Concept 5: Freedom of Expression

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This script is based on Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36. This video portrays a general focus of the case and is not intended as a full account. For an actual account of the decision, read the case Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36, 2002 SCC 86, [2002] 4 S.C.R. 710 found at the Resources tab.

Chamberlain v Surrey School District No. 36

The events that led to the 2002 Supreme Court case titled Chamberlain v Surrey School District No. 36 began innocently enough. Kindergarten teacher James Chamberlain wanted to use three picture books in his classroom and applied to the Surrey District School Board for approval. However, what transpired was a legal battle that lasted several years involving three different courts including the highest court in the land - the Supreme Court of Canada. What caused this legal action? Why did something as seemingly innocent as three short children's stories spark such a nation-wide debate?

The answer can be found within the three books themselves. Each of the three books, Asha's Mums, Belinda's Bouquet, and One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blues Dads, depict same-sex parented families. It was this depiction that caused the Surrey District School Board to disallow the books from use in Mr. Chamberlain's classroom even though this parental depiction was not the main focus of each story.

We believe that these books are not appropriate for use at the kindergarten and grade 1 levels, therefore, the board was justified in its decision. The members of our community have a right to take part in deciding what their children learn in schools. They have a right to their own religious beliefs in terms of sexuality and,a further right to raise their children under those beliefs.

As Ms. Polak stated: the school board disallowed the books because it felt that the subject matter was both inappropriate for the kindergarten age level and contrary to the religious beliefs of some parents of children who attend school in the district. Were these reasons sufficient to not approve the use of the books?

On the other side of the debate were James Chamberlain and his supporters, including the EGALE, Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere, and Murray Warren, a teacher from a school district in British Columbia that allows the books. Warren says that using these books has led to some important classroom discussions.

I've listened to the objections of Surrey School District Board on the use of these books and can't disagree more! My school district allows these books. Using them in my class has led to some interesting discussions about various family models. We've discussed blended families, families with adopted children, and yes, we've discussed families with two moms or two dads. Some children in my classroom have two moms and two dads. We need to respect and accept all families.

This argument would have to be settled in The Supreme Court of Canada and in late 2002, the Court made a decision.

The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the Surrey District School Board's decision to disallow the books was unreasonable.

The judgement from the Supreme Court stated that the school board's decision needed to be made based on principles of tolerance and non-sectarianism. In response to the School Board's argument that the three books were not appropriate for the kindergarten age group, Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin said, "Tolerance is always age-appropriate."

In other words, the Supreme Court ruled that the Surrey District School Board needed to reconsider its original decision.

Asha's Mums is riddled with grammar and punctuation errors. The author switches the spelling of the word 'favourite' from the Canadian way to the American way. And in the case of Belinda's Bouquet, the issues of body image and dieting are not appropriate for the kindergarten or grade 1 children. These topics are not handled well by the author of this story. Furthermore, the depiction of fathers in One Dad, Two Dads is not even realistic.

These were some of the reasons such that led the Surrey School Board to once again disallow the books.

What occurred in Surrey between 1996 and 2002 has many implications. Questions arise about religion, freedom of expression, age-appropriateness and censorship. Do all family models have the right to be represented in primary school classrooms? How much say should parents have over what their children read and learn in schools? These are the challenges to be faced and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms will be the most valuable tool.


Disclaimer - The resources presented in this learning tool, the Charter in the Classroom: Students, Teachers and Rights (CC: STAR) are included only to assist in the study of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They do not necessarily represent an endorsement of a position or issue, opinion or view of its contributors, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Inukshuk Wireless, the Ontario Justice Education Network, the Canadian Civil Liberties Education Trust or any of the people, organizations, or institutions affiliated with it.