Violence breaks out amid clash of perspectives
The atmosphere in Oak Bay took an unexpected shift on the evening of Thursday, May 2 as a public talk against SOGI 123 drew heavy criticism, hundreds of protesters, and was eventually shut down by the Oak Bay police.
Jenn Smith, a biological male and self-identified transgender male, planned to hold his talk “The Erosion of Freedom: How Transgender Politics in School and Society is Undermining Our Freedom and Harming Women and Children.” The speech delivered an opposing argument to SOGI 123, a curriculum that was introduced to B.C. and Alberta school districts with three main objectives: The first to provide policies that specifically reference SOGI in an effort to reduce discrimination, the second to create more inclusive learning environments and finally to provide educators access to lesson plans that open up the conversation around SOGI.
Smith had been on a tour of Vancouver Island, which kicked off April 28 and spanned to Campbell River, Duncan, Nanaimo and finally culminated in Victoria at the Windsor Pavilion in Oak Bay.
The news of this speech being held garnered much attention leading up to the event, as many members of the Victoria community expressed that they felt the content of Smith’s presentation was fear mongering and harmful. Hundreds of people organized to protest the “Erosion of Freedom” talk, and express support for SOGI 123.
In response to these concerns, the District of Oak Bay released a statement clarifying that by approving the permit for this event, they were not attempting to condone or engage in any position on this discussion.
“While the District is fully aware that this discussion may be controversial, the District has no legal basis to deny the permit as doing so would impinge on “freedom of expression,” the statement read.
SOGI 123 is a customizable resource that allows educators to bring the conversation of sexual orientation and gender identity into classrooms in way that is inclusive for all students. It was created in July 2016 through a collaboration between the ARC Foundation and the B.C. Ministry of Education, and was implemented in B.C. the following October.
The creation of SOGI 123 was sparked by the decision to update the B.C. Human Rights code in July 2016. These revisions included gender identity and expression as legitimate grounds of discrimination.
In December 2016, all anti-bullying policies of the Greater Victoria school district are to be updated to specifically reference SOGI 123. However, this move did not go without criticism.
The B.C. government received a petition from a Christian conservative group to remove SOGI 123 a year after it was first implemented. But, the government did not waver in support of SOGI 123, and thanks to the backing of Indigenous organizations and the newly revised B.C. Human Rights code, the request was denied.
On the ground
At the surrounding fields of Windsor Pavilion on the evening of May 2, a peace picnic, organized by Ryan Painter, school trustee of the Greater Victoria School District, began to congregate.
Much of the audience arrived completely decked out in pride apparel, golden retrievers in tow, and yielding signs of defiance towards the ideals expressed in Smith’s event. The majority of the protesters accumulated around the patio that lay directly below the room where the talk was being held.
Members of the community gave speeches, voicing their unwavering support of SOGI 123.
“Teaching our children that queer children exist and can live happy lives is going to make such a difference for queer adults,” said Sophie Culos, a protestor who was moved to publicly state her belief in SOGI.
Culos also reflected on how her experience with her sexuality would have been vastly different had she grew up with access to this educational tool.
“I so desperately wish that programs like SOGI were in place twenty years ago,” Culos said. “I wish I didn’t have to go through so many of my formative years trying to figure out what was wrong with me.”
Also winning the hearts of many in the crowd, Brynn Barnes, a 11-year-old protester, made a spontaneous decision to voice her perspective on the issue.
“I just want for everyone to know, especially all the kids who have been told that they have to be someone that they are not, that it’s okay to be different it’s okay to be yourself and no matter what other people say,” she said. “You are still you, and they cannot change that.”
The tension mounts
Contrary to the symphony of inclusivity playing outside, a very different energy was brewing up in the conference room where Smith’s talk was to take place.
The start of the event was delayed by the songs of peaceful protesters. Rose Henry, an Indigenous activist, spoke to the shift in atmosphere that occurred during these songs.
“The energy in the air was changing, because there was a group of us women who went to the front first and we sang our songs and we showed the wall of resistance,” said Henry. “One of the organizers or [a] park warden said that they called the police, and they threatened to arrest us women if we didn’t take a seat.”
Once Smith made an attempt to start his presentation, which was already delayed by around an hour at this point, chaos ensued. To the tune of protesters chanting “SOGI saves lives,” bells being rung, and the blaring sound of the fire alarm (which was pulled in an unsuccessful attempt to draw people away from the building), Jenn Smith began his speech.
It was clear at this point that any attempts to go forward with the event would be thwarted by protesters. This angered many who had come to listen to Smith, culminating in several violent, physical altercations such as pushing people and screaming in each others faces.
After events started to escalate, the Oak Bay police announced that they were shutting down the event. Mary, a community member who had planned to hear Smith speak, was critical of the protesters’ actions.
“My expectation was to come and hear a speaker, and even from before he began, there was verbal drowning out and it’s like there,” Mary said. “There was an agenda, [and they would] not allow him to speak … I [thought it] was disgusting behavior.”
Once the chaotic nature of the night dimmed, certain details of the event began to come to light for many of those present — in particular, the role police played at the event..
“I think that police presence here tonight was aggressive and unnecessary in a lot of ways,” said Lauren, one of the protesters. “I think they handled it poorly, they directly made physical contact with a youth that was here. They didn’t have control of the situation in most moments, [and] didn’t help to make sure information was shared in a way that was respectful. I don’t really understand what their role was tonight.”
Sam, a UVic student, described an altercation he experienced with a police officer.
“I saw a cop physically [assault] someone, push them out on the balcony.,” he said. “I interceded, at which point [the cop] flashed his gun at me, [so] one of my social workers interceded.”
Many people at the event commented on the tactics used by police towards protesters. Kenya, one of the protesters, took issue with how several of the physical altercations were handled by officials present.
“Instead of flashing a badge, [one of the police] flashed his gun … there was no identification that this person was a cop,” Kenya said. “It was really triggering and intense for everyone.”
Also noted was the presence of groups like the Soldiers of Odin, an anti immigrant group founded in 2015 that have branches all over the world.
“[Smith] used Soldiers of Odin, which are [a] well known white supremacists, neo-Nazi group, to guard [him] and intimidate other people in the group, trying to quell [the protests] and [act] as pseudo cops,” said Matthew, an attendee of the event. “It’s disappointing to witness.”
As the event was officially shut down by the Oak Bay Police, attendees of both the protest and talk took a moment to process what had occurred.
“I don’t think that there is room in the world for this kind of hate crime or judgement … what this person was promoting was pure hate and that goes against me as an individual and against most of my friends,” said Rose, a protester. “We have had enough — we voiced our opinion and we won.”
Ryan Painter, who organized the protest, felt that the movement was a success.
“The protest showed overwhelmingly that we are a community that is unafraid to rally and stand up in support of the LGBTQ2S [community], especially the trans community, when they are under attack,” Painter said. “Nearly 500 people came out to show Jenn Smith that [his] brand of hate and discrimination has no place on Vancouver Island.”
Perhaps the most peculiar detail of the whole night could be seen in the very center of the building, sandwiched between the clash of protests and supporters of Smith.
Through glass windows, a female meditation class was in session — a reminder to us all that in the chaotic political climate of this world, it’s okay to set aside a moment to just breathe. In fact, it’s recommended.