An Abbotsford educator’s decade-long fight for representation in classrooms

How a teacher's Abbotsford upbringing inspired him to risk financial disaster to make schools a more inclusive place.

Photo courtesy Rick Collins/UFV

In 1997, James Chamberlain walked past crowds of adults hurling abuse at him. But he could weather the slurs. He had heard them before. And they were one reason he was at the Surrey School Board office in the first place.

James grew up in Abbotsford’s Mount Lehman area. Life away from school was idyllic. Life at school was hell. Classmates at his small rural school detected something that didn’t fit in about James (who would come out as gay in his mid-20s). Fellow students subjected him to years of bullying, leaving such a mark that he would later change his last name (from Cox) specifically to avoid the abuse it had incurred. But as he embarked on a teaching career, the pain and isolation of his school experience spurred his drive to teach—and would eventually see him receive an honourary degree from the University of the Fraser Valley for his efforts to ensure every student felt more welcomed.

A year into his career as a kindergarten teacher in Surrey, a boy in his class declared he had two moms—a birth mom and a real mom. His classmates didn’t know what to do with the information. So James found a book called One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dad and read it to his class. The fact that the book depicted a same-sex family and the boy had two moms for an entirely different reason was almost beside the point. Part of kindergarten is learning about families. The book showed the kid and his classmates that having two moms, or two dads, or whatever wasn’t weird. It was just another kind of family.

But that was controversial in Surrey in the late 1990s. The board, Chamberlain learned, needed to clear reading materials, so to the board he went. The resulting discussion triggered media coverage, inflammatory statements by elected trustees, and protests. The vast majority of the parents of kids whom Chamberlain taught signed a petition supporting him. Three presentations backed up the value of the book. But the Surrey school board banned the book anyways.

It could have ended there. It didn’t. Soon after the Surrey School Board decision, lawyer Joe Arvay contacted Chamberlain and others affiliated with the case. Arvay said suing could not only get the book on the curriculum, but could set a legal precedent throughout Canada. Chamberlain and several others leapt at the chance—even though failure had the potential to throw their lives into disarray.

The resulting court case would take nearly seven years and end up in the Supreme Court of Canada. By the time the highest court in the land had its say, winning wasn’t just about confirming the law and making a difference. For Chamberlain, the decision had the potential to completely upend his own life. In participating in the lawsuit, Chamberlain had not only subjected himself to the wrath of opponents, he had risked his own financial security. Losing would force Chamberlain and several of his co-plaintiffs to pay a mountain of legal bills that exceeded $1 million.

“My husband and I knew that if we lost the case, we would be bankrupt completely,” he told The Current recently from his home on Vancouver Island.

The resulting 7-2 Supreme Court decision confirmed Chamberlain’s view. It made clear that children should learn about all types of families, not just the ones they might be familiar with. As well, it confirmed that children who had different types of families, or were different themselves, had the right to see themselves in the education they were receiving. When he was a kid, Chamberlain hadn’t been able to see himself reflected in his education. The case he helped bring to the court has solidified that as a right for children today, and has been cited as precedent in more than 100 cases over the last decade and a half.

“When I became a teacher, I wanted to make a difference in kids’ lives and I wanted school to be better for future generations than it had been for me.”

This spring, Chamberlain received his honourary degree from UFV for his breadth of education and advocacy work over decades. The court case is one component of that. It’s also, he says, just one component of work still being done by educators.

“I never thought of [the court case] as a single action. I’ve always seen it as the work of a collective, because there were other litigants and some of them were allies. They didn’t have any LGBTQ relatives or friends or anything. They knew it was the right thing to do. So it is a legacy but it’s just a pinpoint in a journey to equality on the part of thousands of people.”

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