“Where is Shirley Bond, the education minister?” Tim Armstrong of the BC Federation of Labour (BCFL) asked the 300-strong crowd that showed up for the Abbotsford social justice rally Dec 6 to demand the school district reinstate the provincially approved Social Justice 12 course that includes queer content.
“The Abbotsford school board has the responsibility to honour the agreement the government made with Murray and Peter Corren to settle their human rights complaint,” Armstrong, the BCFL’s gay representative told the crowd.
“The Correns entered into this agreement in good faith to settle their human rights complaint,” Armstrong continued, accusing the school board of failing to live up to “these responsibilities.”
The Correns, gay education activists, won a human rights settlement against the education ministry in 2006 requiring the inclusion of gay content in BC schools. Part of the settlement involved the creation of a gay-friendly elective course on social justice.
That course was piloted in 2007 and received ministry approval last year. While some school boards began offering it last fall, the Abbotsford School Board advised its schools to wait for further review. One high school offered it anyway, then quickly rescinded it; the 90 students already enrolled protested.
The Correns promptly filed another human rights complaint, this time against the Abbotsford School Board, for withdrawing the course.
Xtra West’s repeated attempts to reach Abbotsford school board chair Cindy Schafer for comment were unsuccessful up to press time. New Abbotsford mayor George Peary, a former trustee, also did not return Xtra West’s calls requesting an interview.
So far the BC government has allowed the Abbotsford school board to carry on with “the discriminatory practices,” Armstrong alleged.
“The BC Federation of Labour is calling on the premier, the education minister, and the Abbotsford school district to honour the government’s agreement and immediately restore the original Social Justice 12 course to the curriculum in Abbotsford secondary schools,” he said.
“Until they do,” Armstrong added, “I urge you all to write, email and call Shirley Bond and Gordon Campbell and demand that they do the right thing and order the Abbotsford School Board to do just that.”
Xtra West’s attempts to schedule an interview with the education minister were yet again unsuccessful, but Bond did issue a statement through her ministry’s public affairs bureau.
“The Social Justice 12 course is optional for boards to offer and optional for students to take,” she explains in the statement. “Social Justice 12 is currently being taught in approximately 20 secondary schools across the province and we expect more schools to offer it next year,” she continues.
While Bond says she was “aware of the rally that was held in Abbotsford,” she says “the ultimate decision” to offer the course rests with the school board.
“And as with any course, I encourage boards to consider the needs of all students within the school district,” Bond adds.
“Minister Bond is wrong in saying that it’s up to a local school board to decide whether the course should go ahead or not,” counters gay teacher and activist James Chamberlain.
“Because the school board has censored the course and removed any LGBTQ content, they are contravening the School Act,” Chamberlain says, referring to the school board’s decision to offer a queer-free version of the course in its stead last term.
“They’re contravening the School Act for a couple of reasons,” Chamberlain continues. “One because they are not allowing a ministry-approved course to go ahead.
“If they were censoring the course based on removing any reference to women’s issues or issues around people of colour, the minister would not be silent on that issue,” Chamberlain charges.
He says the Abbotsford School Board is also contravening the School Act because they are “catering or pandering” to some people in the community whose faith-based values conflict with “anything to do with LGBTQ content.”
Chamberlain cites the December 2002 Supreme Court of Canada ruling against the Surrey School Board, which waged a seven-year battle to keep three gay-themed children’s books out of the district’s libraries.
Chamberlain says the ruling in the case (which he, Murray Corren and three other litigants pursued) clearly establishes that “school courses and students’ experiences in school must be conducted on a secular basis, and the religious opinions or perspectives of parents cannot be a factor in censoring the content of a course.”
The Abbotsford School Board’s pulling of the course and the subsequent rally it sparked have been the subject of ongoing heated exchanges in letters to the editor of publications like the Abbotsford Times.
“The people who favour the teaching of homosexuality as a healthy, alternative lifestyle seem to hope that by holding the rally this Saturday it will help lead to better rules against bullying and help to implement the inclusion of the Social Justice 12 course in Abbotsford schools,” Mission resident Karen Gardner wrote Dec 5, one day before the rally.
“In fact, it is they who are bullying the majority of us who protest against it,” she stated.
Another Mission resident, Steve Moore, said Gardner is “merely misinformed.”
“Put simply, Ms Gardner, as you might learn if you took Social Justice 12, protest is a right guaranteed us all in this country,” Moore said in his letter. “If you choose to view such protests as bullying, that is up to you…”
In another letter published Dec 19, Abbotsford resident George Bochenek wrote, “no one should object to a homosexuality section in a social justice course if the course would actually present the unvarnished truth about how unhealthy, unsanitary, abnormal and immoral homosexual genital behaviour really is, and the harm that it causes to the individual and to society at large.”
University of the Fraser Valley sociology professor Martha Dow told the rally she sees such letters on a regular basis in the media.
“I read local letters to the editor that speak of who I am as being disgusting, repugnant, immoral, deviant and sick,” Dow noted. “When we are asked why these [rallies] are necessary, we need not look very long to find example after example of prejudice and discrimination that is expressed as simply and wrongly a difference of opinion.”
For her part, 16-year-old rally co-organizer Chantell Gregg says she’s lost count of how many times she’s heard “gay, faggot and lesbo” in her school.
“I was sick of discrimination in schools and on the streets of Abbotsford, and I wanted to do something,” she says. “People said, ‘Oh, it’s not the place for it.'”
“It’s the perfect place for it,” she insists.
“Abbotsford is so behind. They need to catch up. It’s getting to the point where I don’t want to live here anymore,” Gregg says.