A controversial bill on the use of pronouns by school students received final approval in the Saskatchewan legislature and was passed into law Friday.
The law prevents children under 16 from changing their names or pronouns at school without receiving parental consent. The Saskatchewan Party government recalled the legislature for a special sitting to pass the law, and invoked the notwithstanding clause to allow it to override sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Saskatchewan’s Human Rights Code.
“This is opening up the very right for parents to be involved in their child’s education and their child’s life,” Premier Scott Moe said Friday after the final vote.
The government said the law formalizes policies already in place in most school divisions and ensures parents are informed about their kids. It also said the law protects students because it calls for school support staff to get involved if a child fears they will suffer physical, emotional or mental harm from their parents finding out.
The government acted after hearing last fall that one school division was enacting a policy to not inform parents in cases where the child didn’t want them to know, Dustin Duncan, minister of Crown Investments Corporation, said in the final debate Friday morning.
“This was first brought to my attention by teachers who were not comfortable with this direction,” Duncan said.
But the government’s move has met with criticism from many groups, including the provincial teachers union.
“Today’s passage of Bill 137 places every teacher in Saskatchewan in a difficult position: Do they obey the law, thereby potentially placing a child in an extremely dangerous position or ignore it and leave themselves open to legal jeopardy,” the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation posted in a message on social media.
The plan was also criticized by the province’s Human Rights Commission, which said invoking the notwithstanding clause to override the provincial human rights code significantly affects the rights of minors. Law professors at the University of Saskatchewan urged the government to move more slowly and let legal arguments play out.
The Opposition New Democrats opposed the bill, saying it strips rights from vulnerable people.
“Teachers will have to choose between shoving kids back in the closet or putting them in harm’s way,” NDP Leader Carla Beck said.
Moe said Friday he is against keeping parents in the dark.
“How does keeping this information from the parent help that child? How does hiding that information, about a very important decision that a child is faced with, help support that child in any way?”
The government first announced the policy in the summer.
Lawyers for UR Pride, a Regina LGBTQ organization, obtained a court injunction until a challenge could be heard later this year. They argued the policy violates Charter rights and could cause teachers to out or misgender children.
The government introduced the bill last week and cited the notwithstanding clause.
Bennett Jensen, co-counsel for UR Pride and legal director at Egale Canada, said the team will be determining next steps in the coming days.
“The government may well choose to make arguments about whether or not the litigation should continue but, as of right now, it does continue,” Jensen said.
“And we may be making arguments around the use of the notwithstanding clause itself.”