Saskatchewan Children’s Advocate says new names and pronouns school policy violates human rights

Saskatchewan’s Children’s Advocate said the new rules surrounding the use of preferred pronouns and first names in schools violate provincial human rights laws and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In August, former Education Minister Dustin Duncan announced children in Saskatchewan schools will need permission from parents or guardians to change preferred first names or pronouns if they are under the age of 16.

If a parent does not consent, teachers will be required to still use the original name or pronouns of the child.

Since the announcement dozens of organizations across the province have expressed their disagreement with the policy including the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation, OUTSaskatoon, the Regina and Area Sexual Assault Centre, and child psychiatrists.

“We agree with the government’s desire to place a high importance on the involvement of parents and guardians in education. However, this objective can be achieved without imposing such strict rules around consent, which could result in a violation of a young person’s rights under provincial, constitutional, and international human rights laws,” said Advocate Lisa Broda, who conducted the review.

The Saskatchewan Human Rights Code states that “discrimination because of gender identity or gender expression is against the law in Saskatchewan.”

Broda claimed that the age requirement of 16 isn’t fair to students because it does not demonstrate the capabilities individual.

“Many young people under the age of 16 will have the capacity to make this type of decision. Giving them the chance to demonstrate capacity is an important step in accommodating their right to their gender identity.”

The report pointed out several reasons that a child might not want to share their gender identity with their parents.

“One of these reasons could be that the young person knows their identity would not be supported at home,” read the report.

The advocacy report claimed that if a child believes that sharing their gender identity would cause them harm, they shouldn’t be forced to do so.

The report also noted that children are successfully having these conversations with their parents, the process might be lengthy, and consent might not be given right away.

“The young person should not be deprived of their right for the expression of their gender identity to be respected during this time,” read the report.

The report confirmed it isn’t written in the policy that schools need to inform parents of a student’s choice unless their safety is at stake.

It also said that unfair pressure would be placed on school staff — forcing them to violate the rights of their students through constant misgendering.

The children’s advocate noted that in 2022, the Government of Saskatchewan accepted the group’s recommendation to increase mental health supports in schools, but not until 2026.

Statistics show that suicide is the leading cause of death among young people aged 15 to 24 and Saskatchewan’s rates are considered some of the highest.

“Transgender and gender diverse youth, however, are at even higher risk than the general population, being over seven times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers who identify with their assigned gender,” read the report.

The report also claimed that the Prairie provinces had the highest rate of youth in Canada who changed schools or started homeschooling due to lack of support for their gender.

Broda said it is unclear how the education system will provide sufficient supports in situations where students are negatively affected by the new policy.

Broda is also concerned that the resources in schools won’t be able to fulfill all of the guidelines of the policy in terms of professional support.

The policy states that if a child needs help asking their parents or guardians for consent, support will be given through the school to help them do so when the student is ready.

“There are not sufficient professional supports available in schools to meet this additional demand,” the advocate said.

“The Saskatchewan Teachers Federation has been vocal about concerns with the increasing demands on teachers related to increasing class size and complexity. These circumstances raise questions as to whether teachers will be available to offer this support.”

The STF recently reported that current staff ratios in the province average one counsellor to every 3,000 students.

“We don’t have supports for students who are already struggling, and now we’re going to have additional struggles in our school for some very vulnerable students,” STF said when the policy was announced.

The advocate called on the ministry to amend the policy, allowing students to choose their preferred names and pronouns without parental consent and to increase professional supports in schools that offer parental inclusion, but only when it is in the best interest of the child.

The Government of Saskatchewan did not say if they would be changing the policy.

“The Ministry of Education acknowledges the Advocates comments in the report and agrees with her that there are various positive impacts derived from the policy, such as recognizing the importance of parents and guardians in supporting a child’s development,” read a statement.

“The Government of Saskatchewan remains committed to protecting the right of parents to be involved in their children’s education and to implementation of the Parental Inclusion and Consent policy.”

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