Wednesday (February 23) is Pink Shirt Day in B.C., an opportunity to redouble our efforts in combating all forms of bullying and discrimination, and their root causes—especially in our schools. Pink Shirt Day should also bring special attention to Bill C-389. This federal bill would add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act, and also add gender identity and gender expression to the Criminal Code sections dealing with hate speech and sentencing for crimes where hate was a motivating factor.
Closer to home, during the Monday (February 21) meeting of the Vancouver board of education, my motion of support for Bill C-389 was passed unanimously. The motion also states the board will express this support to senators, who are now considering C-389, which has passed third reading in the House of Commons. (It received first reading in the Senate on February 10.)
Why is this bill school board business?
Harassment over gender expression can be for something as simple as wearing pink. People in B.C. should be aware that the widely celebrated Pink Shirt Day started when Nova Scotia Grade 12 students David Shepherd and Travis Price heard that a Grade 9 student had been threatened and called a homosexual for wearing pink on the first day of school. Shepherd and Price bought 50 pink shirts and e-mailed friends to get them on board. The next day, hundreds of students showed up wearing pink clothing. It then became a provincial phenomena, Canada-wide campaign, and is now an internationally recognized day. (Christy Clark incorrectly lays claim on her website to having created the Pink Shirt Day antibullying campaign—but it really was a student-initiated reaction to homophobic harassment based on gender expression.)
Egale’s recent national climate survey determined that 95 percent of transgender students feel unsafe at school, that nine out of 10 trans students are verbally harassed because of their expression of gender, and that two out of five are physically harassed due to their expression of gender.
Harassment due to expression of gender isn’t just experienced by trans, lesbian, gay, or bisexual students. The majority of those harassed for dressing or acting in ways that defy gender stereotypes are kids that don’t even identify as LGBTQ.
Harassment drives LGBTQ youth out of school and on to the streets. Research in the U.S. shows LGBTQ students drop out at three times the national average. A large number of Canadian and international studies point to the fact that such youth make up a disproportionate number of the students on the streets.
In February 2004, the COPE school board passed groundbreaking policy that included the following: “the Board is committed to establishing and maintaining a positive learning environment for all students and employees including those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, two-spirit, or who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity. These students and employees, as all students and employees, have the right to learn and work in an environment free of discrimination and harassment....Specifically, the Board will not tolerate hate crimes, harassment or discrimination, and will vigorously enforce policy and regulations dealing with such matters.”
The Vancouver school board is one of very few across the country that lists gender identity as an area of protection for students and staff. But once trans students leave our schools they are guaranteed no protection under the Canadian Human Rights Act or the Criminal Code. The VSB is working hard to make our schools more welcoming, safer, and inclusive places for all students to learn. As our motion says, we urge the Senate “to consider how Bill C-389 will make Canada a more welcoming, safer, and inclusive place for all citizens, but particularly for transgendered youth who may constitute a small minority of the Canadian population but disproportionately drop out of school because of harassment and may then face poverty, discrimination, harassment and hate-motivated violence”.
Bill C-389 and the human rights it addresses are clearly issues that fall squarely on the shoulders of school districts across the country. The lives of our youth are literally at stake. I hope we can ensure that the Canadian Senate understands this and passes Bill C-389.
Jane Bouey is a Coalition of Progressive Electors school trustee in Vancouver.