When Lorne Mayencourt rises in BC’s provincial legislature Feb 14 to introduce his Safe Schools bill, it’ll be his third attempt to convince the government to order BC’s school districts to ban harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“This is the year in which the bill must be passed,” says the Vancouver-Burrard MLA. First announced in February 2005, the bill died on the order table when the legislature rose for election that spring, then died again when it was introduced in 2006.
“I have expressed to the house leader who controls the debate that I will vigorously campaign to have the bill passed not just in legislature but around the province,” Mayencourt says.
The gay MLA plans to re-introduce his bill barely 24 hours after the throne speech, during which he hopes to hear that his government has added safe schools to its list of legislative priorities.
“I would be delighted if it were part of the speech, [but] I don’t have assurance from the premier or the minister of education that this is so,” he concedes.
That means Mayencourt will be bringing his proposed legislation forward as a private member’s bill yet again, despite the BC Liberals’ unanimous passage of a resolution at its convention last November supporting a government-sponsored bill on safe schools.
“I know they [the premier and the education minister] are aware of the party resolution [and] aware of the large number of school districts and parent advisory committees that have vocally supported the bill,” Mayencourt says. The question is: will “they move forward with my bill and allow it to pass as private member’s bill or [do] they introduce a government-sponsored bill that contains the same elements?” he asks.
With the proximity of the throne speech to the opening session of the legislature, it can go either way, says Mayencourt. “It’s a wait and see situation.”
Xtra West’s attempts to reach education minister Shirley Bond for comment on the government’s level of support and intentions with regard to the Safe Schools bill were unsuccessful. A spokesperson for the ministry said Jan 26 that the minister was not available to be interviewed about the bill because of a busy schedule.
For queer education activist Jane Bouey, the lack of what she feels is necessary government leadership on the issue of safe schools has been disappointing and frustrating.
“After the Safe Schools Task Force report, [there was the expectation] that government might be willing to take the lead. It makes me angry that this has been going on this many years. I think of the number of students who have gone all the way through high school, and government could have made students’ lives better and less painful,” she says.
Vancouver School Board anti-homophobia consultant Glen Hansman puts it in more concrete timeline terms, pointing out that students who were in the eighth grade when the Safe Schools Task Force met, have now graduated from Grade 12.
He notes as well that the BC School Trustees Association passed a motion two years ago calling for comprehensive anti-homophobia policies. Since then only the Southeast Kootenay, Gulf Islands and, more recently, North Vancouver school districts have joined the Vancouver and Victoria district pioneers in developing such policies–five out of 60 BC school districts.
“So, yes it is vital that the province take leadership on this,” Hansman maintains, “not only to address homophobia, but transphobia as well, and all the other protected areas under the BC Human Rights Act.”
What surprises and disappoints Bouey most is that the government would allow the Safe Schools bill to languish even as it champions curriculum review to ensure courses include positive representations of queer people.
“There is progress on curriculum review, and one would think that this aspect [student safety] would be one of the major things that would happen at the same time, a proactive approach to things. But for some reason there is unwillingness to support the bill,” she points out.
As for the argument that government is reluctant to encroach on school board territory by instructing districts to develop codes of conduct, Bouey suggests that while there might be complaints, school boards “would welcome it being taken out of their hands.” She notes there are already lots of provincial regulations governing how school districts are expected to be run, and Mayencourt’s proposed legislation “won’t be anything out of the ordinary.”
Mayencourt himself finds the idea of jurisdiction encroachment a non-starter.
“We have a police board here. Does that mean the solicitor general neglects to bring forward legislation that prohibits people from doing things that are wrong? Doesn’t the attorney general and the solicitor general have the obligation to step into what might be a municipal affair?” he asks.
“The fact of the matter is two-thirds [of BC’s school safety policies] omit sexual orientation, [and even on] racial discrimination and sexual harassment, [they] have been conspicuously silent. Okay fine, you want to remain silent. But the ministry should not remain silent. The ministry should stand up for kids and make sure they are safe in schools,” Mayencourt says.
Bouey acknowledges there may be a backlash from socially conservative groups but cautions MLAs not to take this seriously. “It’s just the voice of a small minority of people.”
Mayencourt says he’s determined to get the bill passed this session, and won’t let a potential leap to the federal Conservative Party get in his way.
“I expect the bill will pass, and it will be passed in a timely manner. That’s based on my conviction that I am going to see this one through. I’ve made it clear to all I’ve spoken to with respect to any changes in my political career: I’m not going anywhere until this bill is passed.
“The public supports the bill,” he says. “Someone should stand up and say they’re against it if they are. Nobody is doing that.”