The BC Human Rights Tribunal’s decision to order the Bowen Island Montessori School (BIMS) to pay $12,000 to a local family in a discrimination case (see related story) is causing shockwaves across the island.
BIMS board chair Maria Turnbull said that though it is facing financial hardship, the school does not intend to close.
“The board is committed to doing whatever it can to meet that remedy payment to ensure that the school continues the operations,” she said. “The community support that has come in since the public announcement of the decision on Wednesday is certainly going to support us to get there.”
Although the school did have some insurance, it ran out in October 2017, even before the hearing process.
“The complexity of the case did mean that time in hearing for both sides was longer than anticipated, resulting in higher legal costs,” said Turnbull.
There will be no insurance coverage for the remedy payment or remaining legal costs, but the school’s lawyers and the school are looking to make sure the fees are manageable.
“Norton Rose Fulbright, are working with the board of directors to ensure the school’s operations are unaffected by the case,” said Turnbull.
The final amount of legal fees will substantial for the organization said Turnbull.
A GoFundMe was set up by a former Montessori parent to cover legal costs and has already raised more than $8,000.
Shura Lee Keith, who set up the GoFundMe, has two children who’ve attended the preschool and has another set to attend next September.
“It’s the least I could do,” said Keith. “They need to know the community still supports them.
“There’s not a lot of options for childcare,” she said. “[BIMS closing] would be a loss for the community, definitely.”
But when it comes to the controversy, Keith is looking to the future, “I just want people to be happy,” she said.
In the 2016 census, Bowen had 375 children between the ages of 0 and 9. The loss of BIMS’s 15 to 20 spots would be significant.
Turnbull said that BIMS is immensely grateful for the community support.
“There are many important community efforts that are happening currently and always happening on our island. And I think that the community gives a great deal to the variety of priorities,” she said.
On the topic of BIMS’s future, while noting that the tribunal finding wasn’t about the curriculum, Turnbull acknowledged that there’s always room for growth.
“The complaint itself and then the healthy conversations that have taken place within the school since, have pushed the school to, I think, look deeply at its values and what’s most important to the school and ensuring truly strong multicultural programming,” she said.
To that effect, the school received a $2,500 grant from the Bowen Island Community Foundation in 2018.
“Because we think of our community as generally welcoming and inclusive, a sensitive subject like diversity can be uncomfortable to discuss,” reads the grant description on the foundation website. “Addressing these issues candidly and openly could be transformative. The grant from the Community Foundation will enhance the school’s programming toward building a curriculum that provides more opportunities to dive deeper into cultural exploration through cooking, arts, training and educational resources that foster an outward approach to the world at large.”
On an island where less than seven per cent of the population identifies as a visible minority (according to the 2016 census), diversity is indeed a sensitive topic.
Turnbull wasn’t part of BIMS when the conflict arose or the lawsuit filed, having been the board president for only two years, but in her professional life, Turnbull specializes in board governance for non-profits in B.C.
“I am aware of, and speak openly about what privilege I have as a human or somebody who came from a particular upbringing and who had access to higher education, as did the complainants,” she said.
“The great injustice that I felt was at play was that a school with committed community volunteers and families with open hearts and generous minds ended up being challenged where there was there was potential for this to have ended so differently,” she said.
“I don’t want to lose sight of the most basic element within that – how do we continue as a community to ask questions, to explore issues, to acknowledge privilege, to acknowledge, let’s say, dominance of a particular perspective, in a way that’s safe.
“That’s what it’s hard to know what to do with and define,” said Turnbull. “Finding the light in a tough and very complex and very emotional issue for some people. For many people. Not just us.
“It’s my job as a board member, and for all board members, to be looking forward from here.”
BIMS began as Tiggywinkles in 1995, created to meet an increasing need for preschool aged care. At the request of parents, the school switched to a Montessori-based approach 16 years ago.
The Montessori approach touts self-directed learning, hands-on and collaborative play, where the trained teacher fosters students’ natural talents and inclinations.
In its 23 years of existence, hundreds of island children, between the ages of two and a half and six, have attended the preschool. Since the latest teacher joined in 2006 (the same one named in the tribunal case), more than 120 children have passed through its doors.
The complainants, Gary Mangel and Mai Yasué are not commenting publicly.