British Columbia

Chilliwack school board byelection a litmus test for the community

Most byelections for a single school board trustee position don't generate much controversy — but most school boards aren't Chilliwack. 

One candidate says 'it's a fight between the two sides,' but vote splitting is a possibility

Chilliwack's Board of Education from left: trustee David Swankey, trustee Heather Maahs, trustee Darrell Furgason, former board chair Dan Coulter, board chair Willow Reichelt, board vice-chair Jared Mumford and trustee Barry Neufeld. (Chilliwack School District)

Most byelections for a single school board trustee position don't generate much controversy — but most school boards aren't Chilliwack. 

"It's a fight between the two sides," said Brian VanGarderen, one of four candidates in the race to replace Dan Coulter, who became an NDP MLA for Chilliwack in the 2020 provincial election. 

The "two sides" are campaigning hard in Chilliwack for a number of reasons, many of which are connected in some form to current trustee Barry Neufeld. 

Neufeld's history of remarks considered offensive to different groups prompted former Education Minister Rob Fleming to call for his resignation, and the province is undergoing a review of the board's "commitment to a school system that is safe, inclusive and welcoming to all students and staff."

That review is ongoing, but with Coulter's departure, Chilliwack's school board is generally split 3-3 on ideological lines. 

It's made the election — which takes place this Saturday — less of a vote on traditional issues within school board jurisdiction and more of a litmus test on the political culture of the city. 

"Rather than who's going to be best in the position, it's one side versus the other. I'm well aware of that," said VanGarderen, an Abbotsford teacher who lives in Chilliwack. 

School board candidate Brian VanGarderen says his experience as a teacher would help him, if elected. (Courtesy Brian VanGarderen)

3 candidates for SOGI, 1 wants to study 

To most observers, a split has formed between the three candidates who are against trying to change B.C.'s sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) curriculum and candidate Richard Procee, who has argued it should be re-evaluated. 

Procee didn't respond to a request from CBC News for an interview. But even if Procee's views aren't held by the majority of voters, the three other candidates risk splitting their vote. 

"The board is not really representative of the community members here," said Adam Suleman, another candidate in the running. 

Suleman, a business analyst and treasurer of the SFU Conservatives club, says school board trustees shouldn't try to legislate based on religious beliefs. 

"The representation of conservatives on that board, I believe it's motivated by religious conservatism, and that's not me at all," he said.

"I want to see change in our school district. It's much needed, and I think a lot of people want to see new faces on this school board. I come from a place of respect for science and respect for people of religious faith. I think they are not mutually exclusive."

What does Miley Cyrus have to do with an election?

The one candidate who has gotten the most attention — positive and negative — in the byelection is Carin Bondar, a biologist and professor at the University of the Fraser Valley who has presented on science topics for a variety of media in the last decade. 

"I take science and make it palatable to all kinds of audiences," she said.

"I think that my skills of drawing together ideas and presenting them in ways that are constructive, I think those are really good skills for me to use."

Candidate Carin Bondar argues the attacks against her aren't representative of the broader Chilliwack community (Courtesy Carin Bondar)

But it's one particular form of communication — a music video parody of Miley Cyrus's Wrecking Ball to promote teaching evolution — that has sparked attacks online and on billboards. According to the Chilliwack Progress, current school trustee Darrell Furgason emailed Bondar's university to complain the video was "soft porn" and "mocking the creation beliefs of the Christian community."

To Bondar, it's a sign of the vitriol of the race but also a greater fight over Chilliwack's future. 

"I think that sets such a shameful example, really and truly, let's stop that," she said. 

"We are growing rapidly out here, and I don't think that those dismissive views really represent a large portion of our population at all. We're very open and diverse."

With files from Julie Landry