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Province mulls cancellation of fall session

Safe Schools bill still waiting on order paper

OPTIMISTIC: MLA Lorne Mayencourt has been building support for his Safe Schools bill, but House Leader Mike de Jong has said the legislature may not sit this fall because it has nothing to talk about. Credit: TJ Ngan photo

As the provincial government toys with cancelling the fall legislative session, BC’s queer education activists are left wondering if Vancouver-Burrard MLA Lorne Mayencourt’s Safe Schools bill will ever pass.

Government House Leader Mike de Jong said, Sep 6, the provincial legislature might not return for a fall sitting because of a lack of legislative business to deal with. But there are seven private member’s bills on the order paper that haven’t advanced beyond first reading, including the Safe Schools bill.

“It’s incomprehensible to have a government that sits once a year,” says Steve LeBel of Gay and Lesbian Educators of BC (GALE). “Why not have a session anyway and deal with the private member’s bills?”

“My main concern is [that Safe Schools] will die and won’t be reintroduced,” says Surrey teacher James Chamberlain, also of GALE. “We’ve been waiting 10 years for this. It’s long overdue.”

But Mayencourt insists all is not lost yet.

“First off, the phrasing Mike [de Jong] was using was ‘not a very long session.’ It’s not certain. There will still be some discussion around it next week,” Mayencourt told Xtra West Sep 10. “If we’re not going to have a session, we need to deal with that.”

If passed, the Safe Schools Act would require school districts to establish codes of conduct prohibiting actual and perceived discrimination based on, among other things, sexual orientation and gender identity. If a complaint could not be resolved at the school district level under Safe Schools, only then would it go before the BC Human Rights Tribunal.

Mayencourt’s bill has remained on the order paper since the legislature rose for the summer on May 18 so will not have to be reintroduced from scratch as it did after the last election.

“Support for the bill is unparalleled,” says Mayencourt. “There is a greater understanding on the part of the education minister and the premier on the need for the bill and how easily it can be brought to fruition.”

Mayencourt says he has been building momentum and support for Safe Schools over the summer. As examples he cites a UBC student’s presentation to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child about the importance of student safety and the link between homophobia and teen suicide, and a discussion about educating children about human rights at various sessions during the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Vancouver.

In the meantime, Mayencourt says, whether or not the legislature has a fall sitting, he plans to meet with parent associations to talk about the Safe Schools bill, something he hoped to do in the summer.

“Other projects landed on my desk that I had to deal with,” he admits, such as housing policy and projects affecting the working poor and people with disabilities, the Dalai Lama’s visit and “Safe Streets stuff.”

Mayencourt says he also plans to visit schools, ideally with the local MLAs and an NDP representative, to speak about the Safe Schools bill in a “unified manner.”

Originally, he planned to do these visits with NDP MLA John Horgan, but Horgan has since been shuffled out of the education critic portfolio to energy and mines. Though Mayencourt hasn’t spoken with new education critic David Cubberley, he notes Horgan had been reporting back to the NDP caucus.

During the last election campaign, Mayencourt promised to step down if the province decided to move St Paul’s Hospital out of Vancouver’s West End. Some have called on Mayencourt to make the same commitment to the passage of the Safe Schools bill.

In a Jun 22 column in Xtra West, Little Sisters co-owner Jim Deva wrote: “If our children are still left without proper protection by the next election cycle, it will not be good enough for Mayencourt to say he tried… If he wishes to continue to press for the progressive legislation that will make our community proud of an out, gay man in the provincial legislature, it will be time for him to quit the so-called Liberal Party and to run as an independent.”

“I can do more work from the inside,” Mayencourt counters.

“I need to continue to work on these folks,” he continues, referring to his caucus colleagues. “I have every intent of succeeding with Safe Schools and St Paul’s.”

Meanwhile, this summer, the Southeast Kootenay and Gulf Islands school districts passed their own anti-homophobia policies. The Gulf Islands policy was crafted by the Gulf Islands Secondary School’s gay-straight alliance (GSA).

“It was completely done by us,” says GSA co-chair Clare Lannan, who credits former GSA chair Jacob Schweda, now studying at Lester B Pearson College in Victoria, with spearheading the effort. The policy passed on Jun 28.

Chamberlain is pleased with the students’ success on the Gulf Islands, but notes government leadership on making schools safe is essential. Without it, “we could be waiting another 20 years for less than 50 percent of school districts to do this,” Chamberlain concludes.