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Sask. school pronoun policy becomes law

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The third and final reading of Saskatchewan's "Parents' Bill of Rights" passed Friday morning, a bill requiring parental consent if a youth under the age of 16 wants to be referred by a different pronoun or name at school.

The legislation, largely understood to be focused on trans and gender-diverse students, was immediately granted royal assent, making it law in Saskatchewan.

"This is not in any way targeting anyone, this is targeting how we can best support our children in our community and step one of that support is to provide the parents with that opportunity to support their children," Premier Scott Moe said during a news conference in Regina following the bill's passage.

“There have been a lot of firsts in [the Saskatchewan Legislative building] and a lot of things Saskatchewan residents can be proud of, in 1947 the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights was the first of its kind in the country, we’re known as the home of Medicare brought in in 1962 and today in 2023 we saw another first, but this time it was to take away the rights of vulnerable children,” NDP leader Carla Beck said when speaking to reporters Friday afternoon.

Also known as Bill 137, the legislation includes the use of the notwithstanding clause to overrule part of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the province’s human rights code.

Following a court-ordered pause on the pronoun policy, Moe recalled the legislature two weeks early to enshrine the new pronoun rules into law and vowed to use the notwithstanding clause.

The first two readings of the bill saw complete support from all Saskatchewan Party members in attendance and the lone Saskatchewan United Party member.

It also saw complete refusal from all Saskatchewan New Democratic Party members present for the readings.

"This vote today, this will be your legacy. The rest of it gets washed away because this is what makes history," NDP MLA Nicole Sauer said, during the last speech on the floor before the final vote.

"Whatever you've done before this won't matter," she said.

Jeremy Cockrill, Saskatchewan’s education minister, has said he expects all 27 school divisions in the province to abide by the legislation if it becomes law.

Amendments to the bill proposed by the NDP were voted down by the Saskatchewan Party on Thursday.

Education critic Matt Love presented the "Do No Harm Amendment" that would change the bill so parental consent would not be required in cases where a mental health professional determines there is no way to create a safe plan for disclosure. The amendment was voted down 33-11.

A second proposition also voted down would have required the government to consult with parents regarding broader issues within the education system.

The issue of how much the government consulted with parents when developing the policy has figured prominently in the debate.

According to court documents, the government received 18 letters over the summer inspired by a similar policy introduced in New Brunswick earlier this year. Seven were thought to have come from parents.

Since Bill 137 was introduced, members of the opposition NDP have been taking turns speaking for hours at a time in an attempt to stall the legislation.

While the Sask. Party government extended debate on the bill from 20 to 40 hours, the ruling party showed no signs it was prepared to change course on the legislation.

"An extraordinary amount of time to debate a matter that in any other time would be considered ordinary or common sense to give parents the right to parent their children," Sask. Party MLA Dustin Duncan said on Friday. Duncan was the education minister at the time of the pronoun policy's announcement.

Duncan referenced his family, saying his three children have been taught not to "keep secrets."

"As Minister of Education, I could not support something for your family that I could not abide by for my own," Duncan said.

The school pronoun policy was first announced in August after the upstart Saskatchewan United Party made a strong by-election showing in a Saskatchewan Party stronghold.

Saskatchewan United campaigned on the controversy sparked by a Planned Parenthood sexual health resource that was provided to Grade 9 students in the town of Lumsden.

"After the loss of some votes in (a) stronghold of the Saskatchewan party government. We saw the government just absolutely lose it," NDP MLA Nathanial Teed said while holding the floor for six hours on Wednesday.

"They still won the seat, Mr. Speaker. Yeah? [They] just didn't have ballot boxes full of ballots."

Bill 137 also includes new rules surrounding sexual health education.

School principals will be required to inform parents at least two weeks before sexual health content is presented to students.

Parents and guardians will be informed of the subject matter of the sexual health content, the dates when the content will be presented and given an opportunity to remove their child from the presentation.

The province also plans to continue a pause on third-party sexual health education presentations in classrooms until work can be done with school divisions to clarify regulations and processes surrounding lessons, according to Education Minister Jeremy Cockrill.

After the bill became law, the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF) released a statement saying the new legislation puts teachers in a difficult position.

“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,” STF president Samantha Becotte said in a news release.

Becotte said the bill was passed without consultations with parents, school board members, school administrators, mental health experts, or the STF.

According to Becotte, the passing of the bill is another sign the provincial government “isn’t serious about forging cooperative and mutually beneficial relationships in the education sector.”

Since the policy and subsequent legislation was first announced, it has come under fire by Saskatchewan's Advocate for Children and Youth and the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission.

A longtime member of the Human Rights Commission resigned in protest of the legislation earlier in the week.

Two longtime Sask.Party MLAs, Don Morgan and Gord Wyant — both former justice ministers — were among thoste absent for Friday's final vote.

While speaking to reporters, Moe bristled at the idea that any members of his caucus intentionally skipped the vote.

"There's a number of individuals, MLAs on both sides of the house, that were not present today. Some were not present for personal reasons Some were not present for reasons that they were (exercising) or delivering on their government duties on both sides of both sides of the house".

A Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) representative said the passage of the legislation marked a "dark day for the rights and freedoms of everyone in Canada."

"This will be a stain on the history of the province," CCLA equality director Harini Sivalingam said in a news release.

-- With files from The Canadian Press and Caitlin Brezinski

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