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Connect the dots: School boards, democracy, and human rights

Democratic school boards could serve as a bulwark against far right attacks on education

February 7, 2024

6-minute read

On a gray day last September, I attended a counter-protest at the Grand Parade in Halifax. I was there as part of “Education Saves Lives” – a response to the deceptively named “1 Million March4Kids”, a nationwide movement fueled by some parents’ opposition to what they call “gender ideology in schools”. It was a chilling example of one arm of the culture wars that are dividing us—the so-called “Parents’ Rights” lobby.

The counter-protest vastly outnumbered the actual March4Kids, but I found the blatantly misleading signs displayed by the parents’ rights group disturbing. “Hands off our Kids” implies that teachers are “grooming” and “sexualizing” children with sex education and the acceptance of SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity) which is enshrined in most education system’s inclusivity policies and in our human rights code.

Another sign “Our Kids, our Consent” shows that some parents have been told that their rights trump their children’s. This is especially concerning because of the fair number of newcomers to Canada in the crowd. While some newcomers might be surprised or unfamiliar with the frankness of some of the language used in Canadian sex ed classes, it is disappointing to see them co-opted by this movement and being lied to about our public schools’ work on inclusivity.

Another common sign there, “Education, not Indoctrination” shows the influence of the American far right on Canadian conservatives—the idea that public schools are indoctrinating children with a socialist, “collectivist” ethos, as well as actively promoting a “decadent” 2SLGBTQIA+ lifestyle.

In our article “Not Immune: the Neoliberal Trajectory of Public Education Reform in NS,” published only a year ago, Angela Gillis and I talked about how the lack of school boards and other mechanisms for parent feedback in NS leaves our education system open to the influence of small “anti-woke” groups like the above. Since then, both New Brunswick and Saskatchewan’s Conservative governments have overruled school boards, educational professionals and even elements of their own caucuses and turned back the clock on the advances their teachers have made with regards to gender identity and inclusivity.

By changing Policy 713 to require teachers to inform the parents of any children under 16 of a name or gender identity change, Premier Higgs has whittled away at a policy developed by educators to protect 2SLGBTQIA+ students. In spite of having okayed the policy less than two years before, he was swayed by a small group of parents protesting the policy at a workshop where teachers were working on its implementation.

Saskatchewan’s Premier Moe made a similar change, and then declared he would use the notwithstanding clause if necessary to defend it against a court challenge. Manitoba’s Conservative premier ran partially on a promise to pass the same type of anti-trans legislation in their recent election, but was fortunately defeated. Given recent events, it seems likely that other conservative premiers in Canada would do this when they feel it politically expedient as part of the increasingly right wing ideology underpinning today’s conservatives. The question Nova Scotians are asking is, could it happen here?

Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia’s premier Tim Houston was elected with a majority government in September 2021, making it very clear in his campaigning that his party is the “Progressive” Conservative Party and clearly distinguishing between it and the federal Conservatives. At the beginning of his mandate, he initiated several programs which had pundits declaring his government was more progressive than previous Liberal governments. 

However, more recently they passed Bill 329 in which the provincial Minister of Housing has taken over the Halifax Regional Municipality planning and development authority, ostensibly to streamline the building of “affordable” housing to address the housing crisis. This they did despite cries of foul from all other levels of government, as well as the opposition. Political scientist Tom Urbaniak declares that this move is a gift to developers and will invite corruption. Others decry it as anti-democratic—which it is.

One of Tim Houston’s campaign promises was to revisit and possibly restore the elected anglophone school boards which were abolished by the previous government (the one francophone board remains). This may have given him his very slim majority as many teachers and parents switched their vote from the Liberals, who they felt had bargained with them unfairly in 2017. But after a series of “public engagements” (surveys and something called ThoughtExchange) with parents, educators and representatives of African NSian, Indigenous and Disability groups, the government recently announced that instead of reinstating elected school boards, they would increase funding to School Advisory Councils. 

These volunteer parent groups were touted by the Liberals as the new mechanism for accountability to replace the eliminated anglophone school boards, but have been almost non-existent in many schools: raising the annual funding from $5000 to $10,000 is unlikely to galvanize busy parents.

So yes, I believe that if Tim Houston gets another majority or even if he is lobbied by a very vocal group such as the organizers of the March4Kids, he could change some of the policies around gender identity and inclusivity, perhaps even going further than Higgs and Moe. Without school boards where concerned citizens have the chance to bring up issues and have them dealt with through a democratic structure, if parents rights’ groups get a sympathetic ear from the government, there is little that can be done to stop a top-down change.

Pronoun policy

To someone who is not a teacher, the mere requirement to add parental permission for their child’s pronoun change may seem innocuous. But it strikes at the heart of the teacher-child relationship and adds to their responsibility to make school a safe place for all children.

Teachers are constantly put in positions where they must make decisions about confidences and observations they and their pupils make. If a child confides that they are being abused at home, does the teacher call the parents? If a 13 year-old whose parents believe that god created only two genders wants to join a Gay-Straight Alliance or wants to change pronouns, should a teacher be forced to inform those parents? 

This is where a child’s human right to safety and protection of their privacy butts up against a parent’s right to know. In Canadian law, the child’s right is paramount. It will be interesting to see what happens when a New Brunswick or Saskatchewan teacher refuses to get permission from a parent before using different pronouns—will their union defend them? What will the courts decide?

NDP MLA Lisa LaChance is believed to be the first genderqueer person elected to the NS House of Assembly. On the Trans Day of Visibility last spring they spoke in the House about the rise in trans- and homophobic hate in this province. They described pride flags being desecrated, 2SLGBTQIA+ businesses targeted with online hate, trans students afraid to use the bathrooms of their chosen gender at school and hateful graffiti vandalizing buildings. 

Teachers have reported a rise in violence and hate in schools—one told me about a child taken out and homeschooled rather than be taught by an openly gay teacher. Another teacher worried that the newer principals (hired since the Glaze report) do not have the experience or training (or protection of a union) to deal with incidents of bullying or to stand up to parents who make vexatious complaints about gender orientation or sex education.

Teachers, already overworked and underappreciated, are concerned about this new type of “Parents’ Rights” that has the potential to further undermine their work at creating an inclusive environment in public schools. Having a government that could with the stroke of a pen wipe out years of educators’ work and consultation is concerning. Guidelines for teachers and administrators on how to support trans and gender non-conforming students were developed in 2014, but many advocates, health professionals and students feel that they are inadequate and urgently need to be updated. 

The government promised a new set by the end of 2023, but in December, the CBC, after filing an access to information request, found that new guidelines have been developed and have been “under review” since September. CBC did not obtain a draft copy, nor is there a set date for the public (and educators) to respond to it.

Having to obtain access to information permission to find out what is happening to educational policies, whether it is about delays or the actual content of them is indicative of the lack of transparency and accountability that characterizes Nova Scotia’s present Department of Education. The School Advisory Councils have no power to change anything or access to information apart from what they get from their principals. 

School boards, that extra layer of democracy, where contentious issues can be openly debated and where the democratically elected members can lobby the government on behalf of their constituents, do have that power and access. After attending that counter-demonstration where we out-numbered the original “Parents’ Rights” group at least three-to-one, I feel confident that, if given the opportunity, we would show up to school board meetings and debate them there (or at least out-vote them). 

To help protect public debate and engagement with key issues about public education, Nova Scotia needs to bring back its anglophone school boards.

Topics addressed in this article

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