Patti Bacchus: “SOGI” foes trying to influence school board elections

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      I was worried school board elections wouldn’t get much attention this year, especially since we finally have a public-education friendly provincial government.

      Funding announcements for seismic upgrades and replacement schools are coming faster than they ever did under the B.C. Liberal government. School district operating funding is up and Education Minister Rob Fleming is getting along well with school boards.

      It’s not like the bad old days under the B.C. Liberals, who seemed to have it in for public schools. Back then, voters were looking for school trustees who would stand up to government and fight for what students needed. Times have changed.

      Aside for some local issues, like the Vancouver school board’s catchment boundary review and lead-contaminated water, or decisions in suburban and rural districts about who is eligible for school bus service or which school gets a French Immersion program, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot to get excited about as school board election campaigns got underway a few weeks ago.

      But then hate reared its big, ugly head.

      “Anti-SOGI” efforts will be futile, but shouldn’t be ignored

      It’s hard to believe this is happening in 2018, but folks are out there working to turn back the clock on progress that’s been made to ensure all B.C. public schools are safe, welcoming, and inclusive for all students, their families, and employees, regardless of the sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI).

      Some of them have created a document they’re calling the West Coast Christian Accord, which they say is “designed to unify like-minded leaders and churches to form a coalition from which a united stand can be mounted…it is intended to be a statement of faith concerning the authority of scripture on gender identity and human sexuality”.

      The accord cites 14 articles, each containing affirmations and denials. For example, article 11 affirms that “it is contrary to the scripture to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism [sic] and that such approval constitutes an essential departure of biblical values and Christian witness”.

      It’s followed by a statement titled “We deny that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism [sic] is simply a matter of moral indifference about which Christians can just agree to disagree.”

      That’s just a tiny, rancid taste of the gobbledegook some folks are espousing, yet they claim to have signed on over 200 evangelical pastors from across B.C. as part of a campaign against a teaching resource kit called SOGI 123. Their campaign is calling on the province “to remove the sexual orientation and identity material from school curriculum”.

      Groups that appear to be aligned with them are holding rallies, including one last weekend in front of the legislature, that was met by a counter rally of supporters of school board SOGI policies and learning resources that support them.

      The “Christian Accord” sparked a counter statement from a different group of Christian leaders, via an open letter to Fleming that opens with “We, the undersigned Christian leaders are writing to you to express our support for the SOGI 123 educational resources created for use in BC public schools. You may have heard that SOGI does not align with Christian beliefs and values and we are here to tell you otherwise.”

      SOGI 123 refers to information and resources for educators and parents. It was developed by the ARC Foundation in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, B.C. Teachers’ Federation, UBC Faculty of Education, educational partners, and several LGBTQ community organizations. 

      With both the current government and the B.C. Liberals supporting B.C.’s SOGI-inclusive curriculum, the anit-SOGI pastors and their supporters are pretty much screaming into the wind, which seems appropriate. After all, school boards are obliged to uphold the B.C. Human Rights Code and ensure schools are inclusive and free of discrimination for all students and staff, including those who are LGBTQ.

      If anything, the anti-SOGI efforts and rallies are solidifying support for ensuring all schools are explicit about being welcoming and inclusive for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and that teaching across all aspects of the curriculum will reflect that. As it should.

      Last weekend, the B.C. government released a joint statement from Fleming, the B.C. Teachers' Federation, B.C. School Superintendents Association, B.C. School Trustees Association, B.C. Principals' and Vice-Principals' Association, CUPE B.C., B.C. Association of School Business Officials, Federation of Independent School Associations, B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, ARC Foundation, First Nations Education Steering Committee, First Nations Schools Association, and Métis Nation BC.

      Phew. It would be no small feat to get that group to agree what day it is, so let’s give the anti-SOGI warriors credit for bringing them all together to make this powerful declaration:  

      “All of B.C.’s provincial education partners for K-12 schools are committed to ensuring every school—both public and independent— is a place where students feel safe, accepted, respected and welcome regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion or background. In 2016, the B.C. Human Rights Code was amended to ensure that gender identity and expression are protected under the code. There is no room for any type of discrimination in our schools.

      “As provincial education partners, we stand unified in this commitment. All of our province’s 60 school districts have now updated their codes of conduct and all independent schools have updated their harassment and bullying prevention policies that safeguard students from being bullied for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Students have the complete support of teachers, administrators, support staff, trustees and parents as we create learning environments where all students are free of discrimination so they can thrive and live authentic lives.”

      Let’s just say the wagons are securely circled and they don’t stand a chance with the argument that “the SOGI message contradicts the Christian truths, disrespects Charter values, and is harmful to school children, their parents, school teachers, and society as a whole”. But that’s not stopping some from trying to make inroads in the October 20 school board elections.

      Someone’s created a website they claim is tracking school trustee candidates and stating—erroneously— that school boards “are responsible for adding and removing learning resources from their district list of approved learning resources”. (They aren’t—teachers have the professional autonomy to select the resources they use to teach the provincial curriculum and teachers are obligated to uphold B.C.’s Human Rights Code.) They go onto to say that “newly elected trustees across the province will, once in office, need to vote on a motion containing the words ‘SOGI 123 as a learning resource.’ ”

      So, they’re trying to get people vote for candidates who promise to do something they won’t have to power to do. Makes as much sense as the rest of the garbage they’ve been spewing, but there you have it. 

      The exercise is futile and frankly, absurd, but we’d be wrong to ignore it, tempting as that may be.

      As we’ve seen south of the border and even in good old Ontario, progress can’t be taken for granted and complacency is hate’s best friend.

      Think of the children

      These “anti-SOGI” forces prey and feed on fear and ignorance, and seem even comical at times. Heck, I couldn’t help laughing myself at the bizarre response I got when I tried to go and listen to what the “Parents Heart” group was saying at a large meeting with school board candidates at a Burnaby community centre recently. They ran over and locked the doors and rolled up the projector screen when they saw me. They held papers over the door so I couldn’t see who was in the room. Good grief, what were they so ashamed of?

      But this whole sorry kerfuffle is no joke. Imagine being a shy, anxious kid trying to work up the nerve to come out? I suspect it could be terrifying and sickening to hear these community “leaders” attacking what you are. What if one of them was your parent? What if you were a young, out teacher starting your career, now wondering if your job could somehow end up at risk? That’s why the joint statement the government put out is so important.

      With candidates running on what some are calling “hate slates” in Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Richmond, Burnaby, Campbell River, and Langley, there’s a real risk some could get elected. That would send a horrible and frightening message to kids, who would wonder what kind of adults would elect such people to serve on school boards.

      It would also risk four years of distracting debate about something that’s already been decided by the province, and heck, even by the courts in several high-profile cases (Azmi Jubran, Kempling, and the Surrey book banning case). School boards need to be focusing on ensuring students have access to the programs, staff, and support they need to be successful, not fighting about whether teachers can teach the B.C. curriculum in safe and inclusive schools.

      Concerns like this spurred to the Chilliwack Teachers’ Association (CTA) to do something it’s never done before: endorse a slate of candidates for the school board elections, calling this election “exceptional.”

      In a new release, the CTA says: “The CTA and the BCTF have a long-standing history of advocating for the elimination of all forms of discrimination. As this election campaign has gone on, it has become apparent that a number of the candidates have publicly stated that they do not believe the SOGI123 resource should be used in schools. It was vital that the CTA endorse trustee candidates who solidly uphold the values of inclusion and diversity and who are committed to ensuring our schools are safe places to learn and work. These values are enshrined in the British Columbia Human Rights Code. “

      On October 20, it’s important for all of us to send a strong message by voting for school board candidates who are committed to keeping our schools safe and inclusive for all students, their families and staff, and by sending those on so-called “hate slates” packing. They have no place on any of our public-school boards.

      With voter turnout typically low for school board elections, especially in suburbs and rural districts, your vote could make all the difference. Use it, and use it wisely. For the kids.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.