Chilliwack’s school board has now firmly stated its support for SOGI 123 teaching materials, following months of controversy started by one of its trustees. Board chair Paul McManus read the full statement at the outset of the public meeting on Tuesday night (see bottom of story for full text). That meeting was disrupted at least twice, once by a pro-SOGI rally that moved into the board office lobby, and once by a Christian television evangelist who spoke out of order during a question period.
In part, the board’s statement says it acknowledges “that when learning resources, such as SOGI 123, are used, utmost professional judgment will be exercised in assessing how learning resources are utilized. The Chilliwack School District is one of 51 out of 60 school districts in the province that are in the provincial SOGI network.”
The statement said the board has “always supported all students regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion or background.”
But that support has been doubted over the past several months, since Trustee Barry Neufeld came out against SOGI 123, a Ministry of Education approved teaching resource that addresses sexual orientation and gender identity in the classrooms. The resources aim to lead discussions about traditional gender roles and myth busting, in age appropriate ways, as well as dealing with pronouns in situations where it’s called for.
Neufeld has written several times online about his stance against SOGI 123, and has even stated in a public meeting he is working on an “alternate inclusion program.” He spoke publicly at a rally for a group that actively works to stop SOGI 123 and believe transgender children will “grow out of it” and are in danger from adults and “social engineering.”
Up until Tuesday night, the board had not collectively spoken in support of SOGI 123. They attended a private SOGI 123 information session the day before, lead by the district’s assistant superintedent Rohan Arul-Pragasam, where they drafted the statement.
All of this led up to Tuesday night’s rally, where about 150 people gathered outside the Chilliwack school district office an hour before the public meeting. They wore neon lights, held signs, drummed, played guitar, chanted, and sang songs.
People came from all over the Fraser Valley and lower mainland to join the rally in support of LGBTQ children and teens. Among the supporters was also Anglican priest John Sovereign.
“I’m totally in support of SOGI,” he said. “It’s a move in the right direction. I’m so glad kids growing up won’t have to hide in plain sight anymore. And there is nothing more gospel than that.”
As a First Nation drummer played nearby, he added: “This is where Jesus would be.”
But the more common refrain of the night was “Hey hey, ho ho, Barry Neufeld’s got to go,” as rally participants marched up and down the streets around the district building, through the parking lot and even into the building.
A sizeable group moved into the lobby about halfway through the meeting, while the board was attempting to listen to Superintendent Evelyn Novak present the upcoming school calendar, which is being changed to a one-week spring break model. The reasoning for the change was hard to hear, due to the chanting, and was arguably the most contentious item on the agenda for many families and staff that evening.
As the voices got louder, Trustee Heather Maahs interrupted Novak and made a motion to suspend the meeting, in order to clear the building of the protesters. Neufeld seconded the motion, but the rest of the board voted against Maahs’ motion and it failed. (Trustee Silvia Dyck is away on an extended medical leave.)
Chair McManus said he would rather let them continue to protest and that they had all the information in front of them that they needed to make their decision, and the meeting carried on. Earlier in the evening, a woman holding a sign that read “Grannies for SOGI” quietly walked the perimeter of the room. She was ushered out of the room and back to the rally.
The security on site also reportedly called in the RCMP to help with the crowd and attempt to get them to the leave the area. However, upon arrival they found nothing wrong and left without incident. The school board office is almost directly across the street from the RCMP detachment.
At the end of the meeting, in the second question and answer period, one of Neufeld’s most vocal supporters attempted to make a speech. However, the question period at the end of the meeting is set aside only for items that were discussed on that evening’s agenda, and Neufeld and SOGI 123 were not on the agenda. The woman, Christian television personality and Culture Guard member Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson, was quickly called on a point of order by Trustee Dan Coulter. She kept talking, however, questioning what “point of order” meant. She pulled up two teenagers she said she met at the rally to try to continue speaking in defence of Neufeld.
McManus turned off the microphone to the podium, as people in the audience began shouting that she needed to be shut down, since nobody else would be allowed to speak to the SOGI issue. Many people left the boardroom in defiance and the meeting was quickly adjourned.
During the first question and answer period, which is not limited to agenda items, several people brought up questions about Neufeld and his recent behaviour. Parent and long-time PAC volunteer Clara Hooper asked about Neufeld’s remuneration, since he is no longer acting as a liaison in his role as trustee. Neufeld didn’t attempt to respond to the question.
A parent who didn’t identify herself for fear of reprisal, presumably from Neufeld supporters, pressed McManus and others to state whether they had reached out to Justine Hodge, Chilliwack District Parent Advisory Council chair, after Neufeld launched a letter-writing campaign against her among his political supporters. Trustee Coulter was the only one to have done so. Hodge felt so under attack by the content of the letters, she contacted the RCMP.
Morgane Oger, a trans advocate from Vancouver, asked if the board has or will be censuring Neufeld for his actions, to show future trustees that such actions will not be tolerated.
McManus responded that they are in the middle of legal advice on the matter and could not comment.