Unions and community stand united against New Brunswick government attacks on 2S/LGBTiQ+ rights

Blaine Higgs’ revisions to Policy 713 are a dog whistle to the far right across Canada 

By June Patterson 

New Brunswick’s Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs and Education Minister Bill Hogan have drawn international attention in the past two months over their government’s attack on the democratic rights of 2S/LGBTiQ+ youth. This attack comes in the form of revisions weakening Policy 713, which established minimum standards for schools to ensure a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment for 2S/LGBTiQ+ students. Policy 713 was implemented in 2020 after a lengthy consultation process under Higgs’ former education minister.

On May 5 the New Brunswick Teachers Association (NBTA) held their annual Council Day – a professional development opportunity for teachers which receives some funding from the provincial government. Since 2012, Council Day has included workshops by Pride in Education (PIE), a teacher-led initiative and educational non-profit which helps train teachers in inclusive education and issues faced by 2S/LGBTiQ+ students. PIE has received support from both Liberal and Conservative governments for these important educational initiatives, at least until now. This year, just nine days before Council Day, PIE received written notice from the Department of Education that their request for funding had been denied in a last-minute heel turn, despite having received verbal confirmation of funding in early April.

To make matters worse, a small group of protestors picketed a Council Day event holding signs reading “perverts in education” and “shame on teachers”. Instead of standing with teachers, the provincial government issued a press release distancing itself from them, denying its involvement in Council Day and telling the public to direct their anger toward the NBTA.

In a statement the next day, NBTA President Connie Keating said:

“None of this was unexpected, unfortunately. We have been aware of this kind of hate towards teachers and public education being perpetuated online across North America for some time. What was unexpected was the statement released from [the government] at the end of the day … Teachers needed you to step up and support them. To educate. To stand with them against hate and misinformation. Instead, we face it alone.”

The Tories doubled down, not only refusing to stand with teachers facing harassment and threats but announcing within days that they planned to open up Policy 713 for review, citing “hundreds” of complaints from concerned parents allegedly inundating Minister Hogan’s office. In an independent study of the proposed review, NB’s youth and child advocate was provided with only three such complaints and criticized the review as “incoherent”. Echoing social conservatives in the United States, Higgs began invoking “parents’ rights” and a supposed lack of involvement from parents during Policy 713’s development as reasons for a review.

A vast array of labour unions, political parties and democratic and civil society organizations came out in opposition to the review of Policy 713. “We stand in solidarity with the New Brunswick Teacher’s Association, Pride in Education and the 2SLGBTQI+ community, whether this government likes it or not,” said CUPE-SCFP NB. Unifor called on its membership to “join the fight and stop this rollback of human rights in New Brunswick.” Meanwhile, Chief Allan Polchies Jr. of the Sitansisk First Nation said he would “not stand by and watch the Higgs government water down these protections … Instead of protecting valued but vulnerable members of our families, this government capitulated to a small group of conspiracists.” Organizations such as Egale Canada, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the NB Women’s Council and Queer Momentum added their voices to the chorus of criticism.

On May 13, Fierté Fredericton Pride and over a dozen other 2S/LGBTiQ+ advocacy groups organized a large rally in support of Policy 713, at the provincial legislature in Fredericton. Speaking to a crowd of around 300, Communist Party organizer and transgender woman June Patterson castigated the Tory government for their underhanded attack on 2S/LGBTiQ+ youth: “This fight isn’t just for inclusive language. It’s a fight to save lives, to force this government of the wealthy to do something that protects the people. A government that would undo these protections would have blood on its hands. Full stop.” Speakers from the NBTA, CUPE, Green Party and others similarly criticized the government for its attack on human rights. A petition in support of Policy 713 and against the review has collected over 18,000 signatures to date.

Unperturbed by broad public opposition, Higgs and Hogan pushed ahead with their review. Important stakeholders such as the 2S/LGBTiQ+ community, NBTA, the UNB Faculties of Education and Gender and Women’s Studies, and the College of Psychologists of NB were shut out of the process.

The newly revised Policy 713 that took effect July 1 has been significantly weakened. Most notably, the new version forbids teachers and staff from using a student’s preferred name and pronouns without parental consent if they are under 16 and instructs educators to direct 2S/LGBTiQ+ students to mental health professionals. It also removes language protecting the right of transgender students to participate in school sports. The province’s child and youth advocate called the changes “incredibly vague and shoddy” and warned they could open the door to discrimination. The College of Psychologists of New Brunswick called on the government to rescind the changes, warning of the harm that will be caused to students by the revised policy. Lifting rhetoric from the US and Britain, Higgs has previously voiced concerns about “fairness” in girls’ sports due to inclusion of trans students. The New Brunswick Interscholastic Athletics Association, which represents all school sports, has previously said there have been no concerns about fairness, and that it has received zero complaints about trans kids in the last decade.

In addition to opposition, Blaine Higgs has attracted support from the far right across Canada for his attacks on 2S/LGBTiQ+ youth, including from far-right media outlets such the Rebel and True North, and international far-right darling Jordan Peterson. The far right clearly sees Higgs’ attack as an opportunity to “re-open the debate” on 2S/LGBTiQ+ acceptance on a Canada-wide level and is salivating at the opportunity to roll back these hard-won democratic rights.

But this isn’t just an attack on the rights of 2S/LGBTiQ+ students – it’s part of a broader assault on organized labour and the very institution of public education. Across North America, teachers – a powerful and respected section of organized labour – have been under sustained and multi-sided attack for years. The right wing in the United States and (increasingly) Canada is spreading hatred and misinformation which paints teachers as lazy, overpaid “groomers” indoctrinating children to hate their country, their parents and God. These vile lies are part of a concerted effort to turn public opinion against teachers and their unions, and ultimately to weaken the public education system with an eye to privatization. With a strike on the horizon in NB, teachers such as Denis Boulet, member of Cercle 33 AEFNB (the francophone affiliate of NBTA) are clear-eyed:

“After negotiations with the government have broken down in the spring, the NBTA is preparing a strike vote at the end of August. It’s no coincidence the Higgs government has engaged a section of parents that are ideologically aligned with him and on board with his changes to Policy 713. Parents have always been an important factor in teachers’ strikes, and it wouldn’t surprise me that Higgs is trying to put a wedge between teachers and parents by implying that teachers are keeping secrets from parents when it comes to pronouns and desired names. He’s trying to make it seem like teachers are not worth parents’ trust, to undermine the credibility of our demands.”

The solidarity shown by the labour movement with New Brunswick’s 2S/LGBTiQ+ community is promising and forms the basis for the broad, united movement of labour and people’s organizations that’s needed to fight back against the anti-popular government of Blaine Higgs and the Tories. As CUPE-SCFP NB President Steve Drost declared at the May 13 rally in defense of Policy 713: “Your fight is our fight!”

Only united can we defend our rights, and only united can we hope to win a better, more just future for all.

[Photo: Unifor]

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