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People protest at the Legislative Building in Regina, on Sept. 2. The protest was a reaction to a recent government policy that says schools in Saskatchewan must seek parent or guardian permission when changing the preferred name and pronouns used by students under the age of 16.Michael Bell/The Canadian Press

In recent years, schools have increasingly found themselves at the centre of issues surrounding LGBTQ rights. Across the country, protesters have gathered at schools to oppose health and sex-education curriculums, gender-neutral washrooms and queer-friendly events – moves that mirror a similar trend in the United States.

Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick have recently made changes to their policies on LGBTQ students, requiring school staff to seek parental consent if a child wishes to change their official name or pronouns. The changes have sparked widespread controversy, resignations and legal filings. Here’s what you need to know.

What are the policy changes?

In June 2023, the New Brunswick Progressive Conservative government, led by Premier Blaine Higgs, announced it was making changes to its policy on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. Policy 713, implemented in 2020, sets out guidelines for schools to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for LGBTQ students.

The revisions stated that educators are no longer obligated to use the preferred pronouns or names of transgender or non-binary students under the age of 16. The change alters a policy the province originally introduced in 2020, which required school personnel to use students’ preferred names and pronouns. If a student didn’t want to seek their parents’ consent, they would be encouraged to visit a psychologist or social worker for counselling.

“We believe that it is fundamentally wrong to not share this information with parents if we’re using it on a daily basis,” said Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Bill Hogan. “We must respect parents and the role they play in their child’s life and education.”

On Aug. 22, Saskatchewan followed suit with a similar policy, announcing that schools will also require parental consent to officially use the changed names and pronouns of students under the age of 16.

“We know that parental engagement and inclusion is a vital component for achieving positive outcomes and success in the lives of children, including in their academic lives,” Saskatchewan Education Minister Dustin Duncan said.

On Jan. 31, 2024, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith went a step further, announcing a restrictive set of proposals regarding the use of preferred pronouns in schools. Ms. Smith said the province is proposing a ban on teachers using a student’s preferred pronoun or name without parental consent, even if the student is older than 16. Alberta also intends to require schools to obtain parental permission before every lesson involving gender identity, sexual orientation and human sexuality.

How will students be affected?

Advocates for LGBTQ youth and children at large say the policies will harm students and potentially put them in danger. Under the new policy, trans and non-binary youth under 16 could be forced to come out to their parents before they might be ready, or have a teacher out them without their consent. If their household isn’t safe or accepting of their identity, it could open them to physical or mental harm.

What has been the reaction to the new policies?

When the policy change was announced in New Brunswick, eight members of Mr. Higgs’s party sat out Question Period in protest against the updated policy, and two members of his cabinet have since resigned. There were calls for Mr. Higgs to resign, and he said he was prepared to trigger an election over this issue.

Kelly Lamrock, New Brunswick’s child and youth advocate, said forcing any non-binary and transgender students to use a name or pronouns they don’t identify with “is a violation of their protected rights under the Human Rights Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Mr. Lamrock published a report on Aug. 15, which states the province did not seriously consider the legal consequences of its changes to Policy 713, and could open itself up to legal challenges. Since the report was published, the government made some changes – including allowing psychologists and social workers to use a student’s desired name and pronouns – but maintained that parents need to consent for classroom use.

There are advocates both in and out of the provincial landscape calling for the policies to be struck down, and an LGBTQ community organization in Saskatchewan has already filed legal action against the province, with others in New Brunswick considering the same.

On Sept. 28, a Saskatchewan judge granted an injunction to pause the parental consent policy in the province, stating that protecting young students “surpasses that interest expressed by the government.” In response, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said he is prepared to use the notwithstanding clause to force the policy through when the legislative assembly reconvenes on Oct. 10.

After Ms. Smith’s proposal announcement in Alberta, advocacy groups Egale Canada and Skipping Stone Foundation said the province’s measures — which also include restricting access to medical treatments for youth, and excluding transgender athletes from women’s sporting competitions — go against expert guidance, and are preparing for a legal challenge.

What’s happening in other provinces?

While there aren’t any official plans to enact a similar policy, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he thinks parents “must be fully involved” in the child’s decision to use a different name or pronouns at school. The Toronto District School Board’s guidelines state that a school should not disclose a student’s gender identity or transgender status to parents or guardians without the student’s explicit consent, regardless of age.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said that schools should be safe for all children, but it is important that parents are informed when their children make a decision. “It’s not up to the teachers. It’s not up to the school boards to indoctrinate our kids,” he said during a speech at Ford Fest in September.

In Manitoba, Premier Heather Stefanson said her government would also enact a policy to give more “parental rights” in schools if she’s re-elected in the coming October election.

What’s happening at the federal level?

Marci Ien, the federal Minister for Women, Gender Equality and Youth, said these policies put children in a “life-or-death situation,” and while the Liberals have no current plans to take action, they will be “watching closely.”

During a three-day convention in Quebec City in September, the Conservatives voted to support a package of social conservative policies that includes creating more single-sex spaces for women and a proposal to limit access to transgender health care for minors. Party delegates were in favour of a future Conservative government prohibiting “medicinal or surgical interventions” for gender-diverse and transgender children under the age of 18. The proposal, which passed with assent from 69 per cent of the voting members, came from a riding in British Columbia.

Hannah Hodson, the first openly transgender person to run for the federal Conservatives, said the policies could harm gender-diverse children if it ever becomes law. “If these policies (are) passed, people are going to die, children are going to die in this country without access to any gender-affirming care,” said Hodson, who ran for the party in the 2021 federal election in Victoria, B.C.

Helen Kennedy, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Egale Canada, said the wording of the policy regarding “single-sex spaces” for women specifically targets transgender people.

“Trans women are women, and trans women have a right to use women’s bathroom,” she said. “There’s no debate about that.”

With reports from Lindsay Jones, Dave McGinn, Ian Bailey, Carrie Tait, Alanna Smith and The Canadian Press

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