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Cowichan school trustee candidates answer questions on SOGI, pandemic protocols

Election to be held Oct. 15
Most of the trustee candidates for the Cowichan Valley’s school board showed up for an all-candidates meeting in Lake Cowichan on Sept. 30. Pictured is 13 of the 18 candidates waiting their turn to address the audience. (Robert Barron/Citizen)

In some school districts in B.C., how schools approach the subjects of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) as well as pandemic protocols in schools have emerged as major issues for many candidates during the upcoming trustee elections on Oct. 15.

The Cowichan Valley Citizen reached out to the 18 candidates in the Cowichan Valley school district and asked what their thoughts are on these issues.

Just eight responded by press time.

Most of the candidates who contacted the paper pointed out that SOGI is not part of the curriculum that is being taught in the province’s schools.

However, they said the SOGI 123 program, which is supported by the Ministry of Education, is a resource that teachers can choose to access to help schools celebrate diversity and to build an environment where all students belong, thrive and focus on their learning.

Incumbent trustee Johanne Kemmler said that Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside released a joint statement on support for SOGI in September, and she agrees with this statement and will stand for and strongly defend a school system that allows children to express themselves in their own unique way.

“The goal of SOGI-inclusive education is for everyone to understand the diverse society we live in and to feel safe, valued and respected,” she said.

“However, it is very concerning to me that the questions that have driven this election are these two. Where are our opportunities to share, and ask about, important issues such as Truth and Reconciliation, mental health supports, graduation rates, safety in schools, and the implementation of our strategic plan? It is sad to me that we have spent so much time on these subjects and not [on the others listed above].”

Cindy Lise said SOGI 123 is one tool in conjunction with many, such as anti-bullying, empathy and social justice programs, that build strong and supportive learning environments for all.

She said there are so many factors that make for a strong public school system.

“Tools that help teachers, help students which help us all,” Lise said.

“As a trustee, I will stand in full support of the Community of Care pledge (which can be found at and the BC Human Rights Code and will uphold my responsibility to promote these values. If there are questions or concerns, parents can talk directly to their child’s teachers about their approach to the SOGI 123 curriculum to help understand what this means for their experiences in the classroom. The relationship between parents, teachers and students is built on trust and open communication.”

Patricia Dawn refused to participate in “colonized question formation tactics”.

She said it’s time to heal from the colonial appeal to destroy conquer and discriminate, to create divisions amongst the peoples, to continue with discrimination and to ensure an agenda that is fostered by global elites.

“So, just for clarity, I won’t be participating in your colonized format of malicious intent to harm the character of others, and to insure the supremacist protocol of the us-versus-them model which never gives to the unity of the community,” Dawn said.

Jennifer Strachan said, if elected, she will uphold practices and policies which support diversity and inclusion in the district.

“This too, appropriately so, is a policy directive from the BC Ministry of Education and Child Care, and I would respect my corporate responsibility in this regard,” she said.

“Teachers, as trusted adults in our schools, are provided informed material on SOGI to ensure, if asked by a student, they provide an unbiased and fact-based response. I support trusting our teachers to make decisions based on the individual circumstance involved. I will seek to understand all constituents’ viewpoints and, along with other board members, put the best interests of kids first.”

Eduardo Sousa said SOGI, like vaccine mandates, are not issues that trustees have control over as they are ministry directives.

He said SOGI is a means to ensure that the province’s school system is complying with the BC Human Rights Code, which was amended in 2016 to ensure that gender identity and expression are protected.

“With that said, I will very explicitly indicate here, as I have said in all public forums, that I fully support SOGI as an approach to full and meaningful inclusion, which is intended to create a sense of safety for all children in our schools,” Sousa said.

Patricia Gaudreault said she fully supports the idea that schools must be inclusive, safe and respectful spaces for students of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

“In my opinion, there is no space for any type of discrimination in our schools or in our communities,” she said.

Incumbent Elizabeth Croft said she supports the SOGI 123 program as it provides a lens and resources so teachers can respect and model informed compassion.

She said district teachers have proven it is helpful and productive for teaching inclusion and kindness.

“It helps 2SLGBTQ students be safe and welcome at school,” Croft said.

“Along with social justice and anti-bulling programs, it respects the diversity of the school community and teaches kids about respect and inclusion. These are the kinds of informed values children need to learn for all the ‘diversities’ of society. We cannot exclude any child from those efforts due to gender.”

Incumbent Joe Thorne said he supports SOGI for all the right reasons; including knowledge, safety, and understanding of gender differences.

As for pandemic protocols in schools, Kemmler said public health protocols in schools during the pandemic were mandated by the provincial health officer, and that the Cowichan Valley school district implemented these policies while consulting with its partners, and families.

“The mandates were not optional,” she said.

“Our public health authorities gave school boards the authority to mandate vaccines for staff. Our board unanimously voted no to that mandate. I agree with following public health mandates, as they are law, and would do so again.”

Lise said there are currently no directives in place for pandemic protocols in schools, but the district has learned much about how to keep schools safe from the spread of communicable diseases such as COVID-19, chicken pox, hand-foot-and-mouth disease, colds and flus.

“We have adopted great habits and safety measures that help us all to stay well that includes washing our hands, staying home when unwell and being vaccinated,” Lise said.

“It is not the school trustee that sets the legislation regarding health protocols. These legal orders come directly from the provincial medical health officer and are put in place to keep our society safe. I will always follow the law.”

Strachan said B.C. Public Health Orders, such as were in place during the pandemic, are based on research and best-evidence at the time in the interest of all citizens.

“As a trustee, I would support public health orders and honour the legislation that guides them,” she said.

Sousa also pointed out that school districts must comply with public health orders, but said he unequivocally supports pandemic protocols in schools and has full faith in B.C.’s public health office.

“I would like to make the point that the takeover of public air space in terms of all-candidates meetings and in media by vested interests on these two issues in particular is very disconcerting to me,” he said.

“It is preventing us from discussing other key important issues that SD79 and its trustees, teachers, students, support staff all face, like equity, lack of resources for children with disabilities, climate readiness, better funding for reconciliation initiatives, and so on.”

Gaudreault said pandemic protocols are directed by public health orders.

“I trust the public health office makes the best policy decisions by constantly evaluating and re-evaluating the emerging data,” she said.

Croft said she agrees with following the law as laid out by the public health office.

“Protocol requirements were provided to schools,” she said.

“While we had to meet specifications, the district consulted with partners to tailor those requirements so they could be implemented and understood. This too was a legal requirement. The school board unanimously rejected any possibility of imposing a vaccine mandate.”

Thorne said COVID-19 has changed everyone’s lifestyle and the board.

“Teachers all work as one to make schools safe for our students,” he said.

“There are many situations to be viewed, and safety concerns are looked at in the safest way possible.”