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How one woman shook up Winnipeg schools

Influential lesbian school trustee looks back

Here’s a gay trivia question that you probably think you know the answer to, but I bet you don’t.

What openly gay politician elected in Winnipeg on Oct 28, 1998 went on to make breakthrough changes for the city’s queer community?

If you guessed Glen Murray, the first openly gay mayor of Winnipeg, you’re wrong. Murray lasted just under six years in office, and despite becoming a role model, never made queer issues a central focus during his time at City Hall.

Give up?

The real answer is Kristine Barr. The same night that Murray made news across Canada for his win, the then 26-year-old lesbian was quietly elected to Winnipeg’s biggest school board. But within months, Barr became one of the most outspoken and controversial politicians in Winnipeg history. Now, she’s regarded as a moderate, steady leader in the school division. As she looks back at 10 years in elected office, it’s easy for her to say what makes her most proud: her work on behalf of queer students and staff.

“It’s my biggest accomplishment as a school trustee,” she told me when we met for lunch a couple of weeks ago, “because it’s made a difference for people.”

I first met Barr a few weeks before she was elected, when I wrote an article about her for Winnipeg’s queer newspaper, then called Swerve. At the time, she was a recent graduate of the University of Winnipeg and one of the founders of Teen Talk, a support program for kids. Barr was single, leftwing and extremely politically engaged with everything from Take Back the Night marches to her local Unitarian church. But I was still shocked when she managed to get herself elected. I was even more surprised at how quickly she started speaking out for Winnipeg’s small, vulnerable gay community.

When Barr first proposed the idea of setting up a committee to fight homophobia in schools, it seemed like an innocent idea. Instead, she faced a public trial by fire of the kind most politicians never experience. Hundreds of angry people lined up at public meetings to denounce her, many of them quoting from the Bible. Open-line radio shows lit up for weeks, spewing hatred. Death threats poured into Barr’s tiny home, through letters and voice mails. For a young woman new to politics and the education system, with no media training, it was overwhelming.

Ironically, though, the force of the opposition actually worked in Barr’s favour. “The debate helped set the tone,” she says, and it helped prove to progressive people in the school division that homophobia was alive and well, and desperately in need of being addressed.

A number of positive initiatives came out of the debate. Now, it’s mandatory for all new school division staff to get two and a half hours of training on issues facing gays and lesbians. Students are taught about a wider range of sexual orientations than just heterosexuality in Family Life courses. And every school in Barr’s division gets a few hundred dollars a year to buy queer-related books and materials.

“Individual staff members come up to me and thank me,” says Barr today. “People are seeing that this type of work has made it easier for them to come out.” Creating a safer atmosphere for queer teachers and administrators has also had a trickle-down effect on gay and lesbian students.

“Whereas 10 years ago, students were hard-pressed to find someone from the community to work with them, it’s much easier now,” says Barr.

Barr also helped moderate the tone on Winnipeg’s airwaves. After a couple of shock jocks accused her of being a paedophile recruiting kids into the so-called “homosexual lifestyle,” she sued their radio station for defamation and won. Barr’s settlement was big enough to make “considerable donations to the community,” she says, including the Rainbow Resource Centre and the city’s Aboriginal AIDS Task Force. As a result of the case, Barr also decided to pursue a legal career. A portion of her settlement went towards her first year of law school.

For a few years after the initial controversy, Barr continued to get letters and Christmas cards from her anti-gay opponents, letting her know they were praying for her. But then they stopped. “I guess they got tired and moved on to other issues,” she says.

Today, Barr’s life is a lot different from when I first met her. She’s married now, to another lawyer, and they’re raising two kids together in the ‘burbs. She also just completed two years as chair of the school board. Whereas her original political impulse was to be “loud and radical” in order to effect change, she now feels that “grandstanding” only gets you so far.

I remind her of what happened a few years ago, when she discovered that her school division was distributing free Bibles to students. She immediately spoke out against the practice and landed on the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press. But the policy stayed. As chair, she brought up the issue again, this time behind closed doors. Finally, she got her way. Don’t ask her to talk about it, though. “I don’t really want the letters to start again,” she says.

Barr’s political influence has definitely helped improve the education system for kids in Winnipeg. And for a woman whose favourite quote has always been the old saying from Margaret Mead (“Never doubt that a small group of committed, thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”) her greatest lesson has been that it’s actually true.

The education system, says Barr, is a “big, unwieldy system. But if you have grassroots support, you can make a difference.”