Anti-LGBTQ2S+ groups trying to elect ‘god-fearing’ and ‘anti-woke’ school board trustees, group says

It’s municipal election season, and experts are warning that some far-right groups and individuals are bringing an agenda of anti-diversity and anti-LGBTQ2S+ views to an important, but often-forgotten, ballot battleground: school boards.

According to the Canadian Anti-Hate Network (CAHN), far-right lobbying groups are attempting to install school board trustees who will uphold what CAHN calls regressive views.

Those they are warning against say they’re simply trying to inform Canadians where school board candidates stand on certain issues.

But CAHN says that pushing candidates who support what it calls hateful ideologies can have hugely negative impacts on school environments, from creating unsafe policies exposing LGBTQ2S+ students in front of potentially unsupportive families to voting to limit books and speakers that could provide students with more diverse perspectives.

“The outcomes ultimately, are very damaging,” Hazel Woodrow, an education facilitator with CAHN, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. “So regardless of what they kind of claim, or their motivations, ultimately, the outcomes are not in the best interests of students and in particular, marginalized students.”

CAHN initially posted a release about the issue in late August, warning that the “far-right is trying to stack school boards.”

The independent organization, which was started in 2018, is a “non-profit non-partisan organization that monitors, researches, exposes far right and hate promoting groups, movements, individuals in Canada,” according to Woodrow.

CAHN received a grant through the federal government’s Anti-Racism Action Program in 2020 to create an anti-racism toolkit for schools, but is not currently receiving any government funds.

The Campaign Life Coalition (CLC), a pro-life organization which CAHN calls a “reactionary far-right lobbying group,” regularly pushes for its members to run for school boards, “and has been endorsing political candidates for over 20 years.”

The director of political operations wrote in a July blog post that it’s important to “elect God-fearing school trustees” who will try to steer schools to teach that abortion and LGBTQ2S+ identities are a “grave sin.”

They endorse candidates in both Catholic and public school board races. Within the public school board system in Ontario alone, there are 89 candidates that CLC “deems supportable,” Woodrow said, underlining how big the issue is.

Across Canada, “it’s probably in the hundreds, at least,” she said.

Since it first raised this issue, CAHN has also been tallying candidates in races across the country on its website who it alleges are part of this far-right push, ranging from candidates who are allegedly associated with white supremacy groups such as the Proud Boys to candidates who have been openly racist, homophobic and transphobic.

Some of the candidates it has flagged have come under fire from the general public as well. In August, two school board trustee candidates from Ottawa made news for espousing anti-trans views, sparking backlash from parents and activists.

British Columbia and Yukon already held their elections earlier this month, but next week there are two provinces holding their municipal elections: Ontario on Oct. 24 and Manitoba on Oct. 26.

On Nov. 7, Prince Edward Island residents will be heading to the ballot box.

Far-right is a broad term refers to those who are on the extreme right end of the political spectrum. Far-right groups often have a heavy focus on nationalism and may see different marginalized groups as threats, such as women, racial minorities, and those in the LGBTQ2S+ community.

TIPPING THE SCHOOL BOARD SCALES

When it comes time for local elections, most people will know which mayoral candidate they’re interested in voting for, and may even have paid attention to their local city councillor race.

But school board trustees often get forgotten — a typical “downballot” problem, Woodrow said.

“I think a lot of people assume that they don’t need to be invested in these races, if they don’t have kids in the school system,” she said.

Schools are shaping the next generation, however, and school board trustees, as the connection between the community and the school, can play a big role in that.

“They create, they develop, they enforce policies that shape the school and environment,” Woodrow said.

A school board dominated by anti-LGBTQ2S+ trustees could create policies that expose students to violence or harassment.

“An example of that might be a policy that requires school staff to inform the students’ caregivers of their participation in something like a Queer Straight Alliance, which could risk outing the student to a household that could be hostile to their identity,” Woodrow pointed out.

But there can be more subtle repercussions too.

Before CLC endorses a candidate, it has them fill out a questionnaire. In one question that CLC poses to Catholic school board candidates, it asks if candidates will prevent guest speakers who have “publicly expressed positions that contradict the morality and teaching of the Church, no matter how great their achievements in politics, business, sports, science or the arts.”

This means that even if a gay man were invited as a school speaker purely to share his career as an astronaut, for example, a school board trustee approved by CLC would vote against allowing this.

“Basically they’re saying, no matter how accomplished someone is, if they are even passively expressing a ‘position’ by marrying someone of the same gender, or transitioning, that would be someone who is not allowed to come into the classroom,” Woodrow said.

“(It’s) preventing queer and trans students from seeing queer and trans adults in their school community living openly and thriving. I see that (as) a more passive and insidious way of denying them that.”

In an email statement to CTVNews.ca, Matthew Wojciechowski, vice-president of CLC, said it is “informing Canadians on where school board candidates stand on issues that are important to them.”

When asked about endorsing candidates who espouse anti-LGBTQ2s+ views, Wojciechowski stated that CLC joins “countless parents and grandparents across Canada … in upholding a respect for life, the safeguarding of male-female marriage, the protection of the nuclear family, and the loving defence of every person created in the image of God as ‘male or female.’”

This anti-LGBTQ2S+ rhetoric is threaded throughout the questions that it poses in the questionnaire it sends to public school board candidates as well.

One question for this group is whether candidates believe parents have the “right to withdraw their children from classroom lessons or presentations involving controversial issues such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality”.

Schools being safe environments for all children is a public health issue, Woodrow said.

“There is really robust evidence that shows that when (queer and transgender) young people are in affirming and validating environments … they have far better mental health outcomes, including reduced risk of self-harm and suicide,” she said.

“So we consider these issues to be public health issues, ultimately, and we consider that queer and trans youth have the right to health, and that’s a right that Canada has affirmed through the UN Declaration on the rights of a child. We think that it is a violation of those rights to be advocating for school environments that are intentionally non-affirming.”

Woodrow said that over the past few months, she and the CAHN team have been researching school board candidates in races across the country.

Some red flags are if candidates have openly made racist or anti-trans statements, she said, or if a sitting trustee has consistently voted against policies that promote diversity and equity. Repeating conspiracies is also a “red alert” because “there’s so much overlap between hate ideologies and conspiracism,” she added.

CLC can, ironically, be a helpful source for CAHN due to its questionnaire making it clear who may create what CAHN feels is an unsafe school environment, Woodrow says.

On its website, CLC outlines which candidates it endorses in every race in public and Catholic school boards across the country with a red-to-green traffic light rating.

“If Campaign Life Coalition has a bunch of really, really flattering things to say about (a candidate), that becomes concerning for us,” Woodrow said.

CLC pushed back against CAHN’s characterization of it in its statement to CTVNews.ca, with Wojciechowski stating that the organization “likes to label anyone who disagrees with them as hateful.

“Disagreement is not hate,” he said.

Woodrow stressed that CAHN is non-partisan, and doesn’t warn against specific candidates unless they have what it sees as clear evidence of them spreading hateful views.

“In order for us to be covering them, they would have to be pretty hardcore,” she said.

AN ATTACK ON DIVERSITY IN CANADIAN SCHOOLS?

Another name flagged by CAHN is Blueprint for Canada — a website which popped up this year, run by Peter Wallace, a school board trustee candidate for Kawartha Lakes, Ont.

The website — which states that those behind it reject “woke ideology,” advocate for requiring teachers to out trans students to their parents, want to end student clubs based on race or ethnicity, and believe that teaching a defence of European colonialism in school is “controversial” but “necessary” — claims on its homepage to be a shared platform for public education policy that advocates for “moderate centrist policies.”

While Blueprint for Canada is not a lobbying organization, the website invites candidates to endorse its alternate set of policy positions.

“At its core, Blueprint for Canada seeks to address contemporary social issues around diversity and inclusion in ways that unite Canadians as opposed to dividing them based on their immutable characteristics,” Wallace told CTVNews.ca in an email.

A page on the website lists the “positive” impacts of colonialism while stressing that “the harm and trauma experienced by Indigenous populations worldwide” should not be diminished. It also alleges that those who do not teach the “positive ways” that colonialism has impacted the world are doing so because they want to “shame students based on their heritage.”

Woodrow said this assumption often reflects parents projecting their discomfort with the realities of history onto their children.

“As a parent, as an adult, I’m really uncomfortable, and I don’t know how to begin with this guilt that I’m feeling, and they’re projecting that onto their kids and saying, ‘I don’t want my kid to feel like this,’” Woodrow said.

“Without recognizing how racialized kids feel with not seeing those (realities), and not having those conversations in class and not having those experiences respected and affirmed through their lessons. I think kids are stronger and more curious than a lot of parents give them credit for. And I think that white kids can handle learning this stuff.”

Blueprint for Canada also outlined how it seeks to remove the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion framework in schools with a Merit, Fairness and Equality framework, advocating for a theory of “racelessness.”

The website previously hosted a list of endorsed candidates, but took it down after concerns were raised that it could be considered third-party advertising.

Wallace said that those behind the site were not contacted by Elections Canada and that an independent legal counsel advised them that a “shared policy platform of this sort does not constitute 3rd party advertising under the Municipal Elections Act so long as it is not used to endorse or raise funds for any candidate.”

Municipal parties and the pooling of resources between candidates in municipal races are curbed by Ontario’s election regulations.

“In the end, we opted to remove it mainly to be safe about ensuring compliance with the Municipal Elections Act,” he stated.

Now, instead, Blueprint For Canada links to a list of candidates on a third-party website called “Vote Against Woke.”

Wallace said he has not met the creator of this website, but has messaged him through Twitter and that he is a “parent who seems to share my concerns about public education.”

Similarly to CLC, anti-trans views appear to be a cornerstone of Blueprint for Canada’s policies, with the website saying that members consider it “abusive” to affirm trans kids, and that teachers should not be allowed to refer to trans students by their correct pronouns without written consent from parents.

“We fully support the LGB community and have received considerable public support online from members of the LGB community online,” Blueprint for Canada told CTVNews.ca.

Wallace clarified in the statement that he personally considers himself “gender critical,” a term recently adopted by those with anti-trans views to describe their skepticism in the diversity of gender.

“I view stereotypical gender behaviours as simply the cultural manifestations of deeply rooted neurological/biological differences in the male/female brain,” he said. “These are most likely due to millions of years of different evolutionary pressures between the two sexes.”

He added that this is “the one issue that appears to be resonating overwhelmingly in our favour with the public in door-to-door campaigning.”

“We may well win our campaigns on this one issue alone,” he said.

It’s a chilling statement to Woodrow.

There are multiple “vectors of radicalization,” she said, adding that experts in hate groups recognize anti-trans sentiment as one of the key ones.

“I would say misogyny and anti-semitism are also key vectors, but it is across the board, every single hate movement that we cover is trans antagonistic,” she said. “Extremely so.

“The people who are pushing the trans antagonism will not stop with excising trans people from society. It would be on its own awful enough if that’s what it was.”

But anti-trans sentiment is tied up in attitudes towards gender roles and towards the LGBTQ2S+ community as a whole, Woodrow said, and she believes it won’t stop there.

“They’re seeking to turn back protections and the social discourse that has been won through struggle over the last 20 years for all queer people, and then subsequently for women, for racialized people,” Woodrow said. “I don’t want to make it sound like this will happen sequentially, because it is all happening at the same time. It’s just sort of happening most loudly and grotesquely to trans people in this moment.”

In its statement to CTVNews.ca, Blueprint for Canada tried to claim that CAHN itself is “widely regarded to be a hate group.”

Canada doesn’t have one centralized definition of a hate group, but it is an indictable offense to “incite hatred” towards an “identifiable group” as defined in Canada’s Criminal Code.

According to Section 318 of the Criminal Code, “identifiable group” refers to “any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or mental or physical disability.”

CLC is an organization that CAHN has been monitoring for a while, but the existence of new websites like Blueprint for Canada that are seemingly taking cues from CLC are also a cause for concern for the organization, Woodrow said.

“They’re both concerning because they are ultimately both seeking to make schools less inclusive and equitable and overall less safe for marginalized students,” she said.

WHAT PARENTS CAN DO

Woodrow acknowledged that it can be difficult for parents to sort through all of the conflicting information about school board trustees and policy positions in order to figure out what is best for their child, particularly for those who aren’t heavy news readers or who don’t get involved in politics frequently and could miss red flags or dogwhistles.

A page on the CAHN website outlines questions that parents could pose to school board trustee candidates to get an idea for their positions — similar to the idea behind CLC’s questionnaire, but with a “children’s rights framework” in mind, according to site.

“The purpose of that is we want to make engaging in this political process as easy and as accessible as we possibly can,” she said. “The far right does this extremely, extremely well. They’ve got all these databases, they’ve got questionnaires and quizzes and so we’re trying to help it be as easy as possible for people to engage in this process.”

Ultimately, what every parent wants is a safe and supportive environment at school for their children — and when some children are not safe at school because they are being targeted by racist or transphobic policies, that’s not a safe environment for the rest of the students either, Woodrow said.

She was raised in “pretty far-right, traditionalist Catholicism” herself and says it was difficult for her as a queer person in a small town. She doesn’t want kids to have to go through what she did.

“I am really invested in creating and contributing to the creation of school environments that would be that I would have wanted to and deserved to be in as a young person,” she said. “That’s the kind of school that I want to help all voters create within their own communities.” 

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