Despite cold, persistent rain and an eleventh-hour route change demanded by the city, hundreds of queers and their allies defiantly marched through Abbotsford Dec 6 to protest the school board’s withdrawal of Social Justice 12.
“I have a grandson who’ll be going into high school next year and I want him to think,” says Elva Atha at the march’s original gathering point in front of Abbotsford Community Services.
“I want him to be taught to think,” Atha continues, “I don’t want him to be taught what to think.”
Atha is one of about 200 people (including a busload of about 40 queer Vancouverites) who defied the City of Abbotsford’s last-minute demand that organizers change the march’s departure point or risk a $100,000 fine.
Rally co-organizer John Kuipers says city officials summoned him just two days before the march to inform him that the route had to change because more than 200 people were projected to attend —which would exceed the permit allowed for crossing a provincial highway
But Kuipers says city officials knew from the start that organizers could not anticipate how many marchers would participate, and advised them to get a highway use permit for 200 people or less anyway.
Abbotsford’s manager of bylaw and animal control, Gordon Ferguson, would not comment on the initial advice allegedly given. He says the route change was due to safety and legal concerns.
Escorted by police, the crowd left the Community Services building at 11 am, unfurling a stream of rainbows to march through town and across the highway overpass unopposed.
As the block-long contingent approached the corner of King Rd, apprehension rippled down the line as a second crowd came into view. But the concern that these were counter-protesters soon dissipated at the sight of PFLAG signs and the sound of cheers —not the anticipated jeers.
With placards and rainbow flags bobbing in the rain, the crowd’s chant of choice, “Rally in the Valley for Social Justice 12,” made its way in waves up and down the two sets of marchers who merged for the final half-mile hike to the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), the staging area for the rally.
Along the way several drivers honked their horns in support, one enthusiastic pickup truck driver delivering several long and loud horn blasts from a church carpark as marchers waved and cheered.
Other drivers chose to turn their heads or stare straight ahead as they drove by the march.
It’s important to “send a message of tolerance,” says marcher and Mission resident Greg Engh, bearing a sign that reads, “God is a Black Lesbian and she’s pissed with your bigotry.”
“It’s not just all groupthink here in Abbotsford,” Engh tells Xtra West. “There is different opinions, different worldviews and we need to take those worldviews seriously.”
Grade 12 Yale student and straight ally Hayley Schwarz agrees.
“We have a right to learn about everything,” she insists. “We’re a very mainstream school, and I think that’s why it’s important for us as a school to stand up for what’s right.”
Another Grade 12 student and straight ally, Leni Fitzgerald, says she’s hopeful Social Justice 12 will be offered because “it’s something that’s needed.”
“The Abbotsford school board saying it can’t be offered is discrimination itself,” she points out. “If they’re going to end that course or not allow it, then that’s kind of defying the purpose of the course.”
As the long line of marchers streamed onto the UFV campus, the first sign of opposition reared its head: a man seeking shelter from the rain under the Abbotsford Community Services booth said he saw the rally and what it stood for as a mark of “how twisted the world had become.”
“How can you be Christian and support this?” he asked Community Services’ Alison Wainwright, a rally participant and a self-professed Christian.
Some 20 minutes later, United Church of Canada member Connie Thompson addressed the crowd.
“The only time that I know of where Jesus, our founder, passed judgment was when he passed judgment on those who were the religious or the political authorities who claimed that they had it right and therefore looked down on or oppressed others out of their own so-called righteousness,” Thompson said.
“We care that there are some in our community, and particularly children and youth, who have said that they don’t feel accepted because they are different from the majority of people around them,” Thompson continued. “And we care that these children and youth have not found a place where they feel safe in discussing the ways in which they feel different from others in the classroom and neighbourhood.”
Thompson says she finds it “difficult to understand” why the Abbotsford school board pulled the Social Justice 12 course.
“I’m concerned because it invites [students] to learn all the diversity that exists,” she says, “and it invites them to realize those differences as normal and something to be celebrated.”
UFV sociology professor Martha Dow says the rally is “something Abbotsford’s never seen.”
“We may have called this a social justice rally; this is a Pride parade,” she says. “The Pride out here is palpable.”
Dow told the crowd she now drives her three children to school in Langley because she couldn’t “in good conscience send them to school in this district.”
“We are seeing the ugly face of bigotry in this community and we need to challenge it and reject it because it harms all of us who are committed to the potential of education to create an active and socially engaged citizenry,” Dow said, adding “we deserve that and our children deserve that.”
“The board is there to represent the community, that’s a given,” Dave Steven, the Abbotsford school district’s communications spokesperson later tells Xtra West.
“They have just been elected, or in some cases re-elected. They’re nominally to represent the community but other than that I don’t feel like I can start getting into if there’s particular segments that they’re representing,” he adds.
Asked if any of the trustees attended the rally, Steven says his understanding is that all trustees were at the BC School Trustees’ Association academy the day of the rally.
“I’m not aware anyone from the district [went] other than I know some teachers were there, and the head of our union was there,” he says.
Asked about the status of the board’s review of Social Justice 12, Steven says it’s ongoing, but adds his “sense of it was a six to eight-week timeline.”
“[The trustees] will have seen the media coverage of the event and rally and been very aware of it,” he notes. “Other than that I don’t feel it’s appropriate to comment.
“Because we may be under a Human Rights Tribunal, this puts us in an awkward position to be commenting on a lot of these areas,” Steven adds.
Gay education activists Murray and Peter Corren, who won a human rights settlement against the education ministry requiring the inclusion of queer content in BC schools in 2006, filed a complaint against the Abbotsford school board for dropping Social Justice 12 at one high school, WJ Mouat Secondary, in September. Mouat was the only school in the district to offer the course in the first place.
Mouat student Katie Stobbart spearheaded the student protest immediately after her school dropped the course. She too addressed the rally Dec 6.
“Social Justice 12 is not about teaching people to be gay,” Stobbart, who is straight, said to scattered laughter and applause from the crowd.
“What Social Justice 12 is teaching is that everyone is a person and deserves the right to be treated as one,” she continued.
“It restores some of my faith in the world that you are standing here,” she added, “because I can be assured in some way that you have chosen social justice as well, and judged it worth your time.”