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No funding for queer workshops in the north

Queer students left to twist in the wind

STUDENTS IN THE LURCH: Shawn Peters received $35,000 in funding last year for his What's Up Education programs in northern BC's schools. Credit: Robin Perelle photo

Queer students heading back to school in Northern BC may find they’ve lost one of the region’s strongest voices against homophobia in the school system.

More than 140 anti-homophobia workshops planned by Prince George activist Shawn Peters may be cancelled because of lack of funding, Xtra West has learned.

Vancouver Burrard MLA Lorne Mayencourt is refusing to endorse or seek funding for the workshops at least in part because of Peters’ role in ousting the former board of a BC queer youth organization.

Last October, some 30 young activists, including Peters, packed Youthquest’s annual general meeting and overthrew its board of directors.

Subsequently, youth programs were lost or cancelled, government funding was cut and the board’s membership has dramatically shifted at least twice. The goal of the 12-year-old organization is to provide support to queers 13 to 21 years old throughout BC as they come to terms with their sexuality and begin the coming out process.

It appears Peters’ pioneering workshops for northern students may be the latest casualty of the organization’s political infighting. And, even Peters’ critics concede that the young man’s work will be sorely missed.

“I went to school in Prince George and I know what it’s like,” said Peters in a telephone interview, pleading that his work be carried on even if it means passing the torch to another activist. “When I was in school I had pop thrown at me and my locker was lit on fire,” recalls Peters. “It means a lot for a kid to know they are not alone in the world. Kids can’t wait another year for this stuff. They need it now, not three years from now.”

Peters’ website features letters of support for his workshops from 16 northern BC schools including Kitimat, Prince Rupert, Fort St James and Tumbler Ridge. Notes Charles Hayes Secondary School Vice-Principal Sandra Jones in a letter sent Peters earlier this year: “The presentation was very appropriate in an age where the use of the words “that’s so gay” are commonplace. I believe our students learned a great deal about diversity and acceptance, and I thank you.”

Bonnie Chappel, a Prince George school district administrator in charge of curriculum development, told Xtra West that Peters’ workshops have been well received in the schools. She said Peters also worked with the district in developing a resource manual addressing harassment. Even elementary school students are using homophobic language, notes Chappel. “Like a grade two student calling another grade two student ‘gay’ to harm him, even though neither of them understands what that means,” she says.

Last June, Mayencourt secured a $35,000 government grant for Peters’ workshops at 80 schools from 100 Mile House to the Yukon border in a contract facilitated by Youthquest. At that time, Mayencourt called the northern outreach project “committed and effective”.

But four months later, Youthquest was turned on its head. The entire board was ousted and a new board was elected by the membership at its annual general meeting. There were allegations of impropriety on all sides and a struggle for control of Youthquest’s offices. All of the board members elected at the October meeting have since left the organization.

Peters is at least partly responsible for the crashing consequences of the youth group infighting, said Mayencourt. “It was an evil and wicked takeover by immature, childish people who didn’t understand the significance of what they were uprooting.”

Youthquest’s current board chair Ray Lam says Peters spearheaded the move to oust the old board but Peters says that isn’t true. “There were only three of us from Prince George, most (of those opposing the board) were from Lower Mainland youth drop-in centres.”

Peters says the old board was unresponsive to youth needs. He said discontent was widespread.

A new board is reported to be stabilizing the drop-in and outreach support service, but Youthquest is substantially diminished. Government funding has been lost including a promised $180,000 Ministry of Children and Family Development grant. That grant, earlier earmarked for Youthquest, was awarded instead to Gab Youth Services.

Gab Youth Services, operated by The Centre, runs interactive workshops called PrideSpeaks, which provide information about sexual orientation and gender identity by having queer youth speak about their experiences.

Will any of that grant money be invested in queer workshops for students in the north? “No,” says Donna Wilson, executive director of The Centre. “The conditions of the grant with the Ministry is that it’s for the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley,” she says.

Peters, a former Youthquest volunteer who now operates his own education contracting business called What’s Up Education, told Xtra West Aug 16 that Mayencourt wants nothing to do with him because of what happened at Youthquest.

“I talked with Lorne by phone last week and he told me he wouldn’t help me get funding,” said Peters, who boasts of having secured anti-homophobic workshop arrangements with 10 of 11 northern BC school regions. “He [Mayencourt] blames me for wrecking Youthquest’s relationship with the Ministry of Children and Family Development.”

Mayencourt, who has identified northern BC as a battleground in the fight for safer schools for queer youth, concedes that Peters’ work will be missed if funding is denied. “It’s a setback but not because of the government,” he told Xtra West in an Aug 15 telephone interview. “It’s because of the disintegration of an organization called Youthquest.”

Mayencourt said he would try to find funding to continue the northern service-“If I can come up with someone to deal with…a non-profit organization with a stable board.”

Lam says the cancellation of the planned northern workshops would be a significant loss. “It’s definitely a setback. From what I understand, [Peters] was the only person who did educational workshops on queer issues in the north. Without him, I don’t see any sessions going on at all.”

But Lam says Mayencourt is doing the right thing in refusing to support Peters. “I completely support Lorne’s decision. Although his [Peters’] work is very, very important, we’ve had a lot of difficulties working with Shawn. If someone else came along with the same credentials, we would take them.”