Check out that stare: behold its ruggedly confident, make-my-day machismo. Yes, Barry Neufeld’s got a good thing going—or at least he thinks he does. Hence the self-satisfied grin.
But perhaps he can’t afford to be so smug. You see, Barry Neufeld has just had his card marked.
Those of you who subscribe to my blog but don’t live in Canada won’t have a clue who or what I’m talking about. So allow me to introduce you to British Columbia’s latest throwback to the 1950s—those good ol’ days before human rights, when men were men and God was Charleton Heston.
Barry Neufeld is a four-term school board trustee in the city of Chilliwack, a sprawling mix of farm acreage and suburbs located in the heart of the Fraser Valley Bible belt. To all but his most fervent supporters, he is something of a redneck cartoon caricature: to say that he is “best known” for transphobic bigotry would be like saying that Ru Paul is “best known” for drag performance. But the fact he keeps getting re-elected confirms that many voters share his reactionary, back-to-the-future vision for educating children.
Yes, the man has a following.
A complete record of his unfortunate utterings would be hard to fit in this space. But a small sample should give you a pretty good idea what he’s all about. For starters, there’s his response to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) programs in schools, in which he spoke of children getting sex changes and called it child abuse. He apologized for that, later showing contrition by launching a defamation suit against a former teacher’s union president for suggesting he “should be nowhere near children.” ( The BC Supreme Court dismissed the case: in the Court’s view, the statement was fair comment.)
Then there was the time he was caught sharing anti-Semitic literature on his Facebook page. If I searched around some more, I’m sure I’d find quotes of Mr. Neufeld blaming “feminist” women for lowering birth rates. But I’m equally sure that no such outburst would quite compare, for despicable vulgarity, to his most recent Facebook controversy. On May 9, he doubled down on the bigotry with a tawdry, transphobic attack on Canada’s top doctor that also repeated an alt-right COVID-19 conspiracy theory and dismissed the World Health Organization as a reliable source on the pandemic because the WHO supports gender affirmative healthcare and access to abortion.
He apologized for that post, too, continuing a sadly predictable cycle: bigoted statement followed by public calls for his resignation, followed by apology, followed by selective amnesia. Rinse and repeat.
This time, however, it seems he has gone too far. The Chilliwack school board has finally cottoned on to Mr. Neufeld’s “pattern of behaviour,” this week announcing a public censure of the nutbar trustee for his “egregious” breach of ethics. As well as disciplining Mr. Neufeld in public, the board stripped him of all liaison duties, kicked him off all committees and removed him from the invitation list for “all district events where trustees interact with students and staff.”
In my book, this degree of sidelining a public official is usually code for “lame duck.”
Now, if you’re wondering why Barry Neufeld was sitting so pretty up to now, there are a few reasons. First, he’s protected by law from being kicked off the board: there is nothing in the BC School Act to force the resignation of a trustee for public bigotry. Second, human rights lawyers have been stymied by the fact that his statements fall just outside the net of Canada’s hate speech law.
With his speech protected, Mr. Neufeld understood that he could get away with the ugliest transphobia this side of the forty-ninth parallel by saying sorry after each offence. This strategy of turning mendacious apology into an art form seemed to work quite nicely for him—at least until this week, when his fellow board members finally put the brakes on it.
“At some point we have to enforce the rules,” said board chair Dan Coulter, in what is likely Chilliwack’s understatement of the year: “There’s no point in having a code of ethics if the rules aren’t enforced.”
But there’s another, more cynical reason that Mr. Neufeld enjoyed a bit of swagger before this week: the outrage his comments generate among his opponents only galvanizes his base. Earnestly attacking his individual statements, critiquing them on their own merit, legitimizes those statements in the minds of his supporters. So the right-wing money keeps rolling in, and the headlines keep coming: in 2019, the Chilliwack Progress named Mr. Neufeld its newsmaker of the year. That he had also received the second highest number of votes in the 2018 elections only proved his base was solid. The local business community didn’t seem to give a hoot either way, as long as the economy was thriving.
But Chilliwack is changing. The population is growing, and getting younger, with more urban professionals and artists setting down roots there. These folks are not among Mr. Neufeld’s supporters. They likely wince at the prospect of another two-and-a-half years of this odious blowhard infecting school kids’ minds.
Now that the Board of Education has censured Mr. Neufeld, he would appear to be low-hanging fruit for a good old-fashioned ridicule campaign. And really, what better way to wipe that smirk off his face? Rather than stoking up his base by targeting his loathsome views, it would be far more effective to lampoon the man as a dingbat—a dinosaur buffoon who’s completely out of touch. Imagine the possibilities for satirical caricature: I see a fire-breathing Colonel Sanders lookalike, myself. With Make the World CIS-Gender Again painted on his Family Bucket.
If the people of Chilliwack could see what an embarrassment he’s become, perhaps even conservative voters would no longer regard Mr. Neufeld as a civic asset but more as a liability, an albatross. Repeated public ridicule might even lead the man himself to conclude that he’s achieved all he can as a mouthpiece for the Christian Right and that no amount of fundraising is worth all that hassle any more.
One can only hope.