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Saskatchewan’s “Parents’ Bill of Rights” is going to hurt queer youth

The prairie province has a litany of problems—allowing young people to change their pronouns is not one of them

February 27, 2024

3-minute read

In October 2023, the government of Saskatchewan passed a “Parents’ Bill of Rights.” The main focus of the legislation (which amends The Education Act, 1995) is to prevent trans children from using different names or pronouns and changing their gender identity without their parents being notified. This aspect of the legislation is arguably the most important and has attracted the most public discussion and controversy.

The Act is more than that, however. It requires schools to engage with parents about their children’s education in very specific ways. The legislation, although rather brief, is quite comprehensive in stipulating parental rights. It establishes parents as the “primary decision-maker” for a child’s education and, to that end, imposes restrictions on how school authorities must relate to children.

Parents must be regularly informed of the progress of their children through school, including access to the school file, and including information about the curriculum, behaviour of a child, and any disciplinary measures. Parents are to be notified about any medical or dental examinations, may request that a student be excused from school opening exercises, but most ominously, about any sex education measures that the school is contemplating. This aspect is quite detailed in that it requires that two weeks’ notice of sex education be given to parents, the content and dates of the course, and the ability to withdraw a child from receiving the education.

The effects of the legislation may be felt in other ways—whether intended or not by the government.

Most parents are sensitive to issues facing their children. Some of those parents, due to religious or other beliefs, may not be approachable or supportive of a child questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity. Those are the students who are most likely to avoid speaking to their parents and to seek out a teacher or other school employee to confide in.

The requirement that parents consent before a person under 16 changes their gender identity and gender pronouns has an exception where the requirement of parental consent might lead to physical, mental, or emotional harm to the student. But the exception also requires that “the principal shall direct the pupil to the appropriate professionals, who are employed or retained by the school” and that a plan be developed to have the parents address the new gender identity and pronoun use. Both these aspects are very restrictive.

Given the shortfall in funding for public education, it is likely that many schools will not have personnel with the expertise to deal with these issues. The focus on a plan to involve the parents will place a great deal of stress on a child who is apprehensive about their parents knowing of their gender identity status. This may well lead to queer youth to thoughts of suicide in a province already experiencing very high rates of suicide by young people. It is well-known that young people are more susceptible to suicide—and this is particularly true for for gay, lesbian, and transgender young people who are subject to discrimination from their peers and institutions.

Saskatchewan faces some very serious social problems. We have the highest intimate partner violence rate of any province in Canada, the highest murder rate, either the worst or second-worst sexual assault rate, and the highest suicide rate of any province (exceeded only by the territories). We have the second highest sexually transmitted disease rate of the provinces, far and away the highest HIV/AIDS rate of any province or territory, the highest rate of teenage pregnancies of any province, the biggest drop in life expectancy due to Covid of any province, and one of the highest opioid death rates.

Saskatchewan is worse off than most other provinces but we are not alone, particularly in respect of sexual assault. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, sexual assaults target Indigenous women at three times the national rate and at twice the rate for those with disabilities. Nearly half of Canadians do not fully understand what consent to sexual activity means.

Sexual health education is severely jeopardized. Planned Parenthood has done a great deal of exceptionally good work to educate children about healthy sexuality and the risks of dangerous and non-consensual sexuality. Unfortunately, the organization inadvertently left an explicit document in view at a Lumsden school. The Lumsden incident caused the government to ban Planned Parenthood from conducting sexual health education, a ban that apparently remains in force. Other organizations with expertise in this area may also be subject to the ban.

This leaves sexual health to be taught by teachers and teachers’ aides, an area in which they may not have the necessary expertise and experience. And because the legislation requires parental consent before such education can be provided, it gives parents the option to withdraw the student from receiving it altogether.

Learning about healthy sexuality is a necessity for youth. Information about true consent, sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS, pregnancy, and the risk of intimate partner violence is critical if this province actually seeks to reduce its rates of failure in these respects.

Saskatchewan’s legislation is highly reminiscent of similar legislation in the US that targets gay, lesbian, and transgender students. Organizations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom have worked furiously to pursue an anti-LGBTQ+ agenda. Many in the Saskatchewan government are socially conservative and opposed to gay and trans rights. This legislation seems to be their contribution to the agenda being promoted in the US, Alberta, and elsewhere. Despite the use of the notwithstanding clause, there must be continuing opposition to this insidious legislation.

Topics addressed in this article

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