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Saskatchewan’s attacks on trans students are cynical scapegoating

Scott Moe is teaching a master class in political opportunism

October 4, 2023

3-minute read

Who influenced the Scott Moe government to adopt its so-called ‘parental rights’ policy? Was it conspiracy-addled Christian education groups like Action4Canada that claims to have successfully lobbied Scott Moe and his then-Education Minister Dustin Duncan? Or was it influenced—as the government claims—by “parents across Saskatchewan?” Or maybe it was via the persuasive force of the 18 letters received by the Ministry of Education between June and August from people expressing concerns about students using chosen pronouns and names in school?

Observers do not actually need to look any further than the current government to understand where this policy came from. Nobody arm-twisted Scott Moe and his government into adopting this policy. As the controversy over the policy has grown, Premier Moe has been more than eager to double-down, ignoring the recommendations of the Children’s Advocate report and recalling the legislature after a Regina judge granted an injunction against the policy.

Moe has even gone as far as to threaten the use of the notwithstanding clause to allow the policy to stand—even if it violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These are not the actions of someone reluctantly pressured into supporting this policy—these are the actions of a true believer. So rather than looking for external actors to understand why the government enacted this policy, we should examine why this government might believe stoking this debate could be politically useful to them.

Educators, civil liberty groups and 2SLGBTQ+ advocates have rightly derided the policy, which would require parental consent for students’ to change pronouns and allow parents to opt their children out of sexual education. While Mr. Moe presented the legislation as benignly ensuring parents’ take an active role in their child’s education, critics point to the very ugly, but very real truth that not all parents would be supportive of a non-binary or trans-child.

According to the Trevor Project’s 2022 National (U.S.) Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, fewer than one in three transgender and non-binary youth find their home to be gender-affirming. Outing these kids to a potentially hostile home environment by requiring teachers to inform parents about changing pronouns is tantamount to reckless endangerment.

But for Sask party conservatives, all the right people are aghast at the awfulness of the policy. The danger the policy presents to vulnerable students doesn’t diminish its value as a political wedge issue that might entice those right-wing rural voters who opted for the Saskatchewan United Party (SUP) back into the Saskatchewan Party fold. But if this wasn't a cynical enough reason to attack public education and teachers, the debate over parental rights may serve the Saskatchewan party in other, equally cynical ways.

For the past year, the Saskatchewan government has been involved in a protracted war of words with Saskatchewan teachers as the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation (STF) bargains for a new contract. A mass public protest organized by the STF in the spring managed to shame the government into committing more funds to public education. The government then purchased billboards during multiple by-elections in August to turn the public against the teacher’s wage demands.

The teachers have been the biggest thorn in the side of the government this past year—and the government is seeking to undermine public confidence in teachers through the “parental rights” debate.

By stoking this controversy, the government is trying to undermine the expertise and professionalism of teachers—casting them as involved in a conspiracy to keep parents in the dark about the real curriculum. By creating this parent versus teacher divide, the government may be able to roll back the public opinion victories that teachers have scored against them over the past year.

Perhaps more importantly is the way the government is using this debate to prop up its independent school strategy. This government has long been a champion of so-called “qualified independent schools”—private, often religious, schools that aren’t under school board authority and don’t have to follow the provincial curriculum.

In 2022, the government greatly enhanced the funding of these schools, arguing the growth of qualified independent schools gave parents more “school choice.” However, public opinon may have turned slightly against these schools after explosive revelations of student sexual abuse and discrimination at Legacy Christian Academy, a qualified independent school that had received $700,000 in public money from the government. The school was alsoaccused of using uncertified teachers and wildly inaccurate curriculum content.

Following the Legacy Christian Academy scandal, the government was forced to tighten up regulations on these schools. The parental rights debate may afford to rehabilitate these schools in the eyes of some more conservative-minded parents.

Indeed, as Erika Shaker observes, “some parents, afraid of what public schools represent (or how they’ve been maligned), demand—and in some provinces receive—public money to facilitate going to ideologically aligned private schools. It’s an individualized approach to both paying for and providing an education that doesn’t cause discomfort, that won’t raise difficult questions or challenge so-called ‘natural' authority and traditional power structures the way the public system is accused of doing.”

The more the current government can paint the public system and its teachers as in conflict with the “rights” of parents, the more certain parents may opt to exercise “school choice” and leave for the private system. The controversy may also convince parents already in the privatized system that they made the correct choice, even if they have misgivings after the revelations at Legacy Christian Academy and other independent schools.

Either way, this may help buoy the Sask Party’s beleaguered independent school program after a litany of bad press. Which means that as cynical as you might have thought Scott Moe’s parental rights policy was as a response to losing a few votes to the SUP, it might be even more cynical than you thought.

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