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Oppal says classes exclude queers

Corren complaint yields new course and promise of review

The province settled a seven-year dispute with Peter and Murray Corren last week by promising to examine curriculum in BC schools and launch a pilot elective course on social justice for Grade 12 students, with input from the Correns every step of the way.

BC Attorney General Wally Oppal says the government recognizes that the existing curriculum excludes queers. “I wouldn’t use the word admission. It may be my legal background. It’s a recognition really,” he says.

In 1999, Murray Corren, a Coquitlam elementary school teacher, and husband Peter launched a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal, charging that the province discriminates against queers by failing to address gay, lesbian or transgendered relationships in public school curriculum.

Oppal, who was appointed Attorney General in June 2005, says he first learned the details of the Correns’ complaint last summer. “It wasn’t really focused. It was all over the ballpark and it was hard to tell what they really wanted,” he says. However, once his ministry sat down with the Correns and “hammered it out, it was simple.”

“Contributions of the gay and lesbian community have been ignored,” Oppal summarizes.

“My 16-year-old son is reading Oscar Wilde. Shouldn’t he know Oscar Wilde was gay and that it was a contributing factor to his art?” he adds.

There was no monetary component to the settlement as none was requested. “They were interested in the larger picture,” Oppal notes.

The six-page settlement, signed on Apr 28 by the Correns, stipulated neither party would publicly discuss the settlement or its terms until May 31.

It also provides that on the six-month anniversary of the execution of their agreement, and at six-month intervals until September 2007, the Correns and the deputy minister of education will meet “to ensure timely and adequate implementation of the terms of this agreement.”

Further, the settlement provides that the Ministry of Education will consult with the Correns as it prepares its guidelines for reviewing existing curriculum with set deadlines.

“The respondent will provide the complainants with a draft of the guidelines for their comment on or before August 1, 2006. The complainants will provide comment on the draft guidelines on or before August 31, 2006. The ministry will finalize the guidelines for implementation on or before September 30, 2006,” the settlement states.

Within a week of setting its guidelines, the ministry will provide the Correns with its curriculum revision schedule, at which time the Correns may identify programs they think should be given priority.

The Ministry of Education will also develop guidelines for teachers in delivering curriculum “so as to enhance social justice, respect diversity and achieve equality for all learners,” the settlement notes.

Murray Corren told Xtra West in June 2005 that he and Peter had filed a settlement proposal with the Ministry of Education–it is unclear how much of that proposal became part of last week’s settlement. (The Correns refused to discuss it with Xtra West when contacted last week.)

Last July, their case was delayed another year because both the tribunal and ministry said they had received only two pages of the Correns’ eight-page complaint. At the time, the Correns accused the ministry of dragging its feet and using delaying tactics in the hopes they would drop their complaint.

Before the hearing was adjourned because of the missing documents, and after six years of preliminary work, the Ministry of Education submitted an application to the tribunal to redefine the scope of the complaint. The hearing was supposed to resume this July.

“We’ve agreed this is really the right thing to do. It’s really been my point of view from the beginning,” says Oppal.

Queer education activists say it’s the solution they were hoping for.

“I think I was actually moved to tears,” says Jane Bouey, a former Vancouver School Board trustee who now sits on its queer advisory committee.

However, the true test of the government’s commitment, says Bouey, will be how the province integrates the reality of queer lives into everyday school curriculum above and beyond the Grade 12 social justice elective.

The pilot course is scheduled to begin in the 2007-2008 school year and should be fully implemented in September 2008. Its range of topics will include sexual orientation, gender identity, race and ethnicity. Schools will decide whether to offer it based on demand.

The purpose of the course will be “to explore, from legal, political, ethical and economic perspectives, the concept of a just and equitable society in which there is full participation of all peoples,” the settlement states.

Its content will be released for public review before the pilot begins. Also, the Ministry of Education will provide the Correns with “a draft of the sexual orientation/gender identity portion for their review, and will make revisions as appropriate in light of the comments received,” the settlement notes.

When asked if the new course’s non-mandatory nature is problematic, Oppal admits, “I have some concerns about that.”

“On the other hand,” he adds, “kids who go to school have a good idea of what’s right and wrong.” He notes that the morning after the Corren settlement was announced, he spoke with his teenaged son about it. “He said the same thing I did: ‘What’s the big deal?'”

There are other classes that touch on social justice issues, such as Grade 12 law and social studies courses starting in Grades 7 and 8, Oppal points out. “I don’t know to what extent the questions of fairness, decency, equity and justice ought to be made compulsory,” he adds.

Steve LeBel of Gay and Lesbian Educators of BC (GALE) says the course is a good start, but expects less than one percent of BC students will take it.

He predicts that only about half the schools in progressive, urban districts like Vancouver will run the course, adding, “Surrey won’t–or one school there will offer it.”

“It will hit a small number of students,” says LeBel. “And it’s late, Grade 12.”

LeBel agrees with Bouey that the government will have to prove its leadership with other changes to curriculum. “If they have any commitment to making change, there are lots of places where they’ll see changes can be made,” he says.

“The crux of the issue is to have our lives reflected in everyday curriculum,” Bouey concludes.