Canadian Anti-Hate Network
Photograph by MChe Lee, Source: Unsplash
There are a number of worrying changes being made to school policies in relation to the rights of students and 2SLGBTQ+ inclusion across Canada. While critics say these may put transgender children in danger of being outed by teachers to parents, others add that implementing these policies may violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international human rights agreements regarding children’s own rights, seperate from those of their parents..
Gender inclusive policies in schools have been an issue across Canada for several years. In 2022, many candidates running as school board trustees made opposing comprehensive sex education and policies that support transgender and gender nonconforming (eg. nonbinary) students as central campaign issues.
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network profiled dozens of trustee candidates across the country, running on platforms explicitly targeting transgender and queer youth. While the majority of these candidates did not win their seats, some have, and there has been a sudden wellspring of policies and rhetoric from major politicians and parties in Canada.
Many of these new policies and the discussions surrounding them have invoked the idea of parental rights. This particular concept has a history of being used by Christian fundamentalists to argue that schools have to respect their desire to deny their children sexual health education or any teaching that 2SLGBTQ+ persons can and should be accepted, affirmed, and loved.
An Emerging Pattern
Schools and teachers’ treatment of 2SLGBTQ+ students has been a significant issue for years on the far-right. More recently, New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs sparked controversy when he announced an abrupt review of the province’s Policy 713 around the use of pronouns.
Soon after, the Province’s education minister, Bill Horgan, told the public “it's now forbidden to respect the chosen name and pronoun of a student under 16, even informally or verbally, without parental consent.”
Parts of the policy were removed that explicitly required pupils to be allowed to engage in extracurricular activities in a manner “consistent with their gender identity.” The New Brunswick Teachers' Association weighed in saying the new wording of Policy 713 does not rise to the level of a ban.
Students who do not have parental consent to change their pronouns or gender identity need to be referred to the school psychologist or social worker to discuss involving their parents.
The policy also removes the explicit requirement for the child to give “informed consent” to the school before school personnel can advise parents.
In August, Kelly A. Lamrock, New Brunswick’s Advocate for Children and Youth, released a new report condemning the province's school policy as harmful to students and potentially amounting to a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
He concludes that “the changes to Policy 713 are inconsistent with privacy law,” and that by “offering no definition of a child’s reasonable expectation of privacy, are incompatible with the best interests of children.”
Professionals who work with children, including school psychologists and social workers, have ethical codes that are legally binding. In their submissions to the Office of the Advocate, these professionals recommend respecting the child's name and autonomy when they have the capacity to do so.
“The school must provide that accommodation or immediately be in violation of the Charter,” the report reads.
Outing children to their caregivers against their will can put them at risk of harm, according to numerous experts who have been testifying as such in response to a wave of anti-transgender legislation in the United States.
As a result of the report and backlash, the Province of New Brunswick announced that some school staff, particularly guidance counselors, psychologists and social workers, will be permitted to use the preferred names and pronouns of children under 16 without obtaining parental consent.
Teachers will still need to have permission from a student’s parents for this age group.
"Otherwise, what we're saying is that we're keeping information from parents and that's not the role of the school," Hogan said on August 23.
Lamrock disagrees that not requiring parental consent for student self-identification fosters secretive relationships and negatively impacts child safeguarding.
“A professional respecting the privacy rights of someone to whom they have a professional responsibility is not keeping secrets from others.”
It was also revealed that the new school policy in Saskatchewan is nearly identical to that in New Brunswick. On August 22, Education Minister Dustin Duncan announced that schools must seek the permission of parents and guardians before students under the age of 16 can change their preferred name and pronouns.
"I am deeply troubled by the impact this policy will have on the rights of children in Saskatchewan," Lisa Broda, the Saskatchewan Advocate for Children and Youth, said in a statement.
Rather than being informed or consulted by the government about the change, Broda says she found out about the new policy from the media.
Since the revelation, school boards have asked the province to take a “reasonable pause” to review the matter. At time of writing, the province is continuing with the policy as written.
Previously, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education encouraged educators to honour a student’s preferred pronoun and name, and to respect their confidentiality whenever “professionally appropriate.”
“We believe that the Ministry’s policy, prior to today, aligned with children’s rights and fostered school environments that were and felt safe to students,” stated Broda.
The concern now, much like in New Brunswick, is that the changes may violate the United
Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Canada became a signatory of in 1991. Broda is reviewing the policy based on the UNCRC and other criteria, according to the statement, that includes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code.
Promises & Rhetoric
Other provinces have not yet made official changes to their policy, but their political leaders are mining political capital from the issue.
Manitoba is considering a similar policy shift to its neighbour, with Premier Heather Stefanson recently promising policy changes enhancing parental rights if re-elected.
When asked if the rights would include informing parents of children expressing a different gender identity than what they were assigned at birth, she answered it would.
According to the CBC, Stefanson’s political rivals and former teachers are concerned.
"Heather Stefanson and the PCs are trying to divide Manitobans. In this case, they're very clearly blowing a dog whistle about LGBTQ folks," NDP Leader Wab Kinew reportedly said.
Similar comments from Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce have drawn much of the same concerns.
“I think we understand though that parents must be fully involved and fully aware of what's happening in the life of their children,” Lecce said.
“I mean, often there are health implications, and I think we have to respect the rights of parents and recognize that these can be life-changing decisions, and I think parents want to be involved so that they can support their kids. And I think that's a really important principle that we must uphold.”
He added that schools and educators need to consider “exceptional circumstances” where there is potential harm to children.
Despite these domestic issues, Canada has updated its travel advisories for the United States. Still listed as a green country, and advised to “take normal security precautions,” a recent caveat was added warning that “some states have enacted laws and policies that may affect 2SLGBTQI+ persons.”
With files from Hazel Woodrow.