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Debate over pronouns pits parental rights against children’s, experts say

New Brunswick, Saskatchewan making it requirement for schools to get parental consent for name change

Politicians and others who support policies that would require parental permission for teachers to use a student’s preferred pronouns at school say they are about including parents in the lives of their children.

Those opposed say the issue is not about the rights of parents at all, but rather the protection of children — particularly transgender and nonbinary students who may not feel safe revealing their gender identities at home.

The answer to what “parental rights” mean in the context the ongoing debate lies somewhere in the middle, experts say. And rushing to push forward legislation could have dire effects on transgender and nonbinary children.

Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah, the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity, takes issue with the framing of these policies.

“That’s an easy sell,” she said. “They’ve set a trap with ‘parental rights’ as a political argument.”

She said using this framework for pushing forward anti-LGBTQ+ policies means its proponents are able to get support from people who may not understand the nuance of the issue, but feel parents ought to be involved in their children’s decisions.

Young people have agency and autonomy over their bodies, how they navigate the world and their identities, said Owusu-Akyeeah, and part of navigating that autonomy is with whom they decide to share things with, including their gender expression, and when.

And when they’re able to do that, their risk of harm drops significantly.

A landmark 2018 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found transgender youth who are able to use their preferred names and pronouns reported a 34 per cent drop in suicidal thoughts and a 65 per cent decrease in suicide attempts.

Owusu-Akyeeah said this is a political tactic designed to further marginalize children.

“It’s an interesting watershed moment we’re seeing in Canadian politics and, specifically, in Canadian conservatism,” she said.

The policies have been introduced in two provinces.

In June, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs announced a review of an educational policy that had made it mandatory for teachers to use a student’s preferred pronouns and names at school. After the review, the government now says teachers must get the consent of a parent to use different names or pronouns for students under 16.

Higgs was insistent in media interviews that the policy is about protecting parental rights.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has filed a court action seeking to overturn parts of the policy related to self-identification and to declare that parts of it are contrary to both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and provincial legislation in New Brunswick.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe followed suit with a similar policy, which he has now promised to codify in law. He has also said he might use the notwithstanding clause to make sure it stays.

READ ALSO: Trans kids in ‘life-or-death situation’ under new policies: feds

The UR Pride Centre for Sexuality and Gender Diversity at the University of Regina, which offers services to gender-diverse individuals around the provincial capital, is challenging that policy in court. Egale Canada, a national organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights, is co-counsel in the case.

“It’s a question of whether or not the provinces are using a scalpel, or whether they’re using a sledgehammer,” said Kerri Froc, an associate professor at the University of New Brunswick who specializes in constitutional law.

“These policies, in the form that I’ve seen, sound more like a sledgehammer.”

Froc said courts have recognized that parents have a fundamental interest in being able to parent their children and make decisions for them, including those surrounding medical procedures and schooling.

Still, she said it’s important to understand the context in which these policies are being introduced, and whether they violate the rights of already marginalized children.

“They very explicitly, on their face, make a distinction and target transgender students,” said Froc, noting the policies do not apply to students with ethnic names who want to anglicize them, even if that change would be of interest to their parents.

Froc said these so-called parental rights policies need to be balanced in the best interests of the child.

The issue goes beyond provincial politics.

At the recent Conservative party convention in Quebec City, delegates voted in favour of a future Conservative government prohibiting “life-altering” medical and surgical interventions for gender-diverse and transgender people under the age of 18.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has yet to say whether the policy proposal should make it into this party’s official platform or become law.

Owusu-Akyeeah said the public debate is causing fear for children who might be affected, and this shows Canadian society still has problems with creating affirming child-parent relationships.

In the absence of that, friends and schools are some of the first places children will go to to share who they are with those they trust.

And if they can’t do that without a parent’s involvement, kids can be in a difficult position.

“The most important thing we can do is to support young people in their agency in figuring out who they are and how they show up in the world.”

READ ALSO: Transgender Tory says new policy a matter of life and death

— With files from Stephanie Taylor

Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press