Advocacy groups are raising concerns about a number of candidates vying for school trustee positions across Canada, saying a higher number than usual are spreading transphobic rhetoric or other discriminatory messages targeting the LGBTQ community.
Groups like the Canadian Anti-Hate Network say the phenomenon is a growing national concern as several provinces hold municipal elections that also put school board trustees into office. A coalition of groups in Ottawa, meanwhile, have gone so far as to name specific candidates they say will likely endanger the rights and safety of trans students if elected.
While generally low profile, trustee elections have been marked by more overt and co-ordinated efforts among candidates pushing against policies designed to make schools more inclusive for trans kids, said Hazel Woodrow, an education facilitator with the Anti-Hate Network.
“We’re definitely seeing more vocal and more overtly anti-equity, far-right, candidates,” said Woodrow.
She said that while candidates may not be xenophobic or espouse views typically associated with the far right, there are those who are ‘virulently against’ the inclusion and acceptance of trans kids in school. The Network has placed both types of candidates in the same category.
“The impact of the kinds of policies that they’re advocating for is that queer and trans kids don’t see themselves reflected in their school communities,” Woodrow said. “They see themselves as being excised, and outsiders. And ultimately, it’s damaging.”
While trustees can’t change the education curriculum, Woodrow said the fact they can set budgets and board policies means they can strongly influence the school environment. She said that environment, in turn, is directly linked to health outcomes, particularly for marginalized students.
Policies could include everything from which flags are raised in front of the school to the question of policing in schools, equitable hiring practices and support programs for LGBTQ students.
Trustees can also have an effect by giving direction on the hiring of a board’s director of education, said Sachin Maharaj, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Ottawa.
“They play a really large role in kind of setting the sort of tone for the way schools or classrooms actually operate at that local level,” he said.
Maharaj said people generally don’t pay much attention to trustee elections, making it easier for smaller groups to have an outsized influence on the direction of education.
Last week, a collective of advocacy groups including Horizon Ottawa issued a letter condemning the “transphobic rhetoric” being used by some Ottawa school board trustees, naming several candidates they feel might endanger the rights and safety of trans students.
Much of the concern has focused on candidates running in Ontario, where municipal elections are set to take place on Monday, but Woodrow notes the trend has a broader scope with implications for other provinces. Municipal elections in British Columbia took place on Oct. 15, while Manitoba residents will cast their municipal ballots on Oct. 26.
“It’s absolutely a national issue. We’re seeing it across the board,” she said.
She said quasi-anonymous websites, such as Blueprint for Canada and Vote Against Woke, have sprung up to help push candidates that align with views pushing against trans accommodations in schools.
Peter Wallace, running to be a trustee of Ontario’s Trillium Lakelands District School Board and founder of Blueprint for Canada, said by email that he’s concerned by divisive identity politics that have taken root in the public education system, as well as what he described as efforts by school boards to silence dissenting parents.
“I feel that contemporary diversity, equity, and inclusion programs are responsible for fomenting divisions,” he wrote.
He said candidates linked to Blueprint for Canada are fully supportive of multiculturalism and supporting students of different sexual orientations, but have had to “draw the line” over issues of gender ideology.
Woodrow said it’s important to concentrate less on each candidate’s intention and more on the impact of the policies they’re proposing, which she said research shows can be really damaging to students.
“These are really, really high stakes for the most vulnerable people in our communities.”
Determining where trustee candidates actually stand can be a challenge, said Stephanie Tuters, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, as social justice language is being co-opted by those on the right.
“That’s really confusing for the average parent right now,” said Tuters.
She said it would help if trustees were better at communicating with constituents more generally, as currently most don’t do enough outreach to act on behalf of the public as they’re mandated to do.
Tuters said the low profile of trustees has helped certain groups try to push platforms that she finds highly concerning, not only on human rights issues related to trans individuals, but also on how the history of racial relations in Canada are taught and talked about.
“It’s important for individual communities to be able to do school, essentially, in a little bit of a different way depending on the needs of the community, but not if it’s going to infringe on basic human rights.”