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'Deteriorated very quickly': School board meeting disrupted by angry mob in Winnipeg

An empty classroom is seen in this undated file photo. An empty classroom is seen in this undated file photo.
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Members of the Louis Riel School Division (LRSD) board of trustees are shaken after an angry group of people disrupted a board meeting Tuesday, demanding answers about a trustee who was suspended for making transphobic comments on social media.

It began as a routine school board meeting. Trustees were scheduled to discuss and vote on several key agenda items, including approving the LRSD's multi-year strategic plan, the hiring of 30 new educational assistants, and the hiring of a new school principal.

The trustees were taking a short break when they realized there was a crowd of people in the parking lot waiting to come in.

"It was clear that they had an agenda related to the recent suspension of one of our colleagues," said board chair Sandy Nemeth.

"They made it extremely difficult for us to conduct our business that evening."

The group was there in support of Francine Champagne, an LRSD trustee who was suspended on June 6 for making transphobic comments on social media that were deemed disrespectful to the LGBTQ2S+ community. 

Champagne received a three-month suspension for violating the board's code of conduct. Many of those in attendance carried signs asking for Champagne's reinstatement. Nemeth said the board stands by its unanimous decision.

"[The posts] had a significant transphobic and homophobic commentary," she said. "And very much not aligned at all with who we are and what we do in the Louis Riel School Division."

CTV News Winnipeg has not been able to view the posts in question, which appear to have since been deleted.

Champagne's suspension was not on the agenda Tuesday evening; however, Patrick Allard had registered ahead of time to bring the issue up before the LRSD board.

"We wanted to see what these posts were. We wanted to go to the school board and voice our opinions," said Allard in a Facebook Live video update after the meeting. "I registered as a delegation to speak. I was denied…that surprised me, being someone who has spoken at multiple school board meetings in the past."

Trustee Ryan Palmquist said the request was denied because the matter had been closed as far as the board was concerned.

"We had suspended our colleague for a clear and unambiguous breach of the code of conduct and there's no further discussion to be had at the board level about that," he said.

Despite the breach in protocol, the group was allowed into the meeting.

"Even though we knew why they were there, we chose to err on the side of optimism, that we were going to be able to find a way to talk," Nemeth said. "It quickly became evident that that was not going to be the case."

The board took a 10-minute recess to discuss the situation. They decided to reduce their agenda down to the three most important items in order to allow the group more time to voice their opinions. They also decided to call the police because they felt the situation was not safe.

The board then returned to the meeting room to complete their abbreviated agenda. Palmquist, who recently came out publicly as being bisexual, did not return. He said the board convinced him to stay where he was and log on to the meeting through Zoom.

"It was clear that my presence in particular was inflaming the situation," Palmquist said. "I had multiple slurs and insults screamed [at me] on our way out of the room, including calling me a pedophile, calling me a groomer, bigamist, and asking what my wife thought about my decision to come out as bisexual."

Palmquist said one person in the group made a throat-slashing gesture with their hand towards him.

Nemeth agrees it was a very uncomfortable situation.

"They were there to drive their own agenda, they were not interested in having a conversation," she said.

The public forum began after the board voted on its three items. Allard said the speakers included a former corrections officer and a 16-year-old girl.

"They let us speak about Francine – according to their rules they didn't have to – but they didn't cut people off until the end," Allard said in his Facebook post.

Nemeth said she explained to the crowd exactly why Champagne was suspended.

"I walked through what our code of conduct laid out and what the repercussions were for breaching the code," she said. "I mentioned that all nine of us had signed it, including Francine.

"I specifically connected it to points of our human sexual diversity policy and made it about process."

She felt there was no way they could have a respectful conversation. "There was a lot of badgering, there was a lot of name-calling, there was a lot of yelling, and it deteriorated very quickly," Nemeth said.

Palmquist became worried for the trustees’ safety when he saw a truck in the parking lot move to block the exit during the forum. He said he's never seen anything like it before.

"We've had political debate. We've had people expressing strong opinions, but never, ever in any way – at least during my time – where anyone felt unsafe,” he said.

He's worried about what he calls an "extreme movement" might do next.

"We've had people ripping down and vandalizing Pride flags and Pride paraphernalia at our schools in the last few weeks," Palmquist said. "These people have an extremist ideology that is completely detached from the real world."

The board ended the meeting before everyone in the group had a turn to speak.

Winnipeg police did attend, but were not needed. "All parties had dispersed, and police involvement was not required," said the WPS in an email.

Champagne is set to resume her school trustee duties in the fall, but Nemeth said it won't come without some serious conversations about what happened.

"The community has concerns and they’ve been very clear that they have some trepidation with her returning,” she said.

Palmquist believes Champagne is connected to the group that showed up at their meeting.

"That's certainly something I'm going to express my concern about at the time that she returns," he said.

Allard said they were not an organized group.

"This was not a group effort, this was just a bunch of people who happened to have the same ideas and showed up…nothing better than a grassroots get together," he said.

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