Vancouver
3 min

Surrey says no-again

Chamberlain vows to keep the pressure on

NEW REQUEST COMING. Kindergarten teacher James Chamberlain will bring forward a fresh request for gay-friendly teaching resources to the Surrey school board. Credit: Robin Perelle

James Chamberlain may not have the energy to take the Surrey school board back to court, but that doesn’t mean he’s walking away from the book banning battle.



The battle dates back to 1997, when Surrey’s most notorious gay kindergarten teacher first asked the board for permission to use Asha’s Mums, Belinda’s Bouquet and One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads in class.



The board said no.



Two weeks ago, they said no again.



The Jun 12 board meeting was the culmination of six years of heated arguments, court decisions, appeals and counter-appeals.



Armed with last December’s Supreme Court of Canada decision (which says the trustees were wrong to ban the books based on religious concerns rather than curriculum considerations), the board once again turned its attention to the three gay-friendly children’s books. This time there was no mistaking their determination to apply strict curriculum criteria to the decision-making process.



And strict they were.



The seven trustees picked apart the books from cover to cover, faulting them for their grammar, their illustrations, their scary authority figures and a variety of other reasons.



Trustee Kim Evoy rejected Belinda’s Bouquet in part because it sends kids the message that it’s okay not to diet and still feel good about your size. What if kids need to diet? she asked. What if they’re living too sedate lives and not getting enough exercise?



“It’s a wonderful book,” counters Chamberlain. “The best of the three. The whole point of Belinda’s Bouquet is to enhance self-esteem and body image for girls. It sends a message that kids can be all shapes and sizes and they’re beautiful no matter what they look like.



“That’s a message we should be fostering in the school system,” he adds, still stunned by Evoy’s suggestions to the contrary.



Ironically, the chair of the board, Mary Polak, said she would have approved Belinda’s Bouquet if it weren’t for its light treatment of the complex dieting issue. She says she liked its “morally neutral” depiction of a same-sex family, noting that the family in question was only incidental to the plot and its validity never the subject of debate.



Asha’s Mums, in contrast, features a classroom scene in which the kids discuss whether it’s okay to have two mothers. Polak says it’s inappropriate and even dangerous to present kindergarten kids with such advanced moral questions-especially since the book fails to mention that some people find same-sex families objectionable.



In the end, the board once again rejected all three books, by votes of five-to-two, five-to-two and four-to-three.



If the trustees scrutinized every book as carefully as they scrutinized these books, Surrey teachers wouldn’t have anything left to teach with, says lesbian Angela Mah, who attended the meeting. The topic hits “very close to home” for her. She is planning to move to Surrey soon to be with her partner and wants to eventually have children.



The three books aren’t perfect, Mah quickly concedes, but their minor flaws are far outweighed by the value they could bring to the classroom. It’s important to introduce the idea of diversity and the existence of queer families early, she explains.



Chamberlain agrees, especially since he still doesn’t have any gay-friendly books he can use to teach his students about different family models.



But Polak defends the board’s decision to reject the three books. The curriculum guidelines are very strict, she says.



Besides, she notes, the board has now promised to search for more gay-friendly books.



Chamberlain says he’ll believe that when he sees it.



“I’m leery,” he says. “I question their intention to really move forward on it. They avoided it for seven years of litigation. I don’t think they’ll be rushing to find books now.”



Polak says she has already convened a special committee to search for the books and she expects a report by the end of June. “There’s no sense dragging it out,” she says. The board even allowed Chamberlain to join the committee a week after it was struck.



Still, Chamberlain remains leery. It’s partly the timeframe, he explains. The committee is supposed to meet Jun 23, as Xtra West goes to press, and possibly Jun 24 and 25 as well, before reporting back to the board on Thurs Jun 26-the board’s last meeting before its summer break. That’s not much time to find good books, Chamberlain points out.



He says he’s planning to bring the board a new book request of his own this fall, regardless of the committee’s findings.



But don’t expect the results of that request to turn into another lengthy court battle, he warns. Even if the board rejects his new proposal, Chamberlain says he’ll keep the pressure up through the school system-not the courts.



“I’m not willing to put myself through another round of litigation on this,” he says.



Meanwhile, one of Chamberlain’s co-petitioners, Murray Warren, has announced his intention to take the board back to court over Asha’s Mums, Belinda’s Bouquet and One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads. Xtra West called Warren to ask about his plans but he refused to comment.



SURREY SCHOOL BOARD.

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