Should Canadians continue to enjoy their freedom to express their opinions in public? Can this include sharing concerns that some books are not good for children? What about publicly criticizing some books in a school library as being unsuitable for children — should that be allowed in Canada in 2023?
If you answered “yes” to all three questions, the Waterloo Region District School Board would peg you as a hateful, harmful transphobe who has no right to speak.
In a shocking display of blatant censorship, Waterloo school board chair Scott Piatkowski expelled teacher Carolyn Burjoski from a public meeting in January 2022, after shutting off her microphone to prevent her from speaking.
Now, Ms. Burjoski’s court action against the Waterloo Region District School Board will be heard on June 5, 2023.
Carolyn Burjoski, who had taught English to new Canadians in elementary schools in Waterloo region for more than 20 years, expressed her concerns over the Board’s campaign to remove “harmful” books from classrooms, libraries, and teachers’ personal classroom collections. Ms. Burjoski felt that this cull was based on uncertain and unclear criteria, and asked whether some other books might also be harmful, stating: “In fact, some of the books filling our libraries make it seem simple or even cool to take puberty blockers and opposite sex hormones.”
At this point, Chairman Piatkowski interrupted Ms. Burjoski and suggested her comments were “problematic” and in violation of Ontario’s Human Rights Code.
Ms. Burjoski continued: “…the [book] “Other Boy” by MG Hennessey chronicles the medical transition of Shane, who was born female and now identifies as a boy. Shane takes puberty blockers and is now excited to start testosterone. The doctor states that this hormone mixture will leave Shane infertile in the future. Shane’s response is: ‘It’s cool’ — a very typical adolescent response. This book is misleading because it does not take into account how Shane might feel later in life about being infertile. This book makes very serious medical interventions seem like an easy cure for emotional and social distress…”
Chairman Piatkowski then shut off Ms. Burjoski’s microphone, accusing her of violating Ontario’s Human Rights Code by “discriminating” based on gender expression and gender identity. The fact that Ontario’s Human Rights Code applies not to speech but to the delivery of services to the public seems not to have occurred to Mr. Piatkowski.
After the meeting, Chairman Piatkowski publicly attacked Ms. Burjoski as “transphobic,” as being disrespectful and discourteous to transgender people, as making statements that would cause transgender people to be attacked, as having caused “harm,” and as having questioned the right of trans people to exist. These harsh claims were completely unhinged from what had occurred at the January 2022 meeting.
Chairman Piatkowski tried to justify his censorship to his fellow school board trustees without any reference to free expression as protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, asserting only that Ms. Burjoski was headed in what he saw as a “problematic” direction. Three days later, the school board published a statement expressing “deep regret for any harm caused to the transgender community” due to Ms. Burjoski’s presentation.
This school board is apparently ignorant of the court ruling in Committee for the Commonwealth of Canada, in which the Supreme Court of Canada declared that freedom of expression serves to ensure that “everyone can manifest their thoughts, opinions, beliefs… however unpopular, distasteful or contrary to the mainstream.” Freedom of expression applies to information and ideas that may “shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.”
No doubt the school board is also unfamiliar with the court ruling in R. v. Zundel, in which the Supreme Court declared that the purpose of free expression extends to protecting minority beliefs which the majority regards as wrong or false. Free expression recognizes the value of public discussion and debate on social and political matters, which is exactly what Ms. Burjoski aimed to do.
Nor was the school board aware of the state duty of neutrality, as declared by the Supreme Court in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay, which requires that government neither favour nor hinder any particular belief.
Certainly, the school board has the right to expel people from public meetings for improper conduct, if a member of the public is unruly or disruptive, or obstructs the proper functioning of the meeting. But school boards have no authority to censor speech, however much some woke trustees might disagree with what they hear from taxpaying citizens.
Thus far, the school board has failed to explain how Ms. Burjoski has breached Ontario’s Human Rights Code, or how expressing her opinion could somehow justify getting expelled from a public meeting.
Democracy requires free and open debate on issues of public importance, including the right to criticize political decisions and those who make them. Free and open debate requires that everyone tolerate opinions that one may find offensive and repugnant.
Without this basic tolerance, our school boards, towns, cities, provinces and federal Parliament cannot function properly.