Danielle Smith’s transgender youth policy isn’t really about parental rights
“Parental rights” has a long history in Alberta and it’s not what it sounds like
When you write about politics for long enough you begin to notice certain themes and issues that pop up perennially year to year.
So when Premier Danielle Smith’s office released a 7-minute video last week laden with messages about parental rights, my mind immediately wandered back to the first time I heard that term in 2006.
Those were heady days to be a political writer in Alberta. The Ralph Klein era was coming to an end and there was a whiff of change in the air.
From the Progressive Conservative backbenches came a private members’ bill that, under the guise of parents rights, would force schools to notify parents anytime school material included a mention of same-sex marriage and that no student be required to attend or teacher be required to teach that part of the course. This was less than one year after same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada.
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Known as Bill 206: Protection of Fundamental Freedoms (Marriage) Statutes Amendment Act, the bill was introduced by Foothills-Rockyview MLA Ted Morton, who would later run for the PC Party leadership and become Minister of Finance. Morton’s proposed law passed second reading but died on the order paper.
Probably the first big flashpoint of parental rights in Alberta politics that I recall was in 2009.
Well-meaning Minister of Culture and Community Spirit Lindsay Blackett announced a legislative package that added sexual orientation in the province's human rights laws and enshrined parental rights to withdraw children from parts of the school curriculum that conflict with their religious beliefs.
The obvious red flag raised by a lot of Albertans during what became a very contentious debate over Bill 44: Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Amendment Act was that these new parental rights would ostensibly allow parents to pull their kids out of lessons that mentioned the sexual orientations that were just protected in the Human Rights Act.
The opt-out section included in Bill 44 was widely believed to be a concession to the rural social conservatives in the PC Caucus who were uncomfortable with Alberta codifying human rights that had been enshrined by the Supreme Court of Canada eleven years earlier.
“Parents have a fundamental right to raise their children according to their own religious and cultural beliefs. But public schools have a fundamental responsibility to teach both scientific truth and shared community values, like tolerance and equality,” wrote Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons in April 2009.
“We ought to be able to balance those rights and responsibilities, without resorting to human-rights investigations and tribunals. We have taken one small step forward. And two much larger ones back,” wrote Simons, who today represents Alberta as a Senator in Ottawa.
The next time I recall parental rights taking Alberta politics by storm was in the mid-2010s, when PC and Wildrose Party MLAs tied themselves in knots attempting to regulate Gay-Straight Alliances, which are essentially kids clubs in schools that are proven to help make school environments more safe and welcoming.
When Smith mentioned parental rights in her video last week, the language was familiar but the political thrust was much different.
In her video, Smith gently introduced policy changes under the guise of parents being informed if their child asks to be referred to by a different gender pronoun in school, but her announcement went much further by restricting gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth (even with parental permission). Smith also pledged to ensure transgender children aren’t allowed to compete in sports as their identified gender.
Nothing included in Smith’s announcement was mentioned by the UCP during last year’s election campaign. It even goes further than what conservative governments in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick are implementing and further than the policy changes delegates to the UCP annual general meeting voted to support last fall.
Protests against the changes erupted in communities across Alberta, with parents and families of transgender youth asking why they weren’t consulted before the government announced the proposed policy changes.
Associations and unions representing medical professionals urged Smith to reconsider the proposed policies, and the Alberta Medical Association offered the Premier an opportunity to collaborate with experienced professionals, including Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists, to find a better way.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association described the policy as a clear and blatant attack on freedom that will create further divisions and will make it dangerous for trans and gender diverse youth and adults in Alberta.
Smith’s video and her 34-minute press conference the following day provided Albertans with broad statements, little details, and no timeline for the changes - except that it would be included in a bill introduced in the fall session of the Legislature.
In a bit of a stunning admission, Smith said in an interview with CTV’s Vassy Kapelos that her proposed policy changes are not based on current evidence of a problem, but rather a "concern of what will happen."
The sudden announcement had many Albertans asking why Smith would announce this policy change now?
Alberta politics doesn’t exist in a vacuum
While the language of parental rights isn’t new, Smith’s policy proposal is very much an import from the culture wars raging south of the border.
For years, conservative politicians and media personalities in the United States have been stoking fear and spreading conspiracy theories about transgender people. When recently speaking to a crowd of Albertans that included Smith, former Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson joked that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government would take away Canadians children if they weren't allowed to castrate them. The crowd laughed.
Heavily influenced by American culture war politics are right-wing populist groups like Take Back Alberta who have seen their influence over the UCP grow significantly since Smith became Premier. Activists affiliated with TBA and similar groups have organized protests outside of schools and the Alberta Teachers’ Association offices in Edmonton to oppose Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) material in schools.
Opponents of SOGI say it encourages children to change genders or undergo gender-affirming treatment, and that it goes against religious values. Some of the key activists involved in the local protests against SOGI are also active in groups that promote conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccinations, the United Nations, the World Economic Forum and 15 Minute Cities.
As noted earlier in this column, Alberta’s Education Act already requires school boards give notice to parents when classes or instruction includes subject matter that deals primarily and explicitly with religion or human sexuality. Parents already have the right to withdraw their children from parts of those classes.
“But sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) education is not about sexuality. It is about relationships; it is about identity, love and families. These are not mature topics, they are important topics” wrote the ATA’s Jonathan Teghtmeyer in an exceedingly reasonable response to the protests outside the teachers’ union headquarters.
Anti-abortion groups have also used the policy announcement as a chance to connect their issue to parental rights.
And a widely broadcast IVR poll conducted by a company associated with Pro-Life Alberta Political Association executive director Richard Dur phoned thousands of Albertans last week asking if they want parental rights extended to abortion access.
The Pro-Life Alberta Political Association was created in 2017 after a group of anti-abortion activists took over and renamed the moribund Social Credit Party. It remains a registered political party but operates as a political action committee which can issue generous tax receipts for donations that fund it’s advertising and political activities. The party raised $451,939.48 in 2023 according to Elections Alberta financial disclosures.
Upcoming UCP leadership review
Smith will face a leadership review at the next UCP AGM. While it is unlikely she would have faced much of a challenge after leading her party to win the 2023 election, this policy will bolster her support among the loyal base of social conservative activists who will be at meeting in droves.
If this does indeed end up being Smith’s flagship bill in the fall legislative sitting, don’t be surprised if it is timed to be introduced right before MLAs break to travel to the AGM, which is expected to take place on November 1 and 2, 2024 at Westerner Park in Red Deer.
It’s a distraction
There is a lot happening in Alberta and people would be justified to ask why Smith is focused on restricting medical care for transgender youth when the province’s electricity grid nearly had rolling blackouts, rural emergency rooms are closing and children’s surgeries are being cancelled because of a shortage of nurses and doctors, and we are on the verge of one of the worst droughts and wildfire seasons in recent memory.
It was also notable that Smith was not joined by any cabinet ministers at her press conference last week.
It would be reasonable to expect that the Premier would have been joined by Minister of Health Adriana LaGrange, Minister of Education Demetrios Nicolaides or Minister of Children and Family Services Searle Turton at the launch of such a politically-loaded initiative. But she stood alone at the podium.
The advantage that Smith and her supporters have is that on its face, the term “parental rights” sounds reasonable. Parents work hard and want to play a central role in their children’s lives and education. But when you step back and look at the only times politicians actively use the term parental rights, it becomes apparent very quickly that it’s not really about empowering parents or protecting children. It’s a key message in a broader culture war that social conservatives are intent on waging.
And this won’t be the last time Albertans hear about it.
Recommended reading and singing:
University of Alberta Assistant Professor Dr. Feo Snagovsky takes a look at the Common Ground project’s research into Albertans attitudes towards use of pronouns in schools and gender-affirming care for youths. It’s not as straight forward as you might think.
Edmonton’s choir community is coming together to show their support for trans youth in Alberta. Sing for Love 2024 is a big, noisy, songful show of support and love that will start with a community concert at McDougall United Church at 2:00 p.m. and end with a sing-in at Churchill Square at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 11, 2024.
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