In Canada in 2023, it takes remarkable courage to state the obvious. At a public meeting of the Waterloo Region District School Board in January of 2022, a teacher raised concerns about school library books promoting transgender ideology to children. In a shocking display of blatant censorship, Waterloo school board chair Scott Piatkowski expelled Carolyn Burjoski from this public meeting, after shutting off her microphone to prevent her from speaking.
Carolyn Burjoski, who had taught English to new Canadians in elementary schools in Waterloo region for over 20 years, expressed her concerns over the Board’s campaign to remove “harmful” books from classrooms, libraries, and teachers’ personal classroom collections. Burjoski felt that this cull was based on uncertain and unclear criteria. She 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, the school board chairman interrupted Burjoski and suggested her comments were “problematic” and in violation of Ontario’s Human Rights Code.
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 Burjoski’s microphone, accusing her of violating Ontario’s Human Rights Code by “discriminating” based on gender expression and gender identity. But Ontario’s Human Rights Code applies not to speech but to the delivery of services to the public.
After the meeting, Piatkowski publicly attacked Burjoski as “transphobic,” being disrespectful and discourteous to transgender people, making statements that would cause transgender people to be attacked, as having caused “harm,” and having questioned the right of trans people to exist. These harsh claims were completely unhinged from what had occurred at the January 2022 meeting. Burjoski has commenced a court action against the school board.
Presumably the school board was unaware of the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay, which requires that government neither favour nor hinder any particular religious belief. Woke progressives like Chairman Piatkowski are often blind to their own religion. Granted, their “religion” does not require attendance at a house of worship, and it has no sacred texts that are formally recognized as “the” authority on matters of faith and morals. But like other religious adherents, woke progressives subscribe to unproven metaphysical assumptions about the meaning and purpose of the universe, and how people should live out their lives. Woke progressives are as “religious” as anyone else. But dealing with people who are unaware of their own religion is frustrating.
The Supreme Court declared in Committee for the Commonwealth of Canada 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.” In R. v. Zundel, 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 Burjoski aimed to do.
Democracy depends entirely on free and open debate on issues of public importance, including the right to criticize laws and policies, and those who make them. Free and open debate requires that everyone tolerate opinions which differ from one’s own, especially opinions one may find offensive and repugnant. Without basic tolerance, our school boards, towns, cities, provinces and federal Parliament no longer answer to the voters, they answer only to the censors.
Burjoski has displayed tremendous courage, not only by speaking truth to power in January of 2022, but by holding to account some arrogant politicians who abused their authority and disregarded democracy itself. Along with all Canadians, Burjoski awaits the court’s ruling on free expression and democracy.
John Carpay, B.A., is president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (jccf.ca).