British Columbia

New B.C. party pushing school board candidates with anti-vax and conspiratorial views

A new political organization with roots in conservative Christianity is endorsing a number of school board candidates across B.C. who have anti-vaccine, anti-government and conspiratorial views. ParentsVoice B.C. says it's aiming to reverse what it sees as the politicization of classrooms.

ParentsVoice B.C. backing 28 candidates, many of whom aren't promoting — or have obscured — political beliefs

Social media posts shared by ParentsVoice B.C. candidates Sylvia Herchen (left) and Teresa Docksteader. A review of the social media profiles for ParentsVoice B.C. candidates in 2022 school board elections reveal several posts rooted in anti-vaccine beliefs and conspiracy theories. (Sylvia Herchen/Teresa Docksteader)

A new political organization with roots in conservative Christianity is endorsing a number of school board candidates across B.C. who have anti-vaccine, anti-government and conspiratorial views.

ParentsVoice B.C. is registered with Elections B.C. as an elector organization, or civic political party, and is backing 28 school board candidates in eight school districts.

Running under the slogan "Take Back Our Schools," the party says it's aiming to reverse what it sees as the politicization of classrooms.

Many candidates running under the party's banner support political positions inflamed by the pandemic, with rhetoric similar to right-wing groups in the United States — including criticism of public heath policies and school programs about racism, gender and sexuality.

But an in-depth review by CBC of candidates' online material found that instead of promoting their political beliefs, many candidates have tried to obscure them — in some cases by deleting old social media posts.

Pandemic conspiracy theories

In Vernon, School District 22 candidate Sylvia Herchen helped organize the first anti-lockdown protests in April 2020. She is quoted in a local newspaper calling health policies "tyranny" and claiming that "the media and the bureaucrats have taken the opportunity of this new virus and done an experiment to see how docile we are."

Her campaign information mentions none of this, although her Facebook profile still has a post reading, "I trust my immune system not an experimental vaccine."

Carmen Halpenny, a Delta candidate in School District 37, has called COVID-19 vaccines "dangerous" and promoted ivermectin, the discredited treatment that became the focus of conspiracy theorists.

ParentsVoice B.C. candidate Teresa Docksteader posted this meme suggesting Jacob Rothschild was involved in efforts to create a 'New World Order' through public health measures created to slow the spread of COVID-19. Anti-hate groups have linked such posts to anti-semitism. (Teresa Docksteader)

Central Okanagan school board candidate Teresa Docksteader, meanwhile, has shared a Facebook post suggesting the 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen; another claiming Canada has a "tyrannical government run by the World Economic Forum"; and a third falsely quoting investment banker Jacob Rothschild as calling COVID "obedience training" for "the New World Order."

The Anti-Defamation League and the Canadian Anti-Hate Network warn that tropes blaming Jewish people for the pandemic are linked to anti-Semitism. 

Docksteader's posts are still publicly available.

None of these views, however, are being publicized by the candidates or ParentsVoice B.C.

'School systems are dictating to parents'

The party was started by Mark Vella, a conservative Catholic activist in Abbotsford, B.C., and has attracted support from Christian activist groups including the National Leadership Briefing and The Association for Reformed Political Action.

Both of the latter groups work with church networks to encourage and assist conservative Christian candidates running for office at all levels of government in Canada.

ParentsVoice B.C. says it endorses candidates who agree with its six pillars, which include community values, independence from "special interests" and transparency.

"We've tapped into a vein that feels our school system is broken," said Fritz Radandt, the group's campaign manager. "And specifically, we feel that the school systems are dictating to the parents what they want, and are not listening to the parents and communities."

ParentsVoice B.C. is running a campaign on the slogan of having parents and local communities control the curriculum of school boards. (ParentsVoice B.C.)

As examples, Radandt pointed to schools developing pandemic responses and teaching "critical race theory" without involving parents. 

Critical race theory — a concept developed in the United States through the 1970s and '80s that encourages people to think about history through the lens of racist policies of the past — has been targeted by Republican and other right-wing groups in the United States and has resulted in books that portray racism being banned.

The theory is not taught in B.C. schools — but ParentsVoice B.C. candidates Daniel and Terah Albertson started a petition last year against teaching it in schools in Nechako Lakes.

According to a local news report, the pair were also unhappy with how Indigenous history was taught and with aspects of the curriculum aimed at reducing homophobia and transphobia.

Radandt raised similar concerns in an interview with CBC, saying many in ParentsVoice B.C. are opposed to SOGI123, a set of policies and programs adopted by the B.C. education system aimed at creating inclusive classrooms for LGBT students and staff.

Online profiles scrubbed

Despite its calls for transparency within the education system, the group itself is notably opaque.

CBC requested interviews with all 28 candidates endorsed by ParentsVoice B.C. Only four responded; those four declined.

The public positions of most candidates are limited to blurbs on the party website, most of which don't mention the pandemic or issues of race or gender. 

Social media profiles are similarly vague — if they exist at all.

Radant confirmed to CBC this is in part because party officials suggested candidates "clean up" their online presence upon registering for the election, with potentially inflammatory social media posts or, in some cases, entire profiles deleted. 

"It's a very unusual strategy," according to Peter Chow-White, a communications professor at Simon Fraser University who studies technology and society.

"If an individual scrubbed their social media, well that's one thing. But to have an entire group of people representing an entire political party do that? It's very strange," he said.

"When you're voting for someone, you want to know who they are so you can do your due diligence as a citizen. But when you can't find that historical information, it gives perhaps an incomplete picture of the people you're voting for." 

'A lot of parents live in kind of a bubble'

The confluence of conservative Christianity and politics in school board elections concerns current Central Okanagan trustee Norah Bowman.

"We have people who think there should be Bibles in schools. Secular public schools are one of the foundational institutions of a democracy, and we have to protect that," said Bowman, who is not running for re-election.

"A lot of parents live in kind of a bubble… and public school is the first time they're around people who don't look like their relatives and their best friends and then they respond in this really defensive, angry way."

Radandt dismissed concerns over the political bent of his candidates.

"As soon as you question anything, the name-calling starts," he said. "You're homophobic, you're transphobic, you're far right, you're an extremist. And yet these people would say no — we're just parents concerned about what our children are seeing and learning."

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story said there were 29 candidates. However, one has dropped out due to health reasons and the number of candidates is now 28.
    Oct 11, 2022 7:01 PM PT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Walker is a journalist based in Kelowna, B.C. He is the host of the morning radio show Daybreak South.

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