Recently, the future of 2SLGBTQ+ students in Alberta has been called into question.
Since the United Conservative Party (UCP) came into power in Alberta in 2019, we have seen multiple attempts to limit the presence of queer students in the Province’s public schools. In 2019 there was the passing of Bill 8, which revoked students’ rights to privacy when joining a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), while in September 2023, the 1 Million March 4 Children protest called for the elimination of any Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity curriculum in Canadian schools.
Most recently, the UCP has proposed a pronoun policy bill that will require parental consent for students 16 and under to use their preferred name and pronouns at school. This pronoun policy is being introduced in the wake of similar bills which have already been passed in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick.
As a member of the queer community myself, I can’t help but wonder what effect these bills and movements will have on queer youth, and what ripple effects they will have on the 2SLGBTQ+ community at large. To find out, I had a conversation with Edmonton MLA and queer advocate Janis Irwin.
Heather Rennie: The UCP is set to vote on a new school pronoun policy at their upcoming AGM—what do you expect that the outcome will be?
Janis Irwin: Honestly your guess is as good as mine, because it’s the grassroots members, so it’s very possible that they’ll support that policy. It depends on who shows up for their convention: is it some moderates in the party, or is it a lot of folks on the far right? I don’t know what’s going to happen—we’ll just have to stay tuned and be ready to respond.
[Editor’s note: Members of Alberta’s ruling United Conservative Party approved a resolution at the 2023 AGM calling for a requirement that teachers, schools and school boards get written consent from parents before using chosen names and pronouns of students]
HR: If passed, what effect would this policy have on 2SLGBTQ+ students in Alberta?
JI: Well, what happens at a convention doesn’t necessarily convert directly into government policy; sometimes it does, but we’ll have to stay tuned on that. If this were to become a party policy and then pass—and of course it would pass because the UCP have a majority government—that would be really troubling for young people, and send a very chilling message across the country. This is the same UCP government that in 2019 was the first government to roll back 2SLGBTQ+ rights with Bill 8, and they got a lot of pushback for that. So if they’re willing to go down that road again, that’s pretty alarming.
HR: If the NDP were to win the next election, would this hypothetical policy remain in place?
JI: No, just like with Bill 8, we would reverse that sort of regressive policy for sure. We absolutely would not stand in support of that.
HR: This policy is the latest issue in the larger debate of queer rights in Canadian schools. Events like the 1 Million March are advocating not only for pronoun policies, but also the elimination of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression (SOGIE) curriculum at large. Can you explain a little bit about what this movement is talking about when they refer to SOGIE curriculum?
JI: Honestly I can’t, because they’re so misinformed. You know, I worked on curriculum for years. I attended the counter protest a few weeks ago, and some of the mis- and disinformation that’s out there is absolutely wild. There were people at that march saying that gender surgeries are being allowed at schools. First of all, do you know how many barriers, how many hoops you have to go through to even get gender surgery? It’s wild. And these are people who are very much conflating what they see in a school with curriculum. If there’s a pride flag, they assume that means, “my kids are learning so-called SOGIE curriculum”. Never mind that the curriculum we have in Alberta classrooms today is quite outdated and needs updating. The NDP worked to update curriculum starting in 2016, and then that was quashed when the UCP came into power. So the idea that there’s all these extreme views in curriculum around gender and ideology, that’s not even in there. Like, point me to it—it doesn’t even exist. So to answer your question, I can’t explain it, just because of the lack of information that’s out there.
But I also have a lot of empathy for the people who attended those protests, because for a lot of them, English might be their second language, or they’re new to Canada. They’ve heard these awful things about what’s happening in their kids’ schools, and they’re concerned. Yeah, I would be concerned too, if any sort of surgery was happening in a school, of course. But that’s the level of misinformation that’s out there. So I also want to respond with some empathy, that there’s a lot of work to be done to clarify for people that this simply isn’t happening. Instead, what is happening is that teachers and administrators in Edmonton and across the province want to ensure that there are safe and caring school environments for all their students. That’s not a radical thing.
HR: Yes, exactly. Like I mentioned, I’m taking gender studies at the University of Alberta. I’m in my fifth year now, and I have a pretty thorough understanding of gender identity and expression and basic gender theory. Then also being a part of the queer community, I have a more personal, first hand understanding. Then I have my parents as resources as well—my dad is a politician and is familiar with provincial policies, and my mom is a teacher and has been working with Alberta’s curriculum for over twenty years. So I’ve asked them: when they say this is in the curriculum, where exactly do we see it? Because I’ve searched and searched and I can’t find anything resembling SOGIE actually mentioned in the Alberta curriculum. And they can’t either.
JI: Yeah, and I worked in curriculum for years. I know it intimately, and I know that this is all just misinformation.
HR: So Saskatchewan has recently passed a very similar bill, and is currently considering invoking the notwithstanding clause as a means to maintain their new pronoun policy. This is in spite of the fact that a court action has been filed arguing that the policy infringes on the Charter rights of queer students. Do you think that Alberta’s UCP would invoke the notwithstanding clause as well, if necessary?
JI: We’ll have to see what happens first with Saskatchewan. Conservative governments like Scott Moe and like Danielle Smith love what’s perceived as a fight with Ottawa. So I can see why they would consider the notwithstanding clause—it’s like saying, “we’re going to do what we want”, and that certainly wouldn’t be out of line for them.
But gosh, I don’t even want to speculate about Alberta. Let’s see what happens with the party convention, and see if Danielle Smith decides to bring that policy into the legislature. We’ve had no indication that they are going to go down this path, so even if they pass this at the party convention, I doubt they would turn it around in time for our session this fall.
But who knows, if they have enough people like the “take back Alberta” types in their ears, it’s possible—even going so far as to use the notwithstanding clause. It’s absolutely wild.
HR: Do you think that the rights and safety of queer youth are in danger on a nationwide level? Do you think that movements like the 1 Million March will continue to gain traction?
JI: I think that absolutely, their rights are in danger, and the rights of the 2SLGBTQ+ community more broadly. As I’ve said before, trans rights are very much under attack, in the past few years in particular. And all of us who can speak out, cisgender and otherwise, need to be voices for the trans community, because we’re just seeing such an increase in attacks on their rights.
But I’m most concerned about youth. You know, I get attacked all the time, but I’m a white cisgendered woman with a lot of privilege. So like, bring it on. But you’re picking on queer and trans youth? That’s a problem—attacking people who don’t have a voice or people who can’t fight back.
So to answer your question, yes, I do think they’re under attack and we do have to be vigilant and realize that rights can be rolled back, as we saw with Bill 8 in Alberta in 2019.
As for the 1 Million March, I was counter-protesting at that last rally, and when I arrived there was such a big crowd of their people, and such a tiny one of ours. And it was such a gut punch, to realize that this is gaining ground. My biggest fear is that more and more people will continue to think that they need an enemy, and that today that enemy is queer and trans youth.
I know a lot of people who weren’t able to be at that rally, and you know, we all have our own capacities, so I don’t begrudge anybody for not showing up. But my message is, if you can, we need you. We need you to show up. Because I think we’ve sort of become complacent, thinking that we’re fine, that we have the rights we need. But it doesn’t work that way. You need to keep showing up and you need to keep speaking out, and if they’re not your rights, even more reason to speak out and stand up.
HR: Finally, what are our elected representatives doing to protect the rights of queer youth, and how can we as citizens be effective allies?
JI: Yeah, I mean we obviously have elected representatives who aren’t, and who have no interest in supporting queer and trans youth—that’s what we have to be worried about. But you’ve got me and Rachel Notley and our team, who are absolutely in support of our queer youth. We made that clear back when I was first elected in 2019, because one of the first bills from that government was the one that rolled back access to GSAs. And we filibustered it. We stayed up for hours on end, knowing that if we couldn’t stop that bill altogether, we could at least try to amend it and make it less awful.
I was the sole MLGay in the last legislature, and now we’ve got multiple people who identify as part of the 2SLGBTQ+ community. So we’ve got voices in the legislature who are part of the community, and then you have a lot of people out here who are supportive and who are allies and who are willing to speak out.
But you have to hold your elected officials accountable, you absolutely do. And even if you have an NDP MLA or MP and you think they’re doing a good job, still include them in messaging. Include us, because we need to hear what you have to say. And finally, show up. Lots of people like to post on social media, and like I said, I respect everybody’s capacity to do what they can. But if you have the ability and the means to show up and be there as an ally or a member of the community, and you have the safety and the privilege to do so, please do.
HR: Do you have anything else you would like to add?
JI: I think my main message is that we can’t get complacent. We have to realize that there are targeted, coordinated movements that are solely aimed at the queer and trans community, and their influence is rising across this country. So we all need to be aware of that. And an attack on one community is an attack on all of us, in my opinion. So stand up, and speak out.
Since speaking with Janis Irwin, the UCP have held their annual general meeting, and the pronoun policy has come to pass. As Irwin pointed out, this does not necessarily mean that it will become government policy; however, it is a step in that direction. As a queer youth who didn’t feel safe coming out in public school, I can only imagine how today’s 2SLGBTQ+ students will be affected should this policy be brought into the legislature.
It sickens me that this is the direction Alberta appears to be moving in: it’s 2023, and somehow we’re moving backwards in terms of diversity and inclusion. Nevertheless, meeting with Janis Irwin gave me a sense of hope. Hope that we have politicians who care about and continue to fight for queer youth; hope that the future is not yet determined, and hope that our voices are being heard. So while I wait to see where this newest policy goes, I will heed Irwin’s advice, and continue to stand up and speak out for queer youth.