Gay education activists are outraged at the BC Liberal government, and particularly its education minister and gay MLA Lorne Mayencourt, for passing what they consider to be toothless safe schools legislation that does nothing to protect queer youth from verbal and physical bashing.
The entire Liberal caucus voted May 15 to pass Bill 22 into law without any reference to sexual orientation or gender identity as protected categories.
The opposition NDP voted against the measure, also known as the Education Statutes Amendment Act, after attempting in vain to attach two amendments to it.
The first of the two amendments brought by NDP education critic David Cubberley asked that school district codes of conduct “explicitly protect students from homophobic bullying.”
The amendment was defeated, with all Liberals, including Mayencourt, giving a thumbs-down to the motion.
Cubberley tried again. This time he proposed that codes of conduct “be consistent with the principles of the BC Human Rights Code” which includes sexual orientation as a protected category. The Liberals defeated this amendment too, though this time Mayencourt voted for it. He was the only Liberal to do so.
The anger and disappointment over Bill 22’s passage without any reference to sexual orientation or gender identity were palpable at a May 17 breakfast meeting to mark the National Day Against Homophobia
It’s an act of “callous ignorance,” James Chamberlain, of the Gay and Lesbian Educators of British Columbia (GALE), told the crowd.
The 350-strong gathering shouted “shame” when Chamberlain told them that Mayencourt voted with all the other Liberal MLAs to defeat the first NDP amendment calling for protection against homophobic harassment.
Mayencourt maintains that inclusion of that one category was “far too narrow” because kids are bullied for a whole bunch of things.
“What I have in mind in terms of going forward is working with GALE BC, the Human Rights Commission and the Legal Assistance Society to have all of the components that are appropriate within the human rights code incorporated into the provincial standards set by the education minister,” he told Xtra West May 19.
When asked why he was the only one from his caucus to vote for the act to refer to the human rights code, Mayencourt says “people vote what they’re going to vote.”
“I’ve been working for six years now to get codes of conduct required in schools. That’s what this Act accomplishes,” says Mayencourt. “It references the provincial standards which are to be established by the minister in consultation with the Education Advisory Committee, a group of stakeholders in education that include parent advisory committees, a variety of teachers, and principals and superintendents.”
But the NDP and education critics say consultation has been done and public opinion on the issue of safe schools is clear.
There’s no need for further consultation, asserts Cubberley. It’s “really time to act.”
“This sounds like a reversal of the appropriate process. The process is to have a clear idea in advance and then get the legislation to reflect that direction,” Cubberley points out.
“There’s some desire [on the part of the Liberals] to see the legislation as vague,” Cubberley charges. “That leaves it up to individual school districts and schools to determine what the codes will be.
“If they were clear about wanting to prevent bullying and discrimination in schools,” he continues, “they would have endorsed the attachment of the human rights code. Without it, they leave the door ajar.”
As for the much-touted provincial standards to come, Cubberley say he’s not confident they’ll have any teeth.
“There was an opportunity in the vote to send a clear signal that they had to cover the range of discrimination in the human rights code,” he contends. “That would have been the way to do it. To withhold that which would have cost nothing or in any way diluted or damaged the legislation, to not vote for it, signals the ambivalence on their part. There is a lack of commitment.”
Mayencourt says he can’t explain why people voted against the human rights code reference.
He says for six years he tried to get one word changed in the proposed legislation–“should” in place of “may”–regarding the need for schools boards to establish mandatory as opposed to discretionary codes of conduct that meet provincial standards.
“It’s huge. There’s no way around it,” he said during last Tuesday’s debate in the legislature.
“I’ve given everything I possibly could to make this thing pass. I’ve talked to everyone. I’ve talked to the minister of education about it and the premier and others in my caucus. They know where I stand, and they know what I believe, and they support me. I know they do,” he maintains, adding, he wouldn’t sit “on this side of the House” if that were not the case.
But NPD human rights critic Nicholas Simons says it’s obvious Mayencourt could not convince his colleagues “to be onside.”
“I commend him for voting against his own government on the amendment [referring to the human rights code]. But I wonder where the rest of his team were.
“All [the amendment] was asking for was a reference to the human rights code, which doesn’t seem to be a great stretch of anyone’s sense of right or acceptability.
“The Liberal Party should be raked over the coals for this quite frankly,” concludes Simons, who is gay.
Education activist Jane Bouey is even more scathing in her assessment of what went down in the legislature, saying she is “outraged” the government would vote “uniformly” against the proposed amendments.
“I had remained hopeful, and kept being willing to give Lorne the benefit of the doubt,” she says.
“Other than Lorne continually saying that there was going to be something, we never had any indication from the ministry that anything was coming,” she points out.
“Lorne Mayencourt is an abject failure,” she continues. “He wasn’t able to convince the BC Liberals to support the barest possible support for queer youth in schools after six years of trying.
“And yet he thinks we will believe he can make a difference in a party as reactionary as the Harper Conservatives,” she adds.
For his part, Mayencourt believes “we’ve won a victory.”
He concedes there will be “people whom it won’t be good enough for,” but doesn’t object to those who hold that point of view.
For those who are disappointed and skeptical about the coming provincial standards, Mayencourt says they’ll “just have to wait and see.”
“The education ministry has avoided stepping on the toes of school districts. This clearly moves into that and says, ‘No, you are going to do this.’ And it also says you’ll meet the provincial standards,” insists Mayencourt, who says the standards will be established during the summer.
Jim Deva of Little Sister’s bookstore isn’t holding his breath.
“I think as a community we must be extremely active. We cannot for a moment vote Liberal in British Columbia and think we are not abandoning our children,” he told the breakfast meeting.
“Politicians must know that the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered folks’ eyes are on this in the province of British Columbia. We cannot be screwed over like we have been in the past week,” Deva continued.
“It is absolutely abysmal that the government knows what it needs to do, yet they refuse to do it. They somehow think the autonomy of the school boards is more important than the protection of our youth in schools, and [that] cannot continue.”