A little over two years ago, in October 2017, Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld felt obligated to speak out against SOGI 123 (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity 123), a resource kit for BC and Alberta teachers to teach children and youth about LGBTQ issues.
In a move that would drastically shake up his career, Neufeld posted the following on Facebook on October 17th, 2017:
Mainstream media began covering Neufeld’s post within hours, and a couple of days later Neufeld apologized specifically for his comment that allowing young children to change genders is “child abuse.” He made it clear that he was critical of an educational resource — SOGI 123 — not LGBTQ individuals themselves.
By the new year, January 2018, Neufeld’s colleagues had coordinated an all-out attack on his character. Notably, there would be a municipal election that October.
Much of the backlash came from Glen Hansman, then-president of the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF). Hansman, a teacher and LGBTQ activist, said in media interviews that Neufeld “should step down or be removed,” that he shouldn’t be “anywhere near students,” and that “he tip toed quite far into hate speech.”
Hansman also stated that Neufeld held “transphobic” and “bigoted views.”
Next, BC’s Minister of Education, Rob Fleming, formally called on Neufeld to resign, but Neufeld rejected the suggestion. The Minister of Education does not possess the authority to dismiss an individual trustee.
The Chilliwack Board of Education also called for Neufeld’s resignation, but again, Neufeld wouldn’t allow himself to be bullied into resigning.
The BCTF then filed a human rights complaint against Neufeld, alleging that his public comments about trans people created an “unsafe” work environment for teachers and exposed trans people to “hatred.” The complaint was accepted for filing by the BC Human Rights Tribunal in April 2018.
Notably, the BCTF describes itself as a “social justice union.” They publish a quarterly Social Justice Newsletter (the most recent edition contains exactly the articles you’d expect, such as “Intersectionality within the Women’s Movement” and “Problematizing Heteronormativity and Gender Binary in Schools”). They also host a biennial Social Justice Conference, offer social justice workshops, and provide a variety of social justice grants worth thousands of dollars. They employ an Assistant Director of Social Justice and encourage teachers to act as social justice school representatives, so that they can share social justice material with their school’s teaching staff.
But it wasn’t only the BCTF that filed a human rights complaint against Neufeld: CUPE 411 — the union of education assistants and clerical, custodial, transportation, and maintenance staff in the Chilliwack School District — filed a similar complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal, and the tribunal accepted their complaint as well.
Neufeld was simultaneously being alienated by his colleagues throughout the year: in February 2018, a BC School Trustee Association meeting was cancelled because Neufeld insisted he be permitted to attend (remember, Neufeld is an elected school trustee), despite the Maple Ridge school board saying his attendance would violate the “Safe, Caring, and Healthy Schools” policy.
In June 2018, Neufeld was told by the school board that he was prohibited from being on stage with the other trustees during a school graduation ceremony, and prohibited from shaking the hands of the graduating students, all because his presence was apparently unsafe to LGBTQ students.
Neufeld was being mobbed, attacked, and snubbed by almost everyone surrounding him in his role as trustee — yet he ran for re-election in October 2018, and won.
But one day before the election, Neufeld filed a defamation suit against Glen Hansman, alleging Hansman had publicly painted him as a transphobic, homophobic bigot unfit to work in schools, and that he “has suffered damages to his reputation professionally, socially, and generally within his community, across Canada, and internationally.”
On March 25, 2019, the Protection of Public Participation Act came into force in British Columbia. The legislation’s purpose is to “protect public participation in matters of public interest” by attempting to “balance the rights of individuals to protect their reputations against the obvious benefit to a democratic society of protecting free speech and rigorous debate on issues of public interest.” The PPPA is comparable to so-called anti-SLAPP legislation, meant to combat “strategic lawsuits against public participation.”
Glen Hansman applied to dismiss Neufeld’s defamation action pursuant to this new PPPA legislation, arguing that Neufeld sued him because of comments that he made in relation to a subject that was of public interest.
In a November 26, 2019 judgment, Justice Alan Ross stayed Neufeld’s lawsuit from proceeding any further, determining that Hansman had established grounds for dismissing Neufeld’s claim under the new legislation. Justice Ross wrote that while “the plaintiff has an interest in claiming damages and clearing his good name… the public has an interest in protecting expressions that relate to public debate.”
Neufeld’s lawyer Paul Jaffe says, “the idea of SLAPP laws makes sense but the whole SLAPP thing here has been turned on its head…To treat a person like Neufeld as a big bad oil company or a bank exploiting a power balance to punish or silence critics is patently absurd. The defendant here is the president of the most powerful public sector union in BC (45,000 members).”
While the courts may have thrown out Neufeld’s defamation suit, it is still undeniable that Glen Hansman and his social justice union, as well as the Education Minister and Chilliwack Board of Education, were on a crusade to systematically undermine Neufeld’s credibility and character.
And the crusade against Neufeld isn’t over yet: it will continue on through the BCTF and CUPE 411 human rights tribunal cases against him.