From parents and community members disrupting meetings to harmful misinformation to biased trustees, school boards remain a battleground for 2SLGBTQ+ students.
Anti-Trans Activists Are Disrupting School Boards Across Canada
Canadian Anti-Hate Network
When several provinces held municipal elections in 2022, part of going to the polls meant deciding on the latest slate of school board trustees. Many races quickly became less about education and more about another battle in the culture war.
With the most recent round of elections come and gone, many candidates that ran on platforms targeting the 2SLGBTQ+ community failed in their bids to take office. Those who made it onto boards, however, are attempting to follow through on these promises across the country – often with less than satisfactory results.
Since the election, these pitched social battles have continued to play out around education in and out of school boards, from the targetting of clubs designed to be an inclusive home for children, to advocacy targeting sex education and LGBTQ student rights, and trustees pushing policies critics call transphobic.
A Tide Of Advocacy
A significant organizing effort comes from outside of the school system. Numerous advocacy groups are rising up to challenge what they see as a philosophy damaging to children and an education system run amuck with “wokeness.”
“Woke” is a term originally used by the Black community to refer to being aware of racial and social justice issues.“Wokeness” is a co-opting of that term, and is typically used by far-right activists to label and attack a wide range of socially progressive policies and positions as extremist. “Anti-woke” activists sometimes portray themselves as sympathetic to marginalized people, but who are being forced to respond to a “society that has gone too far” in including and protecting them.
The issue of transgender children and accommodations made to fully include them in schools is one of the most significant issues being fought in the education system.
On the west coast, BC activists are targeting the SOGI123 program, a broad set of tools for teachers and policies for school boards that aim to foster inclusivity in the education system around different sexualities and gender identities – SOGI itself stands for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. Since its introduction, SOGI123 has been a target for those who not only oppose LGBTQ people in general, but want to keep sexual health education out of schools altogether.
One of the largest and most active groups organizing opposition is Action4Canada. A broad Christian nationalist organization with chapters across the country, it lends its voice to a variety of social issues, often using overtly racist and homophobic rhetoric in the process while endorsing a number of conspiracy theories.
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network has previously reported on the history and advocacy of A4C, the most recent of which has been campaigning against family-friendly events featuring drag performers. Founded by Tanya Gaw, the organization makes regular claims about a network of child groomers, using LGBTQ issues – all LGBTQ issues – as a means of subverting the county’s Christian values. A4C also pushes a wide range of bizarre takes relating to subjects from 5G cellular phone technology, cannabis legalization, “political Islam,” and more.
A recent newsletter decried the impression that Canada was a “multicultural country,” claiming it was intended to “divide Canada and undermine our democracy by declaring that we are a multicultural nation.”
The organization’s opinion of SOGI123 invokes many of the same scare tactics.
“The reality is that this program is a Trojan horse, brought into the schools under the guise of anti-bullying and supposedly to teach children to be ‘inclusive’ and support LGBTQ2+ students,” an introduction to a series on the subject of SOGI123 reads. “However, the SOGI123 resource goes way beyond this and in fact indoctrinates children into unhealthy sexual behaviour and confuses them through lies and misinformation. It is only inclusive for LGBTQ2+ students and those who are agreeable with their twisted ideologies.”
In 2016, the BC Ministry of Education directed all school boards and independent schools in the province to add “explicit references to sexual orientation and gender identity” to the codes of conduct policies they were already required to have in place.
This does not require school boards in BC to implement the SOGI123 resource, but it is often used to meet this requirement.
Also in BC, Chilliwack has repeatedly made headlines for the outwardly transphobic and sometimes conspiratorial views of present and past school board trustees.
The most notable among this cadre of public officials has long been Barry Neufeld, who was defeated in October. Part of a coalition called “ParentsVoice BC,” most of their candidates fared little better than Neufeld. Among those successfully elected in Chilliwack, incumbent Heather Maahs recently attempted to pass a “parental rights” policy.
Among the proposed rights included the ability to “determine what subject matter is appropriate for their child,” a right to “view all information” in a child’s files, and access to information regarding their child’s activities in school.
The motion was voted down, but not after raising concerns.
“The requirement of schools to report back to parents on some of their students’ activities, there could be a lot of situations where a child is not safe to tell their parents maybe some of the things that are going on at school,” Trustee Willow Reichelt told The Chilliwack Progress. “Especially a queer kid who is in a family with homophobic parents. They’ve come out at school and they’re living their best life and they don’t want to tell their parents.”
Other trustees told the publication they felt the motion was redundant, as parental rights are covered in other legislation.
Elected in 2008, Maahs has previously accused doctors talking about medical transition for transgender people as guilty of “malpractice,” mocked a transgender man who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer online – “You are a woman. The truth shall set you free,” – and boosted Chilliwack’s iteration of the anti-abortion “Walk For Life.”
In a February meeting of the Chilliwack School Board, Maahs was cut off by Reichelt as she attempted to broach the subject of books circulating in school libraries that she states are not approved resources and may violate the criminal code of Canada. Reichelt stated unequivocally that there are no books within the schools that violate the criminal code.
Also in the audience was Darrell Furgason, a trustee candidate defeated in the last municipal election. He attempted to address the school superintendent about the presence of “sexually explicit” materials in schools but was also cut off due to these items not being on the meeting agenda. In the past, Furgason has expressed repeated warnings about “genderism and transgenderism.”
In a written response to the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, Furgason expressed concern that “some books in Chilliwack School libraries meet the definition of child pornography,” and categorized Reichelt’s response to his questions as outlandish.
“We’re not doing this,” Reichelt said to the speakers. “There are no illegal materials in our schools. This is highly defamatory … It’s not true.”
The meeting was adjourned temporarily as Furgason refused to leave the podium.
A4C founder Tanya Gaw attended the same meeting and likewise had her microphone turned off after telling the board they could be held criminally liable for not removing the learning resources. She later attempted to broach the subject of “criminal record checks on drag queens” and SOGI123, but the discussion ended as the chair said it was once again not on the agenda.
Gaw did not respond to a request for comment sent through A4C, but a recent newsletter from the organization, discussing a different BC school board, raises the same concerns. A4C says Gaw and the Mission, BC chapter leader “have respectfully voiced their concerns” and are requesting an investigation into “pornographic books.” They are also asking for a review of SOGI123 “due to measurable harm being reported by residents.”
Trustee Linda Stone. Source: Durham District School Board
In Ontario, the Durham District School Board trustees found that Trustee Linda Stone had breached its code of conduct six times with her comments on social media and during commission meetings about race and transgender people.
An investigation conducted by the board’s integrity commissioner determined that Stone’s conduct was both “inappropriate” and “persistent.”
Stone declined to provide comment for this article.
Several fellow trustees and one member of the public filed complaints against Stone for comments related to gender identity, comments and shares on a since-deleted Twitter account, and objections to the use of the term “white supremacy” in board policy.
During a February 6, special meeting of the school board, her other trustees voted unanimously to censure Stone and bar her from all committees until the end of 2023. Stone stepped down last year, after other complaints about her comments about transgender people, but was reelected in October.
How School Boards Respond
Two school boards – Waterloo Region District School Board and Renfrew County Catholic District School Board – have taken an assertive approach to the intrusion of anti-LGBTQ bigotry in their school communities, in the form of open letters addressing their stances on these issues.
In January, a parent delegated at a Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) meeting and accused the board of “facilitating child abuse” and concealing information about students from parents. The parent also echoed the comments made last year by since-retired teacher Carolyn Burjoski, in which Burjoski described several LGBTQ-themed books that were recently acquired for a school library, as sexually explicit and inappropriate for school-aged children.
The school board issued its open letter four days later, unequivocally denying the parent’s accusation that it facilitates child abuse, and deliberately excludes caregivers from their children’s education.
The board also identified these accusations as “veiled attempts to target 2SLGBTQIA+ children and families” that “align with wider attempts over the past year that target public education and the need to address achievement and well-being gaps that exist among Indigenous, Black, racialized students, those with Special Education identifications and those coming out of poverty.”
The statement countered misinformation about data collection, which is both a source of legitimate concern and often a favourite topic of conspiracy theorists. The board highlighted that it collects student demographic data on an entirely voluntary basis and explains the reason for collecting the data – to enhance the experiences of students and support their social, emotional, and learning needs.
For the last few months, Renfrew County Catholic District School Board (RCCDSB) has been the target of a very public campaign by a student involved in anti-LGBTQ activism both inside and outside the school, as well as several adult far-right activists who support the student. The student who has become a figurehead of this campaign has claimed in numerous media interviews to be attempting to protect the cisgender girls in his school from having to share washroom facilities with transgender girls. He also claims that this campaign is a matter of “freedom of expression and freedom of religion” that should allow him to openly espouse anti-trans positions within the school – including refusing to refer to trans classmates by their chosen names.
In response, the RCCDSB released an open letter, stating it takes a “pastoral care approach” that it says includes engaging trans youth in “conversations around safety, bullying, harassment, and the process the student is following during their transition and what types of wrap-around care the school can provide to support the student and their family.”
Adding that all students are “entitled – and encouraged” to share their beliefs, “one shouldn’t be made to feel unsafe or marginalized. Bullying behaviour that creates an unsafe space for our students is not tolerated.”
It adds that the framing by protest organizers is “that boys are utilizing the girls’ washrooms and vice versa on a large scale.”
“This is not the case,” the board wrote.