In school board elections across Ontario this Monday, dozens of candidates are running on promises to roll back protections for transgender students, part of a concerted effort by conservative lobby groups to undo policies aimed at addressing systemic discrimination.
The normally sleepy contests for trustee positions have been highly charged this year with faith-based groups, political parties and self-styled “anti-woke” organizations involved to an unprecedented degree, including providing endorsements, mobilizing volunteers and providing candidates’ training from U.S. political operatives.
It’s not limited to Ontario. In British Columbia’s school board elections last week, nearly 30 candidates ran under the banner of ParentsVoice BC, a group opposed to inclusive sex education.
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a non-profit that monitors extremism, recently posted that two candidates in Manitoba’s school board elections later this month who have expressed anti-LGBTQ views.
Advocates for the trans community are concerned these local campaigns will contribute to an already-deteriorating social climate, which many say has worsened amid a wave of anti-trans legislation in the U.S.
“The data that we have in Canada shows that hate crimes against our communities are continuing to rise,” said Lyra Evans, a school board trustee in Ottawa who is transgender.
“And so I think this is of great concern to everybody who wants their kids, their trans or cisgender kids, to grow up in safe schools.”
For weeks, some candidates in Ottawa, Waterloo, Hamilton, among other places in Ontario, have been using transphobic rhetoric in public, portraying gender-inclusive sex education as an attempt to indoctrinate their children.
An investigation by CBC News found that at least 20 candidates for trustee positions in Ontario had either used discriminatory terms in interviews, aligned themselves with transphobic lobby groups or used their social media accounts to amplify transphobic content.
Opposed to teaching gender inclusivity
For example, Mark Paralovos, a trustee candidate in Guelph, Ont., has repeatedly taken to social media to deny the existence of trans and non-binary genders.
“There are men. There are women. That’s it,” he tweeted earlier this month.
Terry Rekar, running for a trustee position in the Clarington region, boasts of leading a chapter of Action4Canada, a conspiracy-minded far-right group that also denies the existence of gender minorities and describes gender-affirming surgery as “child abuse.”
Action4Canada is seeking to have books with gender-inclusive messages removed from school libraries.
In an interview with a local podcast, Rekar said she is concerned about the “pornography books” in school libraries.
Neither Paralovos or Rekar responded to requests for comment.
In an interview with CBC News, Paula Dametto-Giovannozzi, a trustee candidate running in Caledon, Ont., for the local Catholic board, repeated a debunked transphobic conspiracy theory that maintains teachers are placing cat litter in classrooms for students who identify as cats.
Some of the most contentious races in this election cycle are in Ottawa, where a number of candidates are running on platforms that make explicit their opposition to teaching anti-racism and gender inclusivity in public and Catholic schools.
One candidate, Chanel Pfahl, a former school teacher, faced criticism recently when she published on social media the confidential details of online support group meetings for visible minority and LGBTQ students at schools she hopes to oversee.
“I’m actually trying to protect kids from a toxic ideology,” Pfahl said in a tweet explaining her actions. “Can’t say the same for whoever is trying to have secret meet ups with lesbian kindergarteners.”
The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board said the information Pfahl shared online put its students at risk.
Another candidate, Shannon Boschy, said Ontario’s sex-education curriculum was partly to blame for the rise in transgender and non-binary identifying students.
In an interview with CBC News, Boschy said this amounted to a “social contagion.” (According to Statistics Canada, fewer than one per cent of Canadians born between 1997 and 2006 identify as transgender or non-binary.)
He also compared non-binary genders to a disorder.
On Wednesday, a number of LGBTQ advocacy groups in Ottawa released a statement, saying: “We condemn in the strongest terms possible the transphobic rhetoric being used by Ottawa school board trustee candidates.”
The statement named eight candidates, including Boschy and Pfahl.
Groups backing surge of ‘anti-woke’ candidates
In several school districts across Ontario, groups of closely allied trustee candidates are running on the shared belief that public and Catholic schools are trying to push radical left-wing ideologies on their students.
Many of these platforms borrow the term “woke,” which is used pejoratively by conservative politicians in the U.S. to describe efforts to combat systemic racism and encourage acceptance of gender diversity.
In Ontario, scores of websites and social media accounts have sprouted up in recent weeks to identify candidates running on “anti-woke” platforms.
A candidate in the Kawartha Lakes area, Peter Wallace, set up an organization called Blueprint for Canada to assist other candidates in the province who are opposed to gender-inclusive sex education.
Wallace said in an email he hoped his platform would discourage children from seeking gender-affirming care. “Then it will be worth putting up with the ‘transphobic’ accusations,” he said.
Behind the surge of candidates running on near-identical platforms are several highly organized conservative advocacy groups.
Liberty Coalition Canada, a Christian group formed last year, announced this summer it had partnered with the Leadership Institute, a well-funded think-tank based in Virginia that is known for training conservative politicians.
A social media post from early August invited municipal and school board candidates running in Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia to take part in a training session put on with the Leadership Institute.
Dametto-Giovannozzi said she and some 60 other aspiring candidates took part in the session, which was held in Mississauga, Ont., in August. Derek Sloan, the leader of the socially conservative Ontario Party, was a speaker. Republican strategists participated via Zoom.
The New Blue Party, a staunchly libertarian provincial party in Ontario, also provided training to aspiring candidates, several of whom also ran for the party in the recent provincial election.
Parents as First Educators, a lobby group opposed to the various reforms in Ontario aimed at making sex education more inclusive, delivered a series of webinars of its own for school board candidates. It also endorsed several candidates but declined to share that list with CBC News.
On its Facebook page, Parents as First Educators has applauded anti-trans legislation in Virginia and Florida.
The largest conservative group involved in the elections, though, is the Campaign Life Coalition, best known for supporting anti-abortion politicians at all levels of government.
Jack Fonseca, the organization’s head of political operations, said they increased their involvement in school board elections recently amid concerns that “anti-God atheists” were taking over the education system in Ontario and elsewhere.
The organization’s website lists trustee candidates it finds “supportable” — that is, candidates it believes will oppose gender-inclusive sex education. It’s also playing an active role trying to get them elected.
“We’re mobilizing our database of supporters to get out the vote; to volunteer; to help install lawn signs, help door knock, help distribute literature. We’re encouraging them to donate to the candidates,” Fonseca said.
Making schools safe for trans students
Though many of the trustee candidates running on anti-woke platforms are vocal on social media about what they oppose, few outside the Ottawa area were willing to discuss their platforms.
CBC News contacted nearly a dozen candidates in the rest of the province to better understand what policies they intended to implement or repeal. None agreed to be interviewed for broadcast, nor were they willing to elaborate via email.
One candidate, Jeannette Lee, who is running on an anti-woke platform in Hanover, Ont., said when reached by phone that she didn’t feel “confident” talking about her platform.
Despite many of these candidates promising to end “political indoctrination” in schools, provincial legislation — including the Ontario Human Rights Code — limits the ability of trustees to alter school curriculum.
However, school boards have access to millions of dollars in discretionary spending and also set privacy policies.
Boschy, the trustee candidate in Ottawa, said he wanted to repeal a policy that gives students final say about whether parents are informed if they identify as a different gender at school.
His opposition is based, in part, on how his own child transitioned genders. Boschy said the school didn’t inform him and that contributed to a rift with his child. “I lost my relationship with my child,” he said.
But for trans advocates, such privacy policies are vital for keeping gender and sexual minority students safe.
Transgender students are best placed to determine how and when they come out, said Fae Johnstone, a trans advocate who runs a consulting firm based in Ottawa that specializes in gender justice.
Privacy policies help reduce the risk of bullying, child abuse and homelessness, she said.
“That is what’s at stake with these anti-trans candidates. They’re going to remove fundamental privacy rights that are crucial to the rights of children in our country,” Johnstone said.
LGBTQ students already feel less safe at school compared to their classmates, according to a survey of 4,000 students in Canada conducted between 2019 and 2020 for Egale, one of the country’s leading LGBTQ groups.
The same survey found 57 per cent of trans respondents were the target of bullying.
A study published earlier this year in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found transgender youth are five times more likely to think about suicide, and 7.6 times more likely to attempt it.
The election of trustees comfortable using transphobic rhetoric would only make this situation worse, said Jaime Sadgrove, of the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity, one the groups behind the statement released on Wednesday.
“Safety is the baseline. If you don’t feel safe, if you don’t feel comfortable, how are you supposed to be able to learn?”