Hanover School Division trustees cite cancer, residential schools during LGBT debate

School board members discussing LGBTQ students and curriculum in southeast Manitoba has become a conversation across the province after presentations comparing policy changes to residential school and cancer.

Tense meeting reverberates across province after controversial comments

Hanover School Division administration offices in Steinbach, Man. (Google maps)

LGBT students and school curriculum in southeast Manitoba are the focus of a growing conversation in Manitoba after a recent Hanover School Division meeting heard presentations from trustees comparing policy changes to residential school and cancer.

The meeting took place Tuesday night but the discussion has spread online through social media and into the legislature, where NDP MLA Wab Kinew brought it up on Thursday. 

The debate came after student, Mika Schellenberg, made a presentation on May 3 asking trustees to update the division's diversity policies to better include LGBT people. The current policy is that teachers are prohibited from speaking about same-sex families or issues in the classroom until high school. 

On May 3, 2016, Mika Schellenberg, a Grade 12 student in the Hanover School Division, asked the school board to update its LGBTQ policies. (Kim Kaschor/CBC)

All nine division trustees responded to Schellenberg's request, with the majority disapproving. 

Vice-chair Rick Peters said that although he disagreed with the request, he wasn't homophobic. 

"I do not have fear of them, which is what phobia is, phobia is a fear, I'm not scared of them, I simply don't agree with that lifestyle," Peters said, in a recording of the meeting provided to CBC by The Carillon reporter Ian Froese. 

In the current HSD policy, if students bring up homosexuality or gender diversity in class their parents must be contacted. Schellenberg had asked that practice be ended, but Peters disagreed. 

"Removing the parents and asking our teachers to not discuss things related to their children is going down the path of residential schools — a mess the government is now trying to work its way out of — the effects of which is damaging to some that were part of that many years ago," Peters said. 

During the May 3 presentation, Cyndy Friesen was moved to tears after Schellenberg's presentation. (Kim Kaschor/CBC)

In response Cyndy Friesen, one of the two trustees to support Schellenberg's request, spoke about a conversation she had with a parent three years ago when Bill 18, anti-bullying legislation, was being discussed. She recalled how a parent approached her in a public venue and said that if his kid was gay he "would take him in the basement and fix that."

"We would like to believe that all our kids have unconditional support and love from their parents but the reality is that this isn't always the case," Friesen said, her voice wavering with emotion. 

She said the protocol needs to change because for some children their only safe space is in school and their only support system are staff members. She added that instructing students  not to discuss LGBT issues in class is considered differential treatment which is a "direct violation of the human rights code." 

"If any school-aged child asks a question regarding sexual orientation and is told not to discuss this until after class, this too is a violation of laws we are governed by, " Friesen said in her presentation. 

Trustee Lynn Barkman, who according to the division's website is a nurse, said she wanted to speak as a health care professional.

"When I saw the sex education that Toronto had out about teaching sex education from kindergarten to Grade 5 and in Grade 5 they were being taught anal sex and oral sex — my heart just broke," she said. "I just feel that there is enough cancer around and the increase in cancer is phenomenal."

She said that parents are legally and medically responsible to provide for their children and it would be irresponsible for school officials to withhold information from parents.

Cancer comment garners applause

As a reporter Froese said the room felt tense and the support was split. He added that when Barkman spoke about sex education and cancer the room erupted in applause. 

"It didn't seem like anyone really took vocal offence ... to it. Although definitely afterwards we've seen the reaction to this comment being quite extreme," Froese said. 

In question period on Thursday Kinew objected to the comments in the meeting.

"[The trustee] tried to link the rise of sex ed in Toronto schools to an increased risk of cancer. Has the minister of education now heard enough to intervene with the Hanover School Division on behalf of the LGBTTQ* community?" Kinew said.

Education Minister Ian Wishart said the province is reaching out to the school division but is hopeful the issue will be resolved locally.

Michelle McHale was one of the nearly 200 people who packed into the room for the meeting in Steinbach. She had made a similar request to the board in April after her child was bullied for having two mothers. Her request was denied. 

She said the meeting was disheartening with the majority of the board saying they do not think it is appropriate to discuss LGBT issues or lifestyles in the classroom. But she was encouraged when Friesen referred to potential human rights violations. 

"One of the board members referenced the laws and was very explicit in saying what the concerns were as [they] pertain to legislation I thought that was very important," she said. 

But McHale said most of the people in the room didn't want to see any changes. After her presentation earlier this spring, she said she was threatened and ultimately moved to Winnipeg.

The board will reconvene again and draft a statement to share with the student.