The showdown for control of the Chilliwack school board
After years of progressive control, can an organized conservative faction take over BC's most factionalized school board?
Fourteen candidates. Seven seats. Two ideological camps.
More than a decade of political controversy has made Chilliwack’s school board infamous around the province. Although a progressive majority has left day-to-day governance in line with most other districts, conflict with a conservative minority has dominated headlines. The outcome of the election on Oct. 15 will determine how much of that continues into the next four years. It will also determine how the rest of the province sees Chilliwack in the future: a conservative holdout or a changing region.
With so much riding on the school board election in Chilliwack, how will voters know which candidates to choose from? And with so many candidates seeking so few board seats, how will they get enough support to make it past election night?
Story continues below.
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Behind the Chilliwack school board election
In 2018, 17 people battled for a spot on school board. Jared Mumford barely made it to a seat.
It was Mumford’s first time in local politics, and he had run because he felt Chilliwack needed to address issues of overcrowding in its schools. What he found was a race dominated by one topic: SOGI 123, a provincial resource that local school boards had no ability to curtail or restrict.
“I was going to talk about all these different things in public education and overcrowding” at the first all-candidates debate, Mumford remembered. “Then it just became this argument, literally an argument about SOGI 123. And so I didn’t say a word that entire debate.
“That’s just a microcosm of how that whole campaign went.”
Mumford isn’t running for school board this year. (He’s campaigning for a seat on Chilliwack council instead.) But the same concerns, and tactics, that dominated the 2018 election are still present.
SOGI 123 is no longer the primary focus of candidates in 2022. But gender and sexuality— specifically, how the district should support LGBTQ+ students—is a significant discussion among most of the trustee hopefuls.
On the one side is a coalition of six socially conservative candidates: Barry Neufeld, Darrell Furgason, Heather Maahs, Richard Procee, Kaethe Jones, and Elliott Friesen. The three incumbents (Neufeld, Furgason, and Maahs) have been vocal at the board table about banning certain books with sexual content and discouraging gender neutral washrooms.
(Lewis Point had been part of the conservative coalition, but dropped out of the election last week due to a “personal medical matter.” His name will still be on the ballot, and votes for him will still be counted. The Chief Election Officer has suggested he clarify his intent in the event he is elected.)
On the other side is a socially progressive group. Willow Reichelt, Carin Bondar, David Swankey, Margaret Reid, and Teri Westerby have been vocal about their opposing views on the same issues. They have shared their support for bathrooms that are inclusive of all genders and speaking out against book banning.
Brian VanGarderen and Greg Nelmes have also voiced more socially progressive views and have been cautiously endorsed by Reichelt on her Facebook page. VanGarderen has also been endorsed by the Chilliwack Teachers’ Association.
Darren Ollinger is unaffiliated with either group, but his answers to both the Chilliwack Teachers’ Association questions and The Current candidate survey clearly place him on the socially conservative side. Ollinger described himself as someone with a “right-wing, fiscally conservative background.” He was also the only respondent in all five school districts who said his district was doing too much to foster reconciliation.
The social aspect of school board
It’s not the first time a school board election has been fought on social issues.
“I certainly wouldn’t say this is a new phenomenon,” UBC historian Jason Ellis said. In the 1950s, elections were fought around support for religious schools, he said, while in the 70s and 80s, sexual identity came to the forefront as an election issue. (This was primarily around the sexual identities of teachers.) And of course, SOGI 123 was a divisive election topic in 2018 across BC.
So elections based around social values aren’t unique to Chilliwack. But the city’s changing identity is a key factor in the vim with which the battle is being fought.
In 2021, the Chilliwack school board by-election was a particularly vitriolic campaign between two opposing factions: supporters of Richard Procee and supporters of Carin Bondar. Although Procee himself didn’t engage in campaign smear tactics, the socially conservative sitting trustees banded behind him and other voters made their views known. (Procee is now formally running alongside those same trustees.) Furgason sent an email to the UFV president calling one of Bondar’s videos “soft porn,” and a mystery billboard launched what Bondar called a “nasty, personal attack.”
This year, there have been no allegations of pornography. But even before the campaign period officially began, the two sides have been vocal in their opposition to the other’s “platform.” (Neither group has an official platform, but rather a similar set of social values.)
On Aug. 17, Reichelt wrote on social media saying that anyone advocating for book banning should not be involved in public education. (Westerby and Reid also wrote posts in favour of keeping similar books in schools.)
The comment was in response to Maahs suggesting several books be banned in Chilliwack. Back in June, Maahs said that the book All Boys Aren’t Blue should be banned from the district because it “desensitizes kids and it’s all in the name of LGBTQ;” she had previously suggested the book Tomorrow, When the War Began be removed because of a steamy description of heterosexual sex between two teenagers.
In response to Reichelt’s post, Furgason and Neufeld wrote social media posts suggesting supporters report Reichelt to the RCMP for pushing what they claimed was “pornographic material” onto students.
Ellis noted that similar battles around book banning are currently being waged on school boards in the United States. All Boys Aren’t Blue, for example, is the second most-banned book in the United States because of its references to gay sex and other LGBTQ+ themes, and has been taken off the shelves in 29 school districts.
(The author said in an interview that he expected the pushback. The book is geared towards 14- to 18-year-olds, and although is discusses gay sex, it meant to help youth recognize sexual abuse and fight back against trauma through the author’s own experience. “Books with heavy topics are not going to harm children,” he said. “Children still have to exist in a world full of these heavy topics, and are going to be affected by them whether they read the book or not.”)
What’s different about American battles, though, is that those trustees can actually do something about it. In the 1990s, after the Surrey school board tried to ban book selections that showed a family with two dads in the 1990s, a landmark Supreme Court decision declared that banning such books is unconstitutional.
“Some local people are running for school board on anti-SOGI platforms—for lack of a better way of describing it—who want to limit the access of kids to books, who want to see a more traditional definition of gender identity talked about in schools,” Ellis said.
“But… there are significant differences in what’s possible with what Canadian school boards can do and what American school boards can do,” he continued. “American school boards have a lot more local autonomy to pursue these types of policies. Whereas in British Columbia, I think trustees would find themselves quite quickly hemmed in by the provincial legislation around what they can do.”
How to make a name for yourself in a school board election
Typically, it’s parents with children who bother to vote in school board elections. (Ellis’ research has shown that newcomers with connections to parents in the school district through PACs or volunteer programs have the best success at the polls.) But in Chilliwack, even residents without children are keeping a close eye on the campaign trail.
The Chilliwack school board by-election in 2021, which saw Bondar elected to the seat vacated by now-MLA Dan Coulter, had five times as many voters than the previous two by-elections. It’s too early to say if that will be the case again this year, although Current readers in Chilliwack said they were more interested in the school board than in either the mayoral or council races. But the campaign tactics being undertaken by the candidates in 2022 are reminiscent of what happened in 2018 debates: events that Mumford said were mostly “argument and mudslinging.”
“I’m the kind of person who believes that that battle is fought at a board table with respectful discussion, research and intelligence, and then compassion. And finally, just putting up your hand and making the decision,” Mumford said. “It’s not something that should take over an entire campaign for public education of 14,000 students.”
Four years ago, Mumford opted to stay out of those events—even though that meant changing his campaign plan. Instead of engaging with other candidates through in-person debates, he focused on social media, video, and avoiding the SOGI 123 discussion. Although he had similar values to the more progressive candidates, he ran his campaign independently of any group.
But there’s a reason Mumford just barely made it to the council table. That may have been it.
Slates—the municipal version of a political party—are one of the most effective ways to reach voters in a sea of candidates. Slates can provide candidates with a shared pool of resources, and easier name recognition at the ballot box.
“With new political financing laws at the municipal level, we are seeing a proliferation of parties,” UFV political science professor Hamish Telford told The Current. “Out in the valley, where slates are not as common, so far at least, voters have even more of a challenge figuring out who to vote for.”
Chilliwack trustee candidates have largely formed two unofficial slates, working with like-minded candidates to amplify their messages on social media and elsewhere. Unlike real slates, these coalitions won’t be listed at the ballot box. Three of the original candidates are part of an official slate: Parents Voice BC, which has candidates across the province with the slogan “take back our schools.” (Point was part of Parents Voice BC but has since withdrawn from the race.)
So what is a voter to do?
Many opt simply to vote for incumbents—in part because their names are already known. Telford said studies have also shown there is an ordering bias, where candidates at the top of the list have a better chance of being elected than candidates lower down. (“If you want to be a local politician, it is better to be named Abbot than Williams,” he said.) Word of mouth, in-person meetings, and public endorsements are also key factors.
(For the second time in its history, the Chilliwack Teachers’ Association has publicly endorsed several of the school board candidates: Reichelt, Bondar, Swankey, Reid, Westerby, and VanGarderen. The last time it endorsed a list of candidates was in 2018.)
The final method, which seems to be what often happens in Chilliwack, is using proxy indicators.
“Out in the valley—especially for school board—the SOGI curriculum issue might be that proxy indicator,” Telford said. “If you are for or against SOGI, you determine which candidates are for or against SOGI and vote accordingly.”
That is how candidates this year have been organizing their campaigns, for the most part. Although each group of candidates has discussed other issues the board should tackle—educational achievement and school crowding, for example—much of the messaging has been around social issues.
With almost no formal slates (which would be listed alongside the candidate’s name on the ballot), Chilliwack candidates are urging voters to remember the names of the candidates they agree with. Some are suggesting voters bring a list.
That’s what Ellis does when he votes in Vancouver. But before he makes the list, he says it’s important to remember what school board trustees can really do.
School boards are required, by law, to follow provincial legislation when it comes to education. If the province says classroom teachers can have a maximum number of students, that’s the limit—no matter how much money it could save the district by increasing class sizes. If the province says the SOGI 123 resource will be available to teachers, it will be available—no matter what trustees may have to say.
“The province empowers school boards to co-manage the system with it, but only in ways that the minister, the legislation, and the regulations say are acceptable,” Ellis said.
In mid-September, the Minister of Education and a number of education partners put out a statement saying, in no unequivocal terms, that “no student should be excluded or bullied because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.” SOGI is here to stay—as are similar supports for students and staff.
“You have pretty strong signs that the Minister is not going to tolerate people who wish to undo SOGI,” Ellis said. “If people are promising that in the elections, I don’t know if they’re going to be able to deliver on that.”
People can promise to oppose those regulations. But that may only create another four years of the tension that has made the Chilliwack school board infamous.
“If we’re just arguing about one specific issue… it can’t take over the conversation and leave trustees in a position where they’re too exhausted to tackle the other issues” like grade transitions, Mumford said. “That culture of pettiness and argumentativeness—if that’s what’s happening in the boardroom, it will trickle down and staff will also get exhausted and not be able to do their job.
“I hope that regardless of who gets elected, that lesson is somehow learned,” he continued. “You can have an opinion on something and you will get your opportunity to vote. Don’t spend hours and hours arguing about it. It’s just not helpful at all.”
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