It’s been 20 years since Newfoundland educator Susan Rose went to her province’s then-education minister to register her frustration with the homophobic comments a colleague was aiming at her, only to be told she would be fired if she made a fuss.
“Eventually, I got so overwhelmed with the homophobia I was dealing with from colleagues,” she says.
One colleague told Rose her relationship would never be equal to his; another offered to cure her.
For six years Rose objected to these attitudes in staff meetings and requested workshops to address the situation, to no avail.
She eventually resigned but refused to go quietly.
“It’s my mission to make a change in the education system,” she says bluntly.
She knew that if the attitudes she faced in the staff room were bad, queer students were facing worse. Their exclusion from the curriculum only made matters worse.
“We could go from K to 12 in the majority of schools in Canada, and there’s no mention of gay, lesbian, bi, transsexual,” Rose says.
In 2010, Rose spoke to Xtra about the reluctance to tackle homophobia in schools and, in some cases, the outright denial of the existence of gay students that greeted her offer to present workshops.
“It still boggles my mind,” she says.
For too long, Rose says, she went knocking on the doors of unions, school board officials, various deputy ministers and directors of education to explain the fear and invisibility that homophobia breeds.
Sometimes people empathized, but nothing was done.
Rose realized she needed to form partnerships with community agencies, like Planned Parenthood and the Women’s Policy Office, to galvanize support and push the Newfoundland government to act decisively.
She amassed stories from queer students about the discrimination they faced in schools, letters from physicians and psychologists about the kids who ended up in their offices because of bullying, and statistics from Egale’s “First National Climate Survey on Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia in Canadian Schools,” which lays out the pervasive experience of discrimination — all of which she took to the Education Ministry.
Still, after three years of evidence gathering and presentation, the foot-dragging continued.
After hearing for the umpteenth time from ministry officials that the situation was horrible but they weren’t ready to act, Rose issued a thinly veiled ultimatum.
She hinted to ministry officials that if they continued to do nothing she’d have no recourse but to advise students and their families of their legal rights.
“If we have a kid in a school that came out as gay or lesbian and they’re being abused, particularly by their teachers, I said this is a major human rights violation, and it’s a legal case.”
She pointed to examples of legal action that had been taken in BC, specifically, Azmi Jubran’s successful nine-year battle to hold his North Vancouver school board responsible for the homophobia he endured there, and the Surrey school board’s losing battle to ban three gay-friendly children’s books.
“I kept going back to, ‘Do you want to wait to be sued?’” Rose says.
She says her “little tantrum” got Egale a contract to educate the educators in Newfoundland and Labrador’s five school districts.
On Jan 12, in front of more than 170 school district officials, Newfoundland Education Minister Clyde Jackman came through.
“What Minister Jackman said was we have left gay, lesbian, bi and transgender individuals out of the curriculum. We have people telling us that they are unsafe, and it has to change,” Rose happily paraphrases.
Jackman ordered the districts to develop policies to protect queer students, to inform their principals, and educate their communities, Rose says.
Later that month, the province also announced it would provide $90,000 to support administrators, teachers and students who want to establish gay-straight alliances in their schools.
Xtra’s attempts to reach Jackman were unsuccessful, but a government statement says youth struggles with “issues around sexual orientation” cannot continue in the school system and a society that claims to celebrate diversity.
“Preventing violence for individuals in our society with differing sexual orientations is a key objective of the Violence Prevention Initiative,” the minister responsible for the status of women, Charlene Johnson, says in the release.
“Through this initiative, our government is pleased to support the goal of making school environments safer for all students and to address issues of interpersonal violence for vulnerable populations in the province,” she continues.
“We’re only beginning with junior and senior high right now,” Rose tells Xtra. “We’re going to move down primary a couple years from now because, for one, they’re nervous about the backlash. Even though we don’t have religious denominations in our schools, we still have people with strong religious beliefs that are still teaching.”
But when you have the education minister saying he is expecting action on this portfolio, they’re going to do it, Rose believes.
It had to come from the top down, she argues.
In the aftermath of the education minister’s directive, Egale has now presented workshops to school administrators and guidance counsellors; teachers are up next.
“We were all over rural Newfoundland and Labrador. You’d go into communities like the Northern Peninsula, small communities — some are very Catholic, some are very Pentecostal — so I knew issues were going to come up, and they did,” Rose recalls.
But always, there was a representative from the Department of Education who stepped in to the discussion.
“Very quickly, the person travelling from the education department would stand up and say, ‘Yes, it is your school; your students spoke loud and clear.’
“Once they stood and spoke, the principals knew, ‘Oh, this is the department speaking,’” Rose says.
“We’re actually going to start educating about gay and lesbian history. It’s going to be implemented in the curriculum,” she adds. “When you think about it, it’s a societal shift.”
BC educator James Chamberlain is thrilled about Newfoundland and Labrador’s progress. He agrees with Rose’s assessment that provincial leadership is critical to giving teachers the skills and the permission to address homophobia in a comprehensive way.
“Without it, educators are kind of going out on a limb in some regions of the province, and it can be socially quite isolating work without leadership from the Ministry of Education, superintendents and principals,” Chamberlain says.
He believes the Newfoundland example should be a wake-up signal to the BC government that they can, and should, do “much, much more in this area.”
He understands Rose’s incredulity about the lack of government leadership in BC — despite years of pressing both Liberal and NDP governments for mandatory policies to protect queer students, sensitivity training for teachers and staff, and curriculum inclusion.
“The fact that Pride Education Network has been lobbying for this — 1996 was the first official meeting we had with the Ministry of Education — it’s pretty pathetic that our government, current and previous governments, have not shown any leadership whatsoever on this portfolio,” Chamberlain says.
While Rose sings her minister of education’s praises, Chamberlain couldn’t be less impressed with the revolving door of BC education ministers who have come and gone, including the most recent departure, George Abbott.
Glen Hansman, second vice-president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, says he hadn’t seen any leadership from Abbott either, despite having more access to him than any other education minister in the last 30 years.
A spokesperson for BC’s Education Ministry told Xtra that Abbott would not do an exit interview. The new education minister, Don McRae, was not available either.
In May, as he was preparing to take up a new position in the Vancouver school district, Chamberlain told Xtra that the policies individual school boards in BC are now passing are much more comprehensive than anything the government would create.
“If there were to be provincial policy of some sort, I think that it would be very weak and ineffective and would let school boards off the hook. I actually think they would be counterproductive.”
It’s an observation he reiterated earlier this month. “The ministry is not good at developing policy,” he says, dismissing the province’s Erase Bullying program introduced in June. Though the program was promoted to protect all children regardless of gender, race, culture, religion or sexual orientation, critics say it will do little to protect queer youth and is mainly a rehash of previously announced policy. “As far as I know, there are no components to it that would address education or prevention around issues of homophobia and transphobia in schools. It’s only about punishment of bullies, which actually doesn’t work as a single focus for doing things.”
It seems to be “more of a generic bullying thing, rather than a specific strategy around building queer-friendly schools and addressing homophobia,” Hansman agrees.
That still leaves leadership on these issues in the hands of teachers, parents, students and trustees, Chamberlain says. “We’re still in a district-by-district patchwork process.”
Hansman agrees that the grassroots efforts have been the most successful approach in BC, though to date, after years of effort, only a third of the province’s 60 districts have passed comprehensive policy.
He concurs with Rose that government leadership is necessary, but he doesn’t see it as an either/or proposition.
“Teachers have a lot of latitude in what they do, but there still needs to be that stamp of approval coming from the province in order for some people who potentially could be allies to actually do that work,” he says.