3 min

North Vancouver apologizes for yearbook ‘fag’

Superintendent urges graduates responsible to come forward

Robin Tomlin says he's satisfied with the in-person apology he finally received, 42 years later, from the North Vancouver school district on Oct 22. "It's closure." Credit: Jeremy Hainsworth photo

A BC man received a long-awaited, in-person apology from the North Vancouver School District Oct 22 — more than 42 years after unidentified classmates replaced his yearbook writeup with the word “fag.”

Friends gathered around Robin Tomlin, 60, outside Argyle Secondary School to sign the new page the district had provided for his yearbook, a page that has now been placed in the school’s copies as well.

Tomlin’s yearbook entry now reads: “Want to meet as many people from all over the world as I can and I WANNA BE A COWBOY.”

“It’s good. I’m super happy,” Tomlin says. “The district made a very sincere apology face-to-face and I appreciated it. It’s closure.”

“I was pleased to be able to provide a sincere and heartfelt apology on behalf of the entire North Vancouver School District for the cruel and offensive entry next to Robin Tomlin’s name in the Argyle yearbook of 1970,” district Superintendent John Lewis says.

“As an organization, we can acknowledge, apologize for and regret that the actions of a few individuals caused such prolonged grief to Mr Tomlin and to his family,” Lewis says. “This was the terrible action of an individual, or perhaps a small group, who have harmed not only Mr Tomlin, but also the outstanding reputation of Argyle Secondary School.”

The apology does not absolve the individuals responsible for putting the slur in the yearbook, Lewis says. But the district does not have the resources to mount an investigation into something that happened 42 years ago, he adds.

“We would certainly welcome some answers and hope people would come forward through the media and take responsibility,” he says.

Now living in the West Kootenay, Tomlin says the homophobic slur was prepared by a group of boys who bullied him for two years at Argyle. “They bumped into me in the hallways and called me faggot if I walked down the hall,” he recalls. “I never went to the school first thing in the morning. In fact, I got a late slip every day. In the 1969 annual, I was listed as one of the most late students. The most dangerous time of day was the first thing in the morning, when the hallways were crowded and you got bumped and kicked.”

At five foot five and 123 pounds, he says he was an easy target for bullies. He says seeing news reports of bullied youngsters committing suicide made him decide to act. “I just wanted to speak up,” he says.

Tomlin’s wife and daughter accompanied him to the private apology but stayed inside the school during his subsequent press conference.

“If it helps just one child, then all of this and Robin’s endeavours will be worthwhile. It has been a long, hard struggle for Robin and he has crossed the finish line,” says his friend John Stowe, a lawyer who helped press the school board for an apology — which the board eventually offered after Tomlin went to the media a few weeks ago.

Lewis says the issue did not need to come to the point of being a media sensation for an apology to happen.

“All the time we were working to resolve it to Mr Tomlin’s satisfaction,” Lewis says. “It took so long because there were different efforts to apologize to Mr Tomlin, but they were not satisfactory to Mr Tomlin.”

“I didn’t back down,” Tomlin says. “Let’s not let it happen again.”

“What he wanted was an apology for the presence and continuing display of the 1972 school annual that was in the school library,” Stowe says.

It’s not the first time bullying resolution efforts have taken a while with the North Vancouver school board.

In 1996, Azmi Jubran, then in Grade 10, filed a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal after years of protesting his classmates’ homophobic harassment, while the district stood by and did little to intervene. The tribunal awarded Jubran $4,000 in damages and told the school board to take responsibility.

The district appealed but eventually adopted an anti-homophobia policy in 2006, following a nine-year legal battle with Jubran.

Bob Georgeson attended the Oct 22 apology to support Tomlin. He says his yearbook entry described him as an Indian who never took a bath.

A friend identifying herself as Victoria says her yearbook entry reads, “Always on a diet but never works.” She says she threw her yearbook away and didn’t even know what Tomlin’s entry said until the controversy over an apology arose.

“I feel so bad in my heart about what happened to Robin,” she says. “It was emotional, physical and mental abuse.”

Heather Lapierre is a teacher’s aide with 20 years’ experience. She, too, was at the school to support Tomlin. She says bullying is a “huge problem” in the school system.

“You can’t get away from it,” she says. “With the iPods and the cellphones, you get it all the time. I think everybody has to be very aware of it. You have to be able to tell kids they can tell someone about it.”