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New Brunswick Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard has resigned from the cabinet of Premier Blaine Higgs. Shephard, right, is sworn in as a minister, at the New Brunswick Legislature, in Fredericton on Nov. 9, 2018.James West/The Canadian Press

A minister has resigned from New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs’s cabinet, joining five other revolting Progressive Conservative caucus members to help pass an Opposition motion that pushes back on the government’s controversial change to LGBTQ policy in schools.

Liberal MLAs in a motion Thursday called for the province’s Office of the Child and Youth Advocate to launch a full consultation with relevant stakeholders on alterations to policy 713. Under the government’s update, which was revealed last week and is set to come into effect July 1, teachers would no longer be obligated to use the preferred pronouns or names of transgender or non-binary students under age 16.

The Opposition motion, which passed 26-20 with the support of six PC MLAs, asked that the results of the consultation be made public by Aug. 15.

Gender identity and LGBTQ rights of students in public schools are being increasingly debated by boards across Canada. In New Brunswick, LGBTQ advocates say schools should be a safe place for children to freely express their gender identity without involvement from parents, who may not be supportive. Opponents have said parents have a right to know if children decide to change their gender at school.

In a two-sentence handwritten letter, released after voting for the motion, Minister of Social Development Dorothy Shephard said she is stepping down from Mr. Higgs’s cabinet immediately.

Three other members of Mr. Higgs’s cabinet also voted for the motion, including Minister of Local Government and Local Governance Reform Daniel Allain; Minister of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour Trevor Holder; and Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Jeff Carr. They were joined by PC backbenchers Ross Wetmore and Andrea Anderson-Mason, the former minister of justice.

Policy 713 was introduced in 2020 to set minimum requirements for New Brunswick schools and school districts to create a safe, inclusive and affirming environment for students who identify as LGBTQ. However, the government launched a review process, during which the province’s Child and Youth Advocate and the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission expressed concern, saying the province has an obligation to protect the rights and dignity of LGBTQ students.

New Brunswick premier calls for calm amid review of policy on sexual orientation in schools

The debate in the legislature on Thursday was heated at times, as Mr. Higgs and Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development Bill Hogan railed about parents’ rights to know if their child is using a different gender or using a different gendered name at school, and denied that their policy changes scaled back human rights.

At one point, Mr. Higgs spoke of the erosion of the family’s role in raising children, and the abuse he and his colleagues are taking for standing up for families. He also called gender dysmorphia “trendy” and criticized hormone therapy.

Liberal Leader Susan Holt’s voice shook as she implored members to vote in a way that protects the minority.

“I will not accept that the leader of this province, that I love so much, is going to use words that cause harm to New Brunswickers. I will not accept that the leader of this province is going to incite hate in this province and bring it in here. That is not acceptable and I will stand every day to fight against that,” she said.

Under the original policy, transgender or non-binary students under 16 were required to get parental consent in order for their preferred first names to be used officially, for recordkeeping purposes. The new policy says that if those students don’t agree to allowing the school to seek that parental consent, they will be referred to a social worker or school psychologist “to work with them in the development of a plan to speak with their parents if and when they are ready to do so.”

Child and Youth Advocate Kelly Lamrock warned on Monday that the changes made to the policy are “incredibly vague and shoddy” and could open the door to discrimination. In a statement posted to Twitter, Mr. Lamrock said Thursday he will carry out the direction of the legislative assembly to the best of his abilities and provide details on the process on Monday.

Ms. Shephard and seven other members of the Tory caucus, including five other ministers, sat out question period on June 8 in protest of changes to the policy.

Mr. Higgs has said he stands by the changes made to the policy and that he is willing to call an election over the issue.

“I guess if this situation drives an election to come forward, I will certainly be running in it,” he said.

During an interview before the revolt on Thursday, Lori Turnbull, director of Dalhousie University’s School of Public Administration, said Mr. Higgs is squaring off in a way that shows he thinks he’s on the right side of things.

“This could all blow up in his face if there’s enough people in the caucus that want to push him out. He can’t stay if most people in the house don’t support him. He can’t,” Ms. Turnbull said.

In an open letter released Wednesday, more than 40 queer, labour and educational organizations from across Canada said they are horrified by the changes to the policy, which they see as a cruel attack that singles out trans, non-binary and diverse students and denies them basic rights given to their peers.

With a report from Canadian Press

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