4 min

Why is Surrey lagging on anti-homophobia policy?

Despite promise, BC Libs unlikely to introduce legislation this session

"It mystifies me as to why the largest school district in the province can't lead on this issue when so many districts are already doing it," says James Chamberlain (right, with Pride Education Network's Faune Johnson). Credit: Courtesy of James Chamberlain

Seventeen school boards have now passed explicit anti-homophobia policy in BC and six more are considering it, but Surrey, the province’s largest school district, has yet to develop its own.

This, almost 10 years after the Supreme Court of Canada ordered the Surrey school board to reconsider its ban on three gay-friendly books.

“I would say that when the court made the ruling I felt euphoric at that time, thinking that there was going to be a sea change within Surrey,” says James Chamberlain, whose request to use Asha’s Mums, Belinda’s Bouquet and One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dad in district classrooms touched off the lengthy court case.

“Since that time I’ve been disappointed because that really hasn’t happened,” says Chamberlain, who taught elementary classes in the district for 15 years.

“I believe there’s still a chill in the district around teaching LGBTQ issues,” he says. “Not to the same degree it was 10 years ago, but teachers are still reticent because of a lack of official support from the board.”

But there are positive signs, he acknowledges. Whereas Tamanawis Secondary was once the only school in the district with a gay-straight alliance (GSA), now more schools have them.

He also points to the 2010 staging of the Dare to Stand Out conference at a Surrey school as a sign of progress. “That was kind of a watershed moment, because there was no opposition from the board to having that conference at a school in Surrey,” Chamberlain notes.

But overall, he remains “deeply disappointed” by the slow pace of change in Surrey and what he calls the lack of leadership from the school board and senior management on gay issues.

In his April 3 letter of resignation to Surrey school superintendent Mike McKay, Chamberlain says the school board needs to demonstrate leadership on that portfolio by developing “discrete anti-homophobia policy” similar to those passed by the other 17 school boards. He also notes the absence of professional development for employees in anti-homophobia and other areas.

In his April 27 reply, McKay says he’s “sharing” Chamberlain’s specific suggestions with board members and district senior staff, assuring that the matters raised were already “works in progress.”

“His letter falls flat; it has no content whatsoever,” Chamberlain contends.

Xtra’s attempts to reach McKay were unsuccessful up to press time.

“I’m mostly learning about how you bring these forward at this point, but it is something that definitely I am interested in, in the future,” says recently elected Surrey school trustee Charlene Dobie when asked if she wants to see explicit anti-homophobia policy in the district. “I can’t say what the rest of the board thinks at this point.”

“It mystifies me as to why the largest school district in the province can’t lead on this issue when so many districts are already doing it,” Chamberlain says. “It’s not like they’ll be trailblazing at this point. They would be playing catch-up.”

Four years ago, only three of BC’s 60 school boards had passed anti-homophobia policy, he notes. In just the last year, four boards have passed such policy and one more is expected in June. “So to move from three to 17 in a four-year span, with nine more in the works, that is a significant shift.”

Chamberlain attributes the increased pace of change to student leaders and teachers refusing to stay silent about the homophobia they experience in schools. “The youth are leading the charge; the adults just have to catch up.”

Chamberlain welcomes the momentum building in many school districts — especially since the BC Liberals aren’t likely to take the lead on this issue. “I think government direction is a lost cause,” he says.

After many unmet promises to address homophobia in schools, Premier Christy Clark again promised to introduce in this session “the best legislation, the best policy, the best methods we possibly can for addressing this issue in workplaces, in schools and in homes for all people across British Columbia.”

Noting that the current legislative term ends in less than a week, Vancouver West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert says Education Minister George Abbott told him there won’t be legislation addressing homophobia in schools.

“I had expected by now we would have seen legislation or policy around it, but it looks like they’ve decided not to act,” Chandra Herbert told Xtra on May 16.

“Here we are about a year and a half since [Clark] first promised to make it her top priority — two legislative sessions, a promise in the throne speech — and nothing,” he says.

“The premier is not here, and the government house leader said the bill introduced today would be the last piece of legislation,” he continues. “It sounds like her words yet again are hollow and meant to look like she’s doing something, yet when given the opportunity, actually does nothing.”

Chandra Herbert says he hopes to raise the issue again in the House before the current term ends, pointing to a four-day window next week to ask Clark about her promises.

Xtra’s request for comment from the premier’s office was routed to the Education Ministry, where a spokesperson said, “an announcement is expected shortly” but did not elaborate.

“It sounds like you’re expecting legislation,” the spokesperson said, then pointed Xtra to a debate in the House on May 7 where Abbott promised “a five-year multilevel training regime for educators and staff that will be focused on both anti-bullying and threat assessment.”

“There will be, I’m advised, a specific anti-homophobia component to that training,” Abbott told the House.

“Of course, bullying is unacceptable for any reason, but we know that homophobia can be a very challenging issue in some schools. We need to have the training regime that’s built to meet that,” Abbott continued.

He then mentioned a designated safe schools coordinator for every school district, the creation of an anonymous online reporting tool for students through a smartphone app, and the development of “an enhanced provincial website” for parents to access if they see signs that their children are being bullied.

“If an issue came up that required a legislative response, we’d certainly be prepared to do that. We don’t believe at this point that that should be necessary,” Abbott said.

Chamberlain worries that weak legislation from government would hinder more than help efforts at local district levels.

He believes the policies individual boards are 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.”