Peter Corren, who was instrumental in the fight to legalize same-sex marriage in Canada and to challenge homophobia in BC schools, died Dec 30 after a long illness.
Friends and fellow education activists were quick to pay tribute to Corren, whom they uniformly described as passionately committed and tenacious in his pursuit of social justice.
“I’m very saddened by it,” says Glen Hansman of the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers’ Association. “I know he’s been ill for quite a while but he still remained active in his activist work throughout that entire period.”
Peter and his husband Murray Corren have been on the forefront of the ongoing struggle to have queer realities recognized in classrooms for the last decade.
“Their work in the Surrey case against the Surrey School Board and challenging the ministry of education for the lack of inclusion of queer people in the curriculum is a big hallmark and a legacy that Peter will leave behind,” says education activist James Chamberlain. “It’s probably one of the most significant things that has been done in BC in a long time.”
Chamberlain teamed up with the Correns to take the Surrey School Board to court for refusing to allow teachers to use three gay-friendly books in their classes.
After six years of costly court decisions, appeals and counter-appeals, the school board eventually capitulated, marginally opening the door to let some gay-friendly books in, but still continuing to ban the original three.
The Correns didn’t stop there, reaching beyond school boards to demand the BC Ministry of Education take the lead to implement queer-friendly curriculum in schools across the province.
In 1999, Peter and Murray filed a human rights complaint against the ministry alleging that the curriculum’s failure to reflect queer realities amounted to discrimination by omission and suppression.
That complaint, and the agreement the couple reached with the government in 2006 to settle it, is changing the education landscape in the province.
“Their determination to just keep on pushing, when I think a lot of people often wondered if it should continue to be pushed as hard as it was, was a huge contribution,” notes Vancouver School Board trustee Jane Bouey, who says she “just sat back and wept” after she saw a posting about Corren’s death on Facebook.
“It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact that their unrelenting desire for justice and human rights has had, and I think that impact of the decision around curriculum will be felt by future generations,” she adds.
The Corren settlement led to the introduction of a new elective course, Social Justice 12, and the promise that regular curriculum reviews will now be conducted to flag areas where queer content can be introduced.
Even as they made gains on the education front, Peter and Murray remained vigilant.
In October 2008, they filed another human rights complaint, this time against the Abbotsford School Board after it refused to offer the Social Justice 12 course in its district.
The school board relented and now offers the elective course but with the proviso that students must get parental consent to take it.
“The extent to which they believed that because they had the monetary ability and the time —those privileges — that it was their responsibility to take this on, is something I think we can all learn from: to use whatever privileges you have to be able to make a difference,” Bouey says.
“You don’t get the combination of people like Peter and Murray very often,” Hansman notes. “The work they were able to do is second to none.”
Hansman also points to the couple’s activism around same-sex marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples. The Correns were among BC’s first petitioners for the right to marry and didn’t stop advocating until gay marriage became legal across Canada.
Also as a result of their activism, gay parents won the right to adopt children jointly in BC.
“People are now getting married and adopting and doing all these things not necessarily cognizant of who some of the key players were that have put a lot on the line, financially and personally, and just the commitment to see those things through,” Hansman says.
“You need people who are going to be tenacious like that, not just sort of go, ‘Gee, this is going to be complicated, so why bother?’ He’s never been like that for as long as I’ve known him,” adds Hansman, who’s known Peter for over 10 years.
Hansman says Peter’s dedication to changing the laws leaves a legacy of expanded rights for the queer community.
“Legal decisions are never just one-offs, they provide a new foundation that everything that comes afterwards is built upon,” he points out.
“And not just here,” he continues, “but elsewhere in Canada so people in other jurisdictions can now point to the [curriculum] settlement agreement between the Correns and the provincial government to go, ‘Hey, we have a similar human rights code framework here, we should be able to do something similar.’”
“Never doubt that you make a huge difference by taking on a challenge, particularly when you have a loving partner, and pursuing it with as much vigour and as much energy as you possibly can,” the Correns said together as they accepted their Xtra West Lifetime Achievement Award in May 2009 (via video from Mexico).
“It’s amazing what you can achieve with as few resources as we’ve had. And we encourage everyone that if you feel that there are issues that you need to be addressing in our society, do so,” they urged.
VIDEO: Peter and Murray Corren were awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Xtra West Hero Awards in April 2009. They accepted the award via video from Mexico. Read more about the award ceremony here. Watch their acceptance video below: