Silenced teacher becomes a hero of the anti-woke resistance

Carolyn Burjoski, who was censured for speaking out about transgender books, fought for our children’s right to an age-appropriate education

The most inspirational hero stories are about people who never aspired to the role, and never dreamed that heroism was their destiny.

Carolyn Burjoski, a lifetime resident of Kitchener, Ont., was, until her world flipped upside down almost two years ago, content in the ordinary life she had chosen. She loves her husband, her three daughters and three grandchildren. And for 20 years, she had found fulfillment in teaching English as a second language, most gratifyingly to children with education gaps from war-torn countries.

In an interview, Burjoski said that her work environment was becoming increasingly woke, but she didn’t pay much attention to it, because politics wasn’t her thing. Then her troubles began, and suddenly her life got political. There would be no going back to happy anonymity, and for a dark period, it seemed there might be no going back to happiness of any kind.

On Jan. 17, 2022, during a Zoom meeting of the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB), Burjoski began a scheduled 10-minute presentation regarding what she believed were age-inappropriate additions to school libraries.

She read excerpts from two books about gender transitioning that, in her view, valorized an attitude of insouciance around medical transitioning, including the risk of infertility.

Four minutes into her talk, board chair Scott Piatkowski removed her from the meeting, accusing her of violating the Human Rights Code. The following day, she was ordered to stay home and barred from speaking to colleagues or students.

Piatkowski publicly accused Burjoski of transphobia, claiming he had no choice but to expel her from the meeting. The WRDSB also filed a formal complaint and initiated a disciplinary investigation against her.

Later, the release of a recording of the board meeting (the board had removed it from its website) resulted in a media frenzy. Burjoski received what she described as a “tidal wave of online abuse.”

Burjoski filed separate defamation claims with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice against the WRDSB and board chair Scott Piatkowski. The WRDSB sought to have it thrown out. In a Nov. 23 ruling, Judge James Ramsay delivered a ruling that deserves the adjective “landmark.”

In it, he dismissed the WRDSB’s bid and ordered it to pay $30,000 in costs (far less than Burjoski’s actual costs). He said her claims could proceed, as Piatkowski’s comments were indeed “defamatory.”

But he went much further. “They accused her of breaching the Human Rights Code, questioning the right of trans persons to exist and engaging in speech that included hate. She did not do any of those things,” the judge wrote.

“The chairman of the board acted with malice or at least, with a reckless disregard for the truth.” He added, “I find it regrettable that the defendant who is trying to shut down debate is an arm of the government. Regard for the historical and present plight of the transgendered … does not negate Section 2(b) of the Charter.”

And most important: “What happened here should not happen in a democratic society,” because “the Human Rights Code does not prohibit public discussion of issues related to transgenderism or minors and transgenderism. It does not prohibit public discussion of anything.”

The whole story is laid out in detail — and ancillary legal aspects summarized in a short video — on Burjoski’s website, Suffice to say that the clarity of the judgment as a precedent establishing that the Human Rights Code was never meant to limit public discussion is an early holiday gift to every classical liberal in Canada who is troubled by the erosion of free speech in our cultural institutions.

Judge Ramsay’s ruling should be distributed to every school board in the country. And to the legal department of every university for good measure. Let their administrations ponder the massive liability they may have been exposing themselves to by shutting down debate, especially in the arrogant, authoritarian manner in which many have done so.

Now back to Burjoski’s heroism, which emerges between the school board meeting and the happy outcome of this ruling. First, bear in mind that judicial outcomes can never be considered a slam dunk. So from the moment Piatkowski exercised his proto-tyrannical veto of Burjoski’s rights on Jan. 17, 2022, to Nov 23, 2023, Burjoski has not known a moment’s peace of mind.

The international media blitz panicked her. She stopped sleeping. At one point, she received advice to engage “a reputation rehabilitation consultant” — for a woman who had never before in her life incurred public criticism of any kind.

This was a pivotal moment. Burjoski remembers retreating to her backyard art and meditation shed in a fugue of high anxiety, where she collapsed, crying uncontrollably. Her husband found her there, unconscious (Burjoski credits him in her decision to stay the course). She went on medical leave.

We all know the mantra in these legal dramas: “The process is the punishment.” And it’s true. The process is isolating, stressful and depressing, not to mention dauntingly expensive. Which is why most people in these situations fold at the prospect of fighting to the bitter — or sweet — end.

But Burjoski knew her fight was a proxy for nothing less than the future of our children’s right to an age-appropriate education and the right of parents and teachers to dissent from a divisive and illiberal pedagogy. She was scared witless, but she ran to the fire anyway.

All honour to Carolyn Burjoski, who merits our gratitude, and as well her own featured chapter in the annals of anti-woke resistance.