Erica Jaaf: Politics is how we choose to take care of each other

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      By Erica Jaaf

      While I have been politically engaged my entire life, this is my first time as a candidate, so let me tell you a bit about who I am. I’m originally from Walden, Ontario, just down the road from Atikameksheng Anishnawbek (the Whitefish Lake First Nation), in the Robinson-Huron treaty area. I grew up in a working class family where political conversation and debate was common, and I have been active on issues of justice since my teens. I have always understood politics is how we choose to take care of each other.

      My earliest efforts were with the Sudbury Citizens’ Movement, coordinating the first Earth Day commemoration in the nickel capital of the world. Miners and other working people care about the environment and their communities, too. This is the lens I look through. Education and adventure moved me west. The beauty, art, and politics of this city stopped me in my tracks, and I’ve lived in Vancouver for 20 years.

      I met my husband in the antiwar movement. We make our home in an East Vancouver housing cooperative, and have two brilliant, marvelous, compassionate, funny, beautiful children. I joined the Parent Advisory Council (PAC) as a way to connect with my kids’ school life, and was quickly dismayed by the state of things. At the time, we were fundraising for a playground at our K-3 annex; our PAC had applied for a corporate grant, which was to be awarded based on email votes over the course of several weeks. We lost. One of the “winners” was a breakfast and weekend backpack program at an inner-city Vancouver school.

      Let that sink in for a minute. Teachers at a school in our district were begging an insurance company to fund a program to feed their hungry students. Each year, the classroom sizes seemed to get bigger, supports for our English-language learners and students with special needs seemed less. Gifted education opportunities were cut; we lost our qualified fine arts instructor; our band program was phased out. The common practice of teacher-administrator “wish lists”, submitted at the end of each school year, was also a revelation—for our schools, this included sports equipment and uniforms, technology to support learning and to help teachers teach, art supplies and equipment, and musical instruments.

      My focus turned to advocacy for adequate funding for public schools in our district and province. I have served as District PAC representative and provided monthly advocacy updates to our parent community. I am a member (on leave) of the steering committee of the Parent Advocacy Network for Public Education (PAN).

      Our kids are in French Immersion public school, grades six and three. I am surprised to hear that some think sending one’s children to French Immersion is elitist. My hometown is functionally bilingual, and our country is officially so. We don’t send our kids to French Immersion so they can pursue graduate studies at the Sorbonne; we send them to French Immersion because I know how limited the jobs were for me during high school as an English-only speaker, and how many thousands of good jobs in the federal civil service I did not qualify for because of it.

      The opportunity to learn in French should be available to children of all abilities, and the supports should be there for them. Similarly, I don’t support robust arts and music programming because I want students to know how to behave in an opera house, but because cultural and artistic expression is guaranteed to children in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Child. I am a steadfast labour movement supporter and believe the strength of our schools comes from the strength of the BCTF, CUPE, and IUOE members who work in them. Their working conditions are inextricably linked to students’ learning conditions.

      Through my tenure on our co-op’s board of directors I have learned that democracy and decision-making are hard work. My professional life as a clinical data manager working in evidence-based medicine has taught me that making good policy decisions starts with asking the right questions and having the right information. And I can see the connections: healthy communities, healthy families, healthy kids.

      There are challenges ahead for Vancouver board of education trustees: the public education system has been underfunded for almost two decades; nearly 60 schools have yet to complete seismic mitigation, leaving thousands of Vancouver kids at risk; we share collective responsibility to support the second Aboriginal education enhancement agreement; we are midway through transitioning to a new provincial curriculum; and there are many teaching positions still to be filled in our district.

      There are opportunities, too. We have a new government that campaigned on adequate funding of public schools, as did their coalition partners, and a Supreme Court of Canada decision that provides direction on class size and composition—a true victory for teachers and students only if the most vulnerable students and families are included in its implementation. I am prepared to work cooperatively in the best interests of Vancouver’s kids, teachers, staff, and communities to meet the challenges ahead.

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      Erica Jaaf is a OneCity Vancouver candidate for the Vancouver school board.

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