Saskatchewan politicians prepare for pronoun fight

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REGINA — Saskatchewan politicians are heading back to legislature, preparing for a pronoun fight that some political observers say could alter the province’s electoral landscape.

The legislative assembly is set to resume Tuesday, with the Saskatchewan Party government planning to introduce legislation that would require children under 16 to receive parental consent if they want to change their names or pronouns at school.

Premier Scott Moe has said he plans to invoke the notwithstanding clause, a provision that allows governments to override certain Charter rights for up to five years.

Opposition NDP Leader Carla Beck said her team is ready to debate.

“If they want to talk about education, we’re prepared to talk about education,” Beck said in a recent interview. “And we’re prepared to debate their record, which frankly has failed the children of this province for over a decade.”

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A “Rally for our Rights” protest is scheduled outside the legislature the day politicians return.

In late September, a judge granted an injunction and paused the policy. Lawyers for UR Pride, a local LGBTQ2 group in Regina that applied for the injunction, argued the policy could cause teachers to out or misgender children, resulting in Charter violations.

Nathaniel Teed, an NDP legislature member, has said his party may filibuster.

He said on social media that he and other NDP members plan during the debate to read letters sent on behalf of people affected by the policy and the “attack on Charter rights.”

Moe has said Saskatchewan Party members are ultimately making the decision to legislate the policy, as they represent various constituents who have raised concerns.

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He said parents should be informed of their children’s information at school.

“It is a discussion very much that is happening in my community. I was home last night and had three people approach me outside the grocery store,” Moe told reporters last week.

“And so there are people that are approaching not only myself as a local MLA, but approaching other MLAs as well and have been for a period of time. Most, if not all of them, are parents, have been parents or grandparents.”

As the debate unfolds in the legislature, political observers say they will be watching to see whether it moves the electorate.

Daniel Westlake, a political science professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said two outcomes are possible.

In one scenario, he said, the policy could work in the government’s favour. If it resonates broadly, it could help shore up more right-wing voters into the government’s base.

In the second scenario, however, Westlake said the issue could define the government as going too far right. This could make some moderate voters look at alternatives, such as the NDP.

“Something like the use of the notwithstanding clause can get people thinking about this as a Charter issue,” he said.

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“You could have moderate voters saying, ‘I’m not so sure that I’m comfortable with a party that is willing to violate Charter rights, even if I don’t have a firm opinion on the particular pronoun policy.’”

David Rayside, a retired politics professor at the University of Toronto, said centre-right parties sometimes become fearful they’ll lose votes to the far-right.

In an August byelection, the conservative Saskatchewan United Party, which says it champions parental rights, received 23 per cent of the vote, appearing to take a bite out of the Saskatchewan Party’s base. The Saskatchewan Party won the byelection with 54 per cent.

“That explains a lot,” Rayside said.

He said it appears conservative governments in Canada are watching gender debates in the United States, where some Republicans have been introducing pronoun rules in schools and limiting sexual education.

New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative government has a similar pronoun policy to Saskatchewan’s, though school guidance counsellors there can use children’s chosen names.

Rayside said people are generally more ambivalent to pronouns and transgender rights and have general anxiety about parental roles in school.

“Right-wing politicians know that, or at least have been learning that, and are willing to run with them without any real, in my view, reflection on some of the broader issue of risks to kids,” Rayside said.

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Federal Conservative party delegates at a convention in September voted in favour of prohibiting “medicinal or surgical interventions” for gender-diverse and transgender children. Leader Pierre Poilievre has said he’s not bound to include the policies in an eventual election platform.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has said her caucus is having discussions over pronouns in school but has not made a decision.

Rayside said he’s unsure how the debate will play out electorally in Saskatchewan, noting voters tend to lean conservative. However, he said he expects the NDP to make a pitch to centrist voters.

Beck said people want leaders who are solving problems with solutions that they can get behind.

“It’s one thing to have differences, but to see some politicians willingly stoke that division for their own political ends, I think, is more than disappointing for people,” she said.

Beck said kids do better when parents are involved, but that the new pronoun policy is not going to make things better. She called the use of the notwithstanding clause “heavy handed.”

“To be willing to make vulnerable kids more vulnerable, it’s not the kind of leadership that a lot of people want to see from the government.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 9, 2023.

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