3 min

Mandating safer schools

Green Party runs gay teacher in Vancouver-Burrard

Credit: Jacques Gaudet

Green Party candidate Janek Kuchmistrz bikes to work every morning past the marginalized residents of the Downtown Eastside and it distresses him.

“I ride past the prostitutes in the industrial area at Clark Dr. I witness the drug use and I want us to do what we can to help everyone. No society has managed to cure all their social problems but I want us to do a better job than I feel we’re doing now,” the Vancouver-Burrard candidate says.

A teacher at the Roberts Education Centre for the past nine years, Kuchmistrz reflects on the issue that means the most to him: education.

“We need to end what happens in schools-the violence, the pushing, shoving into lockers. The students who feel despair and valueless and quit school.

“I’ve seen students in the past who’ve had to leave their high schools as gay, lesbian, questioning, whatever-queer students, because they didn’t feel they could continue their studies in that environment.”

A member of BC’s Gay and Lesbian Educators (GALE-BC) since 1995, the 41-year-old was active on campaigns in the 1990s encouraging the BC Teachers’ Federation to add anti-homophobia components to its policies, and later lobbied the provincial government to follow suit.

“Never happened,” he shakes his head. “We couldn’t get the NDP to do that. We pushed, we lobbied, we sent letters, met with the Minister of Education-nothing ever happened,” Kuchmistrz repeats.

He cites a need for positive role models for gay, lesbian and other questioning and transgendered students in public school curriculum. “You need books in the libraries at all grade levels that reflect the diversity of all families. Not just gay and lesbian, but all racial, ethnic, cultural groups.

“It has to be mandated so that the school boards can’t opt out of this, no matter where they are in the province,” Kuchmistrz continues. “And the government has to say ‘this is for the good of our society.'”

The BC Teachers’ Federation now offers sensitivity training workshops for educators, he notes, but only the Vancouver and Victoria school boards have passed comprehensive policies encouraging their districts to use the workshops and take other steps to make their schools safer for queers.

“We need to push those things forward in BC and that’s definitely what I would focus on as MLA,” Kuchmistrz says.

His vision of education also includes focusing on the very young, with full kindergarten across the province. He wants to have full days for 4-year-olds and younger so their parents, and particularly single parents, can work without daycare costs. He’d also like to develop parenting centres in schools “so there’s a place where a parent can go to for advice and help on how to better raise their child.”

Sounding very much like a former NDPer, Kuchmistrz finally spills it in a whisper. “I’ll make my confession now, I used to be a BC Liberal,” he chuckles.

“In 1995, I still felt that the party was generally a liberal party, the way I viewed a liberal party. It took me awhile to realize that it wasn’t really where my principles would be well reflected.”

The final straw came when, as a delegate to the 1999 Liberal party convention, Kuchmistrz questioned the speaker about spousal benefits for same-sex couples. “I asked him would the MLAs there support this? About six people heckled me for even asking a gay-related question. They said ‘that’s not the kind of party we are.’ It made me kind of think, you know?”

He used to think that working from within he could push the Liberals in new directions. “I thought you have greater ability to make things happen, effect positive change and results. Then I just kind of thought, you know, how really rational is that given the past history I’ve seen and what I’ve seen with other MLAs?”

The BC Liberals have got Ted Nebbeling who is gay, he points out, but “we never hear much about him doing anything for the community-not that his only focus should be our community.

“And then Lorne, too… look at his safe schools,” Kuchmistrz sighs and shakes his head. “He heads a task force and nothing concrete happens for people who suffer the most right now in schools-and I know that because I’m an educator.”