to make schools more inspiring and accepting places.

“I want all students to feel welcome, but the reality is we still have a lot of homophobia at our schools,” he says, noting he will champion increased supports, such as gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and anti-homophobia events.

In 2011 the Toronto Star called Johnson “one of the new faces in gay activism” for his involvement in the Proud of Toronto Campaign, which tried to raise awareness about looming cuts to city services, including Pride and other queer and HIV/AIDS community groups. As a coordinator with PT, Johnson led the largest ever youth contingent in the Pride parade.

The previous trustee in Don Valley East, Michael Coteau, held the seat since 2003 and was elected as a Liberal MPP in the riding of Don Valley East in October.

Coteau is not offering Johnson an endorsement. “[Coteau] says there are lots of Liberals running, so he prefers to stay out of it,” Johnson says. 

He says the by-election may be postponed if city staff contract talks trigger a labour disruption. “Either that or management will have to run the election, which I highly doubt will happen. If there is [job action] the election will be put off until the workers are back.”

City contracts officially ended Dec 31, affecting more than 30,000 workers. Johnson says he thinks workers will be locked out in about a month.

This will be Johnson’s first bid for a trustee position. He has spent the past five years working behind the scenes at the TDSB reporting to several trustees. He is currently an executive assistant under Ward 5 trustee Howard Kaplan.

Bolton is not offering an endorsement either, says Johnson, “because of his position as chair.”

Johnson says he is worried about overcrowding in Ward 17 schools. “One school is 150 percent overenrolled. So they have a lot of portables.”

He promises to work to ensure schools are not flagged for closure. While no schools have yet been on the chopping block, he says about four schools are vulnerable.

Johnson says he will also continue to fight cuts to education in the city budget. “Ford has attacked the TDSB by targeting our student nutrition programs and city-funded pools.”

The budget process will continue next week, with final recommendations from the budget committee on Jan 9. The executive committee will review the budget on Jan 12, and council votes Jan 17, 18 and 19.

Also running in Ward 17 are Victor Beausoleil, Alexander Brown, Alan Burke, Robert Cerjanec, Sam Ghose, Fil Giannakopoulos, Sean-Michael Harrison, Mary Hynes, Ken Lister, Harout Manougian and Karthik Suriyacumaran.