Parents lost in SOGI crossfire; former education minister speaks out

Written By Fran Yanor

“We have to talk about what’s age appropriate, and what’s really, truly supposed to be in the classroom.”

––Mike Bernier

When the BC Conservatives kicked off the legislative session with a politically provocative question on parental concerns about sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) polices in schools, the Premier let loose a blast of moral umbrage which, in turn, fuelled an emotionally charged standing ovation from BC United members.

It was B.C. politics on steroids.

“Parents are concerned about the sexualization of their children in this NDP government’s education system. Will the minister admit that SOGI 123 has been divisive, an assault on parents’ rights and a distraction on student education?”  BC Conservative Leader John Rustad asked in his first question of the session.

If Rustad’s framing was political theatre, Eby’s response was no less so.

BC Conservative Leader John Rustad and Premier David Eby during question period. [Images Hansard TV]

Eby accused Rustad of leveraging his office to feed “fires of division” and make “a small group of kids in our province … feel less safe at school, less safe in our community.”

 Rustad was finding “political advantage in picking on kids and families and teachers and schools who are just trying to do their best for kids who are at risk of suicide,” the Premier said.

“Shame on him. Choose another question.”

To which, two BC United caucus members sprang to stand and cheer, followed by most of their caucus, in what one MLA later characterized as a “mob moment,” where members felt pressured to join in lest they also be labelled bullies of the marginalized. 

Lost in the maelstrom of vitriol and virtue signalling was any constructive discourse on parents’ actual concerns.

Protests and counter-protests drown out the quiet voices 

Recently, SOGI-related protests and counter-protests have erupted in B.C. (and the country) where misinformation abounds and any number of conspiratorial, nefarious or sexual intentions are attributed to the program and its administrators. Yet, amid the emotional rancor, credible concerns exist. A fact many SOGI supporters, including the Premier it seems, dismiss out-of-hand as misinformed or bigoted rhetoric. 

Many SOGI advocates categorize people as either for it or against it, with no nuances in between. 

“I am so sick of the thinly veiled hateful façade of ‘parental’ rights,” wrote former BC Teachers Federation president, Teri Mooring, in a post to her X social media account following Rustad’s question. 

“I am so sick of the thinly veiled hateful façade of ‘parental’ rights.”

Teri Mooring

For supporters, SOGI is strictly a human rights issue, with those students’ safety held above all else. Any conflicting concerns, even those raised by thoughtful, worried parents are viewed as backwards, suspicious, even loathsome or phobic. 

“School might be the only place a student feels safe to be their authentic self. For youth who don’t experience a sense of belonging at home, a teacher could be the one supportive adult that helps them feel valued,” reads the ARC Foundation website in its rationale for SOGI in schools. 

While it’s true a great teacher can change lives for the better and a sad fact some children don’t feel valued at home, as an overarching statement of intention, this one seems a bit exclusionary of parents and potentially tees up as adversarial any ensuing dissent they might have about the program.

‘Legitimate concerns’

Absent from the myriad of public shouting matches around SOGI are the voices of parents too busy ploughing through their overfull days to show up at protests or school board meetings. They are less vocal, and their numbers are unknown, but judging by the emails and conversations with elected representatives, they are many.

Maybe these parents haven’t even approached their child’s teacher lest they too get branded loathsome for broaching criticism of the program. But silent or loud, they are sounding increasingly alarmed at what’s making it into their children’s classrooms and schools. 

“There are legitimate concerns out there,” BC United Leader Kevin Falcon said at a press conference recently.

Parents have a right to be involved in their children’s education, he said. “They have a right to know what’s going on in their classrooms and what’s being taught to their kids. And … it’s got to be age appropriate, because that’s the biggest complaint that most parents have.”

“There are legitimate concerns out there.”

Kevin Falcon

In contrast, when the Premier was asked if there were some parental concerns deserving consideration by his government, he downplayed complaints, equating them with the usual confusion parents have about what goes on their children’s classroom. 

“It’s really hard and frustrating as a parent to know what’s actually happening in school,” he said. “And so we’re having to share that information directly with parents to address this misinformation.”

Eby then called out the forces of division, presumably the BC Conservatives. “There are a group of people that are deliberately spreading misinformation, lies about our education system, about teachers, about librarians in our schools … for their own political gain. And to build a power base in our province that is toxic.”

SOGI began as an anti-bullying module for teachers

“There’s so much confusion out there, it’s become so divisive,” said the BC United’s Mike Bernier, who was the province’s education minister when the SOGI 123 program was introduced seven years ago under the BC Liberal government (now BC United).

“When we brought it in … there were no issues in the classroom. There were no parents complaining, there were no rallies. Heck, even the religious private schools brought it in, because they realized it was about protecting our kids.”

SOGI began when Bernier and his ministry staff discovered that somewhere around 70 per cent of kids self-harming, committing suicide or complaining about being bullied were on the LGBTQ spectrum.

“I took it back to [then BC Liberal premier] Christy Clark. And I said, you know, we need to look at this.” 

Back then, sexual orientation and gender identity had recently been added to the Human Rights Code, so the government decided to ensure every school had an anti-bullying policy “to make sure everybody got the safest, most equitable education possible in the school system,” Bernier said. “It was all honed around anti-bullying.”

“[SOGI] wasn’t curriculum. It wasn’t in the classroom. It was an educational module for teachers.”

Mike Bernier

When school districts, the BC Teachers Federation (BCTF) and others said they needed more information, the ministry hired ARC Foundation, an independent group to do educator training. 

“It wasn’t curriculum. It wasn’t in the classroom. It was an educational module for teachers,” he said. It taught teachers how to support students struggling emotionally, how to work through the system and decide when it was right to talk to parents or the administration. 

Bernier stands by the good intentions of the original SOGI initiative.  

“The fault should not be what we brought in. The fault should be at what it’s become.”

New Democrats expand SOGI into classrooms 

A year after SOGI was implemented, the New Democrats gained power and the Ministry of Education began funding an expansion of the program.  

Since then, ARC Foundation, which describes itself as being “enablers,” not educators, collaborated with educator advocates to develop proactive K-to-12 lesson suggestions and curriculum support materials. Most recently, the SOGI resource guide was created with the SOGI Collaborative, an ARC-led group consisting of mainly SOGI advocates from educator and administrator associations, ministry staff, a parent group, Indigenous educators, and various LGBTQ communities members.

The resource guide may be the biggest source of controversy today in terms of how it’s being interpreted and implemented school-to-school, classroom-to-classroom. It provides policies for schools on standards of practice and procedures on how to direct day-to-day operations.

Among the key components are recommendations for respectful SOGI terminology; students’ right to  choose pronoun descriptors; moving away from “male and female (binary) descriptors;” keeping a student’s gender, sex and name confidential; and students’ right to use washrooms and changerooms that match their gender identity.

All 60 of B.C.’s school districts have adopted the guidelines.

‘It’s putting parents in a weird spot’

SOGI was never intended as instruction in the classroom, Bernier said. “It’s been co-opted, if that’s the right word, now by politics and by the extremism I’d say on all sides, which was not what we did.”

The biggest change under SOGI in the past year or more is “some people, for whatever reason, are allowing inappropriate things that are not age appropriate to be brought into the classroom.

“I don’t know if it’d be fair to say, rogue teachers, but there are some teachers that are going way beyond the [original] intentions by allowing groups in their classroom, or maybe even themselves bringing things into the classroom,” said Bernier, who has an adult child who identifies as transgender.

“As a father of a trans boy, I lived through this, and I understand the challenges and the misinformation that can be out there, and the emotions from parents who don’t understand. 

“It wasn’t until she – at the time – was 18 years old, that we had a discussion. That was their choice, not mine. But at no time when they were 12 did I say ‘Hey, by the way, if you want to grow up and be trans, that’s okay.’ 

“It’s putting parents in a weird spot,” he said. “It’s not about the issue [of bullying or inclusivity] per se. It’s about who has the right to talk about it, at what time.”

Third party groups, inappropriate materials and ‘proper vetting’

When Education Minister Rachna Singh was asked later about a third-party group that enraged parents when it introduced extreme sexual materials to 13 and 14-year-olds in the Peace region, she deflected. “It’s the school districts who are inviting these third parties.” 

The ministry’s deputy minister has asked school districts to do “proper vetting” of any third-party organizations delivering resources to schools, she added. Singh maintained she had no knowledge about the specific third party, despite heated correspondence to her from Opposition MLAs, media attention on several incidences involving them, including a detailed response from her staff on her behalf to Northern Beat on the topic. 

In response to a question about sexualized materials in an intermediate school library, Singh told MLAs only age-appropriate materials were being shared in classrooms.

Parents are saying, let me have that discussion’

“This is where politically I get very upset with the NDP, and the present minister of education as well, and I have to say, the [BC Teachers Federation], because we have to talk about what’s age appropriate, and what’s really, truly supposed to be in the classroom,” said Bernier.

“It’s been co-opted, if that’s the right word, now by politics and by the extremism on all sides.”

Mike Bernier

If he was still education minister, what would he do?

If this was going on under Christy Clark, “I would have been called in and asked, ‘What the hell is going on? Get a hold of this.’”

The situation calls for strict parameters around what’s being taught to whom and when, but instead, everybody’s letting the culture war take place and nobody wants to deal with it, he said. 

“I’m worried because we’re seeing these protests, how polarized they’re getting, how personal it’s getting.” 

Emotions are running high from school boardrooms to the legislative chamber, and a lot of animosity could be avoided if decision makers just sat down and talked about what’s really happening, Bernier said.

“We cannot bury our heads in the sand on this issue. Somebody has to take responsibility. But to do that, they have to acknowledge it’s actually happening first.”