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New Brunswick’s Pride in Education day in May mobilized opposition to Policy 713

FREDERICTON — In the weeks before the New Brunswick government decided to change its policy on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, it received a deluge of emails and other communications critical of the guidelines.

A Canadian Press access to information request to the Department of Education seeking all complaints about Policy 713 — from August 2020 when it first came into being until the end of May 2023 — yielded nearly 600 pages of emails, letters, phone records and notes. The names of the people who wrote in were redacted for privacy reasons.

Policy 713 set standards for making schools safe and inclusive for LGBTQ+ students. It said a principal would consult with students under 16 who want to change their preferred first name before using it for reports or record-keeping. It ensured all students would be able to participate in school and extracurricular activities that are safe, welcoming and consistent with their gender identity. And it said all students should have access to washroom facilities that align with their gender identity.

The communication shows there were just four emails protesting the policy before an advertisement appeared for a Pride in Education day for elementary and high school teachers that was held on May 5 this year.

“To be clear, I’m not against the policy and see how it can be beneficial,” said one to Premier Blaine Higgs, dated Jan. 16, 2021. “I just have concerns about certain aspects of it that go too far and infringe on others rights and beliefs that are valuable to them.”

However, the logs show an inundation of communication after the notice of the Pride event was circulated, promising such topics as “Queering sex-ed,” “Inclusive K-12 Curriculum,” “Drag Story Time” and “Personal Safety of Educators.” Gail Costello, former co-chair of Pride in Education, said it was the first time the LGBTQ+ advocacy group had led a teacher conference. 

One example was sent by a constituent to Progressive Conservative backbencher Mary Wilson on April 24. Wilson, who was named to cabinet in June, forwarded the email to Higgs, describing the author as “a friend and constituent that I can 100 per cent vouch for.”

The friend mentioned the upcoming Pride in Education day before raising a debunked urban myth spread by anti-trans activists. “Are you aware that there are schools in N.B. providing cat litter for children who identify as cats?” the person wrote. “This is child abuse, and the adults supporting this should be released from their positions.”

When asked about the letter this week, Wilson said in a statement that she receives “many” emails from constituents on various subjects.

“As per my usual correspondence process, the email you are referring to was forwarded to the appropriate person on behalf of a constituent and does not reflect my personal opinions,” she said in the statement. “I can advise you that there are no cat litter boxes in our schools in New Brunswick.”

Wilson forwarded another constituent’s email on May 9 to three people, including Education Minister Bill Hogan. “This is not about hating certain people,” wrote the constituent, who added that she is a former teacher, mother and grandmother. “It is about people leading innocent children into perversion.”

Communication at times dipped into conspiracy theories, with people repeating the cat litter myth, saying students were provided with diagrams illustrating how to give oral sex and asserting policies such as New Brunswick’s have led to the torture, rape and grooming of children. They objected to drag storytimes and said Higgs and Hogan were agents of God to protect the children.

Several teachers also wrote to seek changes to Policy 713. One May 9 email from a teacher and mother praised Hogan for announcing a review of the policy. She objected to the requirement that the principal get consent from the student before talking to the parent about the child’s preferred name.

“As a teacher, I’m not comfortable with using the preferred name of a student without the parents’ permission,” she said. “As a mother, I would not want a teacher calling my children by another name just because my child requested it.” She also said she was uncomfortable with students using washrooms that align with their gender identity.

“I’m hoping that the policy will be changed to ensure the safety of all students and to not allow schools to hide information from parents.”

Hogan declined an interview, saying through his spokeswoman, Diana Chavez, that he cannot comment on this matter as it’s before the courts. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association last month filed a court action seeking to overturn key aspects of the policy. It contends the original Policy 713 was consistent with pediatric and education guidelines, and a failure to affirm an LGBTQ+ student’s identity can lead to negative educational and health outcomes, including increased risk of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm and suicide.

The changes to the policy came into effect July 1. They meant it was no longer mandatory for teachers to use the preferred pronouns or names of transgender or non-binary students under the age of 16. Wording allowing students to participate in extracurricular activities “consistent with their gender identity” was removed, as was a commitment to provide “private, universal changing areas” in all schools across the province.

The changes were reviewed by the province’s Child and Youth Advocate, Kelly Lamrock, who said they violated New Brunswick’s Human Rights Act as well as children’s Charter rights.

Costello said the changes made to the policy reflect an American influence. “If you look at Florida — Florida started off by going after trans kids and removing policy to protect them, exactly like Bill Hogan and Blaine Higgs are doing,” she said.

The Pride in Education day and the subsequent flood of emails, she said, were the “perfect” catalyst that the Department of Education was looking for. “They were trying and trying to figure out a way to work in their personal agenda. And this (Pride in Education day) just happened to be the perfect opportunity,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2023.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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