An unprecedented wave of anti-trans candidates are running in Ontario’s school board elections, according to reports. LGBTQ2S+ activists warn that these candidates, who are employing old anti-trans dog whistles during their campaigns, could have serious negative impacts on queer and trans equality if elected.
At least 20 anti-trans candidates are running for local school boards across Ontario, according to CBC News. They include the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board candidate who wrote an op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen, arguing that transphobia is “common sense,” and Mark Paralovos, a trustee candidate in Guelph, who denied the existence of non-binary people in an October 11 tweet.
“There are men,” Paralovos wrote. “There are women. That’s it.”
Fae Johnstone, executive director of Wisdom2Action, tells Xtra that activists have seen “an unprecedented surge in anti-trans groups and anti-LGBTQ2S+ groups mobilizing in our school board elections across the province.”
“Anti-trans groups are becoming more organized year after year,” Johnstone says. “It’s the first time that I’ve seen a coordinated and organized push across different regions, and even candidates running under a shared banner that is committed to rolling back trans inclusion and antiracism efforts.”
While Ontario election law limits how much groups can work together across different municipalities, several organizations have emerged recently with the explicit aim of electing anti-trans candidates. Blueprint for Canada and Vote Against Woke have been working alongside longer-established organizations like the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism (FAIR) and Parents As First Educators (PAFE) to offer advice or resources to “anti-woke” candidates.
Many of the candidates being promoted by these groups are also extremely involved with other far-right efforts in Canada. Peterborough school board candidate Terry Rekar leads a chapter of Action4Canada, a far-right group that was deeply involved in convoy organizing. Rekar has also reportedly referred to gender-affirming medical care for trans youth as “child abuse.”
The use of “gender ideology” and “critical race theory” (CRT) as political dog whistles has surged since the so-called “freedom convoy” occupied Ottawa earlier this year.
“The convoy really had a huge negative effect on our politics in the city,” Sam Hersh, a municipal organizer and board member with progressive grassroots organization Horizon Ottawa, tells Xtra. “It’s been really unfortunate to see the complete negligence of those in power and those authorities to actually call this out and fight back against it.”
Progressive candidates say they have felt the impacts of anti-vaccine, anti-trans and anti-CRT rhetoric in the elections. Many have been targeted by vicious anti-LGBTQ2S+ harassment online.
“I’ve been out for over 20 years,” says Ariel Troster, an LGBTQ2S+ activist and city council candidate for Ottawa’s Somerset Ward. “Never in my life have I been called a groomer. I’m starting to see stuff like that in my mentions. It’s the same kind of slurs that were levelled against our community 30, 40, 50 years ago. They’re just coming back again.”
School boards are a fertile place for anti-LGBTQ2S+ misinformation, as evidenced by the famed anti-gay activist Anita Bryant. Troster says the language of Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign, which fought to ban gay teachers from Florida schools, is “almost identical to what we’re seeing now.”
“It’s just wielding children as a weapon to suggest queer people are somehow going to corrupt them,” Troster adds, “which we know is not true.”
However, there may also be practical reasons why anti-trans candidates are targeting school board positions. “A lot of the time we don’t pay attention to school boards,” Johnstone says. “Folks are least likely to research their candidates. And at the same time, schools play a fundamental and central role in helping develop and support the next generation.”
Targeting low-turnout races with the potential for a big impact could, therefore, be a strategic move by anti-LGBTQ2S+ activists. That’s already happened in parts of the U.S., where school boards have become a battleground for LGBTQ2S+ rights.
Although school boards in Ontario do not set curricula the same way that U.S. school boards do, they are responsible for discretionary spending. Thus, boards could reduce spending on training teachers in diversity and inclusion or reduce support staff working as guidance counsellors and GSA leaders.
Others fear that unsupportive school boards could gut privacy policies that shield trans students from being outed to parents and guardians who may not affirm their gender identities, resulting in potential retaliation or even violence.
“What I’m worried about is the removal of all the supports and protections that our queer and trans young people need to survive,” Johnstone says.
The right wing may not stop at school board trustee races, according to Hersh. He says these elections are likely a staging ground for right-wing groups to hone their messaging before tackling more prominent offices.
“They’re starting at a really low level of government and trying to build up from there,” Hersh says. “This is what the right has done for a long time.”
But despite these concerns, recent school board elections in British Columbia may provide Ontario with a bit of hope. Trustee candidates in Vancouver who ran on similar platforms failed to gain enough support to be elected. Anti-trans candidates Amanda Tengco, Zelda Levine and Karin Litzcke came 28th, 29th and 30th out of 31 candidates in the October 15 election.
Meanwhile, Chilliwack elected the first openly trans man to a school board: Teri Westerby, although he was voted in alongside two candidates who had pushed back against LGBTQ2S+ inclusion policies in schools.
Johnstone hopes this election will create discussion about how to better support LGBTQ2S+ students amid the surge in far-right activity across Canada.
“Everyone should be asking their school board trustees where they stand,” she says. “We need all trustees after this election to be louder and prouder champions of our rights. I want the conversation to be how we can guarantee that every queer and trans student is supported, thriving and welcomed in their school.”