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By Anna Chudnovsky (she/her), BCTF staff

Jennifer Kostiuk makes dinner for all the Nechako Teachers’ Union (NTU) members who attend NTU Annual General Meetings (AGMs), or at least before COVID-19 she did. She is the sole released local officer, so she fixes the printer at the office, sorts out the modem when the internet is down, and drives from school to school checking in with teachers. She knows all the roads in the area and checks in with teachers to make sure they got to school okay if she knows their route is treacherous. She knows how many non-certified teachers are at any school at any one time, she knows their names, and has supported some of them with their education so they can become certified teachers. Jennifer has been NTU President for 8 years, was in the classroom for 26 years, and has retirement on her mind.

But before that, she’s got work to do.

Jennifer’s local is made up of three small communities: Fraser Lake, Fort St. James, and Vanderhoof. These three communities are served by 240 members, both certified and uncertified, and Jennifer knows almost all of them by name. A survey of her membership she conducted in June showed that her members are struggling. The results suggest that more than a third of teachers aren’t sleeping well, don’t have positive physical health, and don’t feel supported by their school district. Their jobs are hard, busy, and chaotic. Members take on a lot of stress trying to fill gaps in services and supports for their school communities.

The community is struggling with local issues, including rural poverty from industrial layoffs, job insecurity, struggles with unsupported health issues, challenges maintaining minimum medical staffing in the community, and a deeply religious population insistent on blocking social justice initiatives brought forward by progressive and committed union members.

And on top of all that, the municipal election went sideways.

Across the province, ParentsVoice BC candidates ran on an anti-SOGI platform, and on October 15 Vanderhoof was the only municipality that elected two ParentsVoice school board trustees. Before the election, they spoke vociferously against the May 17 Share the Love Day that teachers had organized to support the International Day Against Homophobia. The event continued despite the loud voices speaking out against it. However, it was a moment of real concern for teachers as they witnessed the anger and escalation of this vocal minority. It was as if teachers were being put on notice, and they heard the message loud and clear.

A new rainbow sidewalk at a crosswalk adjacent to one of the schools in the district was vandalized the evening after it was installed. It is unknown who vandalized the rainbow sidewalk, but there is now camera surveillance of the crosswalk.

Something also occurred during a school board meeting where students presented a proposal for additional courses, similar to the one called Diversity 8, to be added to course options for secondary school. A parent-group presentation of a petition at the same meeting went over the allowed ten minutes, even after the parent presenters were made aware of the time. No additional time was permitted at the meeting for the parents to complete their presentation, and the public portion of the meeting was adjourned. One of the student presenters was quoted in the Omineca Express: “Throughout the entire time, I felt targeted as a person of a minority group, and I did not feel safe. It felt very offensive, especially to be in school.”1

“Ultra-conservative parents are organized and motivated,” said Jennifer, “I’m worried about our community, our union members, and the kids at schools in our district.”

Teacher activists in Vanderhoof are similarly anxious. Having grown up not too far away, and in a very conservative family, Yoshi Sawatzky, an elementary teacher in Vanderhoof, is familiar with these dynamics.

“I came back here because I love it here. I appreciate so much of what this community has to offer,” he shared. “That said, we’ve got some challenges.”

The teachers leading the way against conservative parent groups represent all sorts. Some are members of the equity-seeking groups whose lives and rights are being undermined by ParentsVoice and other far-right candidates associated with them. Others are allies, showing up and taking action to support their colleagues and students. Either way, the teachers all feel protective of the work they’re doing with students to build a more just and equitable world. They see their work as an essential service to all the unique and wonderful kids in their classes. These teachers were deeply disappointed with the results of the election, and now they’re ready to defend all that they’ve built. Jennifer Kostiuk is right there with them.

So, what can teachers do when faced with a school board that stands in the way of social justice initiatives? Teacher activists in Vanderhoof are organized and acting quickly. Jennifer and three staff reps from the NTU attended the inaugural school board meeting and were highly visible. Wearing Red for Ed and Every Child Matters shirts, Moosehide and BCTF pins, and, with rainbows everywhere, they made their presence—and their close eye on the board—known.

They’ve organized a rotation of teachers to attend every school board meeting and are actively reporting out to the wider membership about what actions these new trustees are taking. At the very first meeting the teacher attendees saw these newly elected trustees making moves: one nominating the other for vice-chair, which was defeated by secret ballot; volunteering for both finance and policy committees; and questioning the delivery of support to the most vulnerable learners in the district. The quick and regressive work by these trustees was telling and worrisome.

Across the province, municipal elections seem to be fertile ground for right-wing conservatism these days, and it’s up to teachers, union activists, and all those on the side of justice to stand up for public education. Of the 125 candidates associated with far-right ideology focused on anti-vax and anti-trans agendas (e.g., ParentsVoice, VIVA Victoria, and others), only 14 succeeded in getting elected across the province in the October elections. Though the alt-right didn’t make headway in terms of actually electing very many people, significant headway was made in terms of expanding their base. Furthermore, in no uncertain terms, school boards have become the convergence points for alt-right infiltration into electoral politics, as is being seen in Vanderhoof. In ridings where the People’s Party of Canada ran candidates in 2021 and where an alt-right candidate ran for school board trustee in 2022, the expansion of this support is clear. In some municipalities, their vote share has increased by almost ten times.

What is happening in Vanderhoof is not unique, though we can look to their example as motivation to stay energized around politics at the local level. Teacher activists from the NTU are showing up, monitoring, organizing, and taking action in response to the hateful and oppressive tactics being employed by the alt-right. Thanks to Jennifer Kostiuk and her intrepid membership, teachers intent on supporting social justice initiatives and work around equity and inclusion, we have a great example to follow.

Meet some Nechako teachers

David Peterson has been teaching in Nechako Lakes for eight years. He has been on the NTU Executive since 2016. David teaches science at Nechako Valley Secondary School in Vanderhoof. One of his favourite labs to teach is “the cornstarch flamethrower,” where students create plumes of fire from blown starch dust. It’s an exciting example of how surface area speeds chemical reactions, but also a serious lesson in a region where four workers lost their lives because of sawdust explosions in the mills of neighbouring communities. Many students have weekend clean-up jobs at the local mill, and this helps them understand the “why” behind this important job: they are not just sweeping, they are keeping their co-workers safe. It’s one thing to know the theory; it’s another to have experienced dust combustion first-hand in a safe, laboratory setting. Learning science can be exciting, fun, and locally relevant all at once.

Fun fact: David has one of the only chalk boards left in the district, which he loves to use (as you can see). He says this about chalk: “Chalk is mostly calcium carbonate, the active ingredient in Tums,” a fact he has taken advantage of in moments of desperation. Incidentally, he’s pretty sure that eating a whiteboard marker would not work as well.

Yoshi Sawatzky is a real firecracker. His voice is loud and friendly; he welcomes students into his classroom with warmth and humour. He’s funny, making jokes with colleagues in the hall, and high-fiving students from other classes. Yoshi has a history in Vanderhoof. His parents met there, and after years away he’s come back home to teach. He spent years teaching in the private religious system he grew up in, but has now been teaching in the public system as a member of the NTU for a few years. He’s glad he made the change.

He’s incredibly committed to his community, having grown up there, but he knows that there is prejudice and discrimination that must be dealt with. His knowledge of the very communities that NTU finds itself opposed to at school board tables gives Yoshi a particular perspective on the work he’s committed to doing in the local. He’s deeply protective of Vanderhoof, but also honest about the divisions that have come to the fore. He’s the political action contact for the NTU and he’s raring to go.

Yoshi is excited about teaching geography and uses project-based learning to help kids express their knowledge and support their curious inquiry.

Elizabeth Bennet teaches a multigrade class of Grades 2, 3, and 4 at Mapes Elementary. The school sits on 150 acres of forested land in the rural area outside of Vanderhoof. Mapes only has 3 teachers and 56 students, but the place is absolutely buzzing. Liz runs much of her programming outdoors and relishes the opportunity to teach about science in nature. Her students are experts on the accumulated thermal units of salmon fry and love to learn about nature. They are connected to the land they live on in deep and meaningful ways.

Liz grew up in the area, then left to complete her teaching degree on Vancouver Island. She came back to serve the community she loves, because she sees the inspiring potential of connecting with kids in her hometown and supporting their learning. Liz engaged with the local immediately upon joining the district. First as a staff rep, then as a health and safety rep for a small rural school. She went on to serve as the social justice chair, as a local bargaining committee member, and she’s attended multiple BCTF AGMs as an NTU representative. Liz is also one of the rotating teachers attending school board meetings and reporting her findings to her colleagues.

Liz is part of the community theatre in town and is also on the volunteer fire department. She’s involved in the community in so many ways and has emerged as a real leader since her return to the area.

1 www.ominecaexpress.com/news/parent-delegation-to-school-board-meeting-prompts-reactions/


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Category/Topic: Teacher Magazine