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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith listens to a reporter’s question at a news conference in Calgary on Feb. 1, 2024.Todd Korol/The Canadian Press

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, facing widespread condemnation for her plan to roll back access to medical treatment for transgender youth, argued on Thursday that her government’s proposal would protect children from making mistakes they may regret as adults.

Federal ministers, mayors in Alberta’s two major cities and a large swath of medical experts and transgender advocates rebuked Ms. Smith’s package of proposals, primarily targeting transgender children, released on social media on Wednesday. Alberta Opposition Leader Rachel Notley, on Parliament Hill, told reporters that the policies are “cynical and cruel.”

Ms. Smith’s proposals, however, are popular with those on the right flank of the United Conservative Party. She deflected the criticisms during a news conference in Calgary, saying that banning youth from taking puberty blockers and hormone therapy for gender-affirmation purposes is necessary to protect children from making life-altering decisions before they are capable of fully understanding the consequences.

Hormone therapy can increase the risk of osteoporosis and heart problems, Ms. Smith said, adding that gender-affirming surgeries, which Alberta plans to restrict to those over 18, have implications for sex and fertility. Experts say the number of youth receiving those surgeries in Alberta is negligible.

The cluster of policies is more restrictive than what other provinces have implemented as conservative leaders wade into culture battles over gender identity and sexuality.

“We think this is preserving of choice,” Ms. Smith said.

Federal Health Minister Mark Holland, also on Thursday, said he is “deeply disturbed” by the provincial plan, which includes changes in schools and sports teams.

“It’s extremely dangerous to engage in this kind of thing, which, I think, is playing politics when you are talking about children’s lives,” Mr. Holland told reporters in Ottawa. He said that one of the key reasons that kids die by suicide is problems around sexual identity. “The ability to be who you are is so vitally important.”

He said he is meeting with his Alberta counterpart, Adriana LaGrange, soon and wants to work together to find “an off-ramp.”

Employment Minister Randy Boissonnault, an Edmonton MP, said the “fight is on in Alberta.”

Alberta intends to ban gender-affirming top and bottom surgeries for anyone under 18 and puberty blockers or hormone therapy for children under 16, unless their treatments have already started. Gender-affirming therapies will only be allowed for youth aged 16 and 17 if they have parent, physician and psychologist approval, Ms. Smith said.

The province also plans to prohibit teachers from using a student’s preferred pronouns or name without parental notification, and to require parental permission for children to be instructed on topics involving gender identity, sexual orientation and human sexuality. Additionally, Ms. Smith said she will work with sports organizations to guarantee that women and girls will not have to compete against transgender athletes.

However, the mechanics and penalties related to the policies are largely unclear. Sam Blackett, press secretary to Ms. Smith, said some policy implementation will also require consultation and feedback from various stakeholders, but he did not say from whom. The intention is to have the policy package fully implemented by year’s end, he said.

Lois Cardinal and Tiffany Gillis, both transgender women, said Ms. Smith consulted with them in November. Ms. Cardinal applauded Alberta’s plan because she believes kids need to naturally develop emotionally and physically before making a life-altering gender commitment. Ms. Gillis said she does not think Ms. Smith’s positions are out of line with others in the conservative movement.

“It is intended to try to protect kids who may not actually know who they are going to be when they grow up,” she said. The age limits are “reasonable,” she said, giving people who are still fairly young access to treatments, while limiting the chance “confused adolescents” make a decision they can’t undo.

Egale Canada and Skipping Stone Foundation, in a joint statement on Wednesday, said they are prepared to launch a legal battle if Alberta moves forward. Ms. Notley, Alberta’s New Democratic Party Leader, said the “horrifying” policies could be a breach of the Canada Health Act because they withdraw what should be publicly funded services.

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek said the policies are an infringement on human rights and place the trans community in harm’s way. “It is our responsibility to ensure that decades of hard-fought battles for human rights are not wiped out. Because this is just the start,” she said. A protest is planned in Calgary on Saturday.

Her Edmonton counterpart, Amarjeet Sohi, said it is not the role of any government to “marginalize and discriminate against those they are entrusted to serve.” He said decisions on access to heath care should be made by doctors, not politicians, and he is concerned that Alberta is forging ahead on a path that will increase mental-health issues, homelessness and suicide among the broader LGBTQ community.

Holly Tomm, board director with the Trans Equality Society of Alberta, said in an interview that her organization, which was not consulted by the province, is strongly opposed to the policies that she said fail to consider the rights of children.

“This has nothing to do with making sure that transgender children are safe. This has everything to do with playing with a political base based on far-right ideals that doesn’t do service to anyone,” she said.

Tonya Callaghan, associate professor of education at the University of Calgary, described Ms. Smith’s video posted on Wednesday as “seven minutes and 30 seconds of propaganda and ideology” that will further isolate transgender students.

Despite Ms. Smith saying she cares deeply and respects transgender Albertans, Dr. Callaghan said the policies themselves prove otherwise, making it more difficult for young people to learn about and respect human diversity in schools.

“What happened to small government and personal liberties?” Dr. Callaghan said of Ms. Smith. “I thought she was a libertarian.”

With files from Ian Bailey and Kristy Kirkup.

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