New Brunswick’s education minister has announced small changes to the school gender policy that’s created a storm of controversy.
Bill Hogan told reporters outside a rural school in Keswick Ridge on Wednesday that his Progressive Conservative government was making tweaks to Policy 713, which addresses gender identity, less than two weeks before school starts.
Those small adjustments are meant to add legal clarity to what had already been announced: Students under the age of 16 are no longer allowed to use a different name or pronoun in class if they have switched genders or consider themselves trans, without their parents’ consent.
Hogan emphasized he was largely standing by the changes his Tory government made July 1, despite recent criticisms from the province’s child and youth advocate, who said forcing students into such a position violated the province’s Human Rights Act, the Education Act, and the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, but also the child’s rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Parents deserve to be respected, and we must recognize the critical role in their child’s life and education,” Hogan said outside the small brick school 22 kilometres west of Fredericton. “We stand by the changes we’ve made to Policy 713 and we believe that parents should be involved in every aspect of a young child’s education.”
His announcement was immediately criticized by the opposition Liberals and Greens, who argue the minister is violating children’s rights and the law.
“The government continues to show a blatant disregard for expert and legal advice,” said Liberal Leader Susan Holt. “We recommend that they accept the advocate’s recommendations because they’re based on the law and respect for the Charter of Rights and the Education Act and the privacy act.”
The advocate, Kelly Lamrock, is a lawyer and a former education minister. Hogan, however, said his department had already sought legal advice on the changes, and he was still comfortable with them. Questioned by reporters on this legal advice, the minister said he didn’t know if his government’s reforms would survive a court challenge.
“There’s always the possibility parts can be challenged, like with any policy. It would not be appropriate for me to presuppose what the courts would judge.”
Organizations that support lesbian, gay and trans youth have condemned the Tory government’s changes as trans and queer phobic, whereas parental rights groups argue teachers and school administrators should not decide whether it’s OK for younger children to change their identities.
When the reforms were announced in the spring, they created international headlines. Eight of 29 Tory MLAs expressed displeasure with the changes, and two cabinet ministers ultimately resigned, while Premier Blaine Higgs fired two others.
The change of the policy and other moves by the premier have led to a push among some party members to demand a leadership review.
Now the provincial governments in Saskatchewan and Manitoba are moving ahead with similar reforms.
The latest tweaks to the policy in New Brunswick include adding the definitions of legal, formal and informal use of names.
As well, professionals, such as guidance counsellors, psychologists and social workers, can now use the child’s preferred name in private.
And if a young student insists on using a preferred name in school, they will now be “encouraged” rather than “directed” to speak with an appropriate professional in private, such as a guidance counsellor.
Green party Leader David Coon wasn’t impressed.
“We want our kids to be safe and to be respected and accepted and free to be themselves in our schools, and this does nothing to make that possible,” he said. “This continues to trample over the rights of young people. The minister keeps saying he respects the charter, but clearly he has yet to make the changes necessary to protect the rights of young people in our schools.”
Coon said the original version of Policy 713, designed a few years ago by experts and introduced by a different Tory minister of education — Dominic Cardy — respected the rights of children to use names and pronouns they preferred, without telling their parents until they were comfortable doing so.
“The way it was operating, youth after youth have said how it had helped them speak to their parents and feel confident enough to sit down with them and let them know who they really were. So it had been a help to get kids to speak to their parents. That’s only positive.”
Lamrock had pointed out that nicknames have been used by children for generations and teachers have often respected them, such as Rob, Bob, Robby or Bobby instead of Robert, making the new gender policy inconsistent and coercive.
But Hogan said that flew in the face of common sense, and he waved away a question from a reporter who gave the example of a child using a nickname such as “Charlie,” which is considered by many to be gender-neutral.
“If it’s close to their given name, one wouldn’t normally presuppose anything. If it isn’t the name, and they’re wondering about it, a teacher can always ask,” the minister said. “We’re talking about a name that’s attached to a different gender than what they are identified with, with their parents.”
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