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A Tap on the Shoulder Bears Fruit

Rachelle Marsan

Elizabeth Barnett has come alive.

2007 was a year of change for Barnett.

When both of her parents died within months of each other, Barnett decided to dig deeper for her passion. “I realized how short life is, and I began re-evaluating my life,” she recalls.

Her parents, both former teachers, were the role models for her community activism. “My parents taught me to fight for what I believe in, and to speak out for those who can’t speak out for themselves.” Barnett feels strongly that everyone should “live their passion, get involved, and find what makes you come alive.”

This innovative leader began her teaching career with the Halton District School Board 14 years ago. She is now the special education resource teacher at Sir Ernest MacMillan Public School. Barnett found her voice through her involvement with ETFO. She has been actively involved with the federation in numerous capacities.

“Brenda Dolling, who has been retired for 10 years now, ‘tapped me on the shoulder’ in my first year of teaching,” says Barnett. “She was very political and used to talk ETFO and politics in the staff room all the time. It was a great environment to be in and a great learning experience for me! She strongly encouraged me to get involved with ETFO. I did... and all those doors opened for me.”

Barnett also credits ETFO’s Leaders for Tomorrow program: “This was a major turning point for me. I met strong, intelligent women who were all working towards the same goal of building personal leadership skills while working on issues of equity and social justice. I learned that I could be a leader.”

Barnett began her work with ETFO as the steward at Munn’s Public School in 1998. She went on to work on the Halton local’s newsletter Babble On, joined the local executive as a member at large, and sat on the local’s constitution and political action committees.

Barnett has been a delegate to ETFO’s Annual Meeting many times, and was a member of the provincial Status of Women Committee.
Barnett created and was the first chair of the Halton local’s Human Rights (now Social Justice) Committee and worked to ensure the inclusion of an LGBT focus within the local and within her board. The committee undertook a number of initiatives, including joining with the Halton board to purchase We’re Erasing Prejudice for Good kits for every school in the board. The curriculum resource is based on a variety of children’s books, and for several years the committee purchased a book for every school to accompany the kit.

The committee also staged the workshop “Homophobia in the Classroom” and liaised with HOPE, the Halton Organization for Pride and Education, a nonprofit group. A major focus for the organization for the past 10 years has been organizing the annual PRIDE picnic, where LGBT people and their families get together. Barnett joined the HOPE board of directors last year and serves as its treasurer.

Working with the board Barnett has also been involved, since its inception, with Spectrum, a Halton DSB group open to all employees. Its mandate is to make the board a safer, more inclusive place for staff and students to deal with LGBT issues.

“We have two anonymous conferences [on the board’s intranet site], one for students, one for staff. We have published a pamphlet for secondary teachers based on ETFO’s Responding to Homophobia and Heterosexism: A Resource Guide for Educators. We offer workshops, we preview books, and we make recommendations to the board,” she says.

“We also run Halton’s “Inside and Out Conference” for students and teachers from grades 7 to 12 involved with GSAs (gay/straight alliances). This year we held our second conference and, working with our local as well as ETFO provincial, I arranged for all elementary teachers to be offered the opportunity to attend the “Imagine a World Free from Fear” workshop in the afternoon. It wouldn’t have been open to K to 6 teachers otherwise.

“This year we are making a movie for teachers, which will provide scenarios for dealing with LGBT issues in the classroom. Many teachers and administrators don’t know how to deal with homophobia; our aim is to give them the tools to be able to do so.”


Barnett has done her part to continue tapping people on the shoulder. “The personal invitation is the best way to get more people involved in the federation. I have done this as often as possible, encouraging colleagues, especially those who are new to the profession.”

This practice has had some happy outcomes. In a recent discussion with retired teacher Dennis Yeo, Barnett learned that “he feels that I am the reason that he became so involved with ETFO and later, with HOPE. He said that my encouragement helped him to grow and gain confidence.

“Dennis was ‘closeted’ until the last two years of his career. He felt that doors were closed for him early in his career because he was gay. Not knowing if your administrator is going to support you is a big concern. Finally, at age 50, he came out and was able to feel the freedom of being true to himself. Now he is chair of the board of HOPE!”

Barnett admits that “fighting heterosexism and homophobia is an uphill battle and we need more people involved, we need more allies to step up. I actually just approached someone in a local coffee shop and encouraged her to come out to HOPE events. She didn’t know there was a community for LGBT people in Halton.”

Barnett feels her job will be done when “no one would think twice when they see two women or two men walking down the street hand in hand. All families would be celebrated in our classrooms. You would never hear homophobic jokes in the staff room or on the radio. ‘Gay’ would never be used in a derogatory fashion; you wouldn’t hear students in the hallway say, “That’s so gay.” Everyone would be able to marry the person they loved, and nobody would care. Their marriages would be honoured equally.”

Elizabeth Barnett discovered her passion and hasn’t looked back since.