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Gender identity policies spark rallies and counter-rallies across Canada

Crowds gather to yell and chant at each other about the way schools instruct sexuality
Police stand between protesters opposed to gender diversity in schools, right, and counter-protesters advocating for trans rights, left, in Halifax on Wednesday, September 20, 2023. Protests and counter-protests for and against Canada’s trans and 2SLGBTQIA+ community were planned across Canada by “1MillionMarch4Children” who are against so-called “gender ideology” being taught in schools. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

Thousands of people gathered in cities across Canada on Wednesday for competing protests, yelling and chanting at each other about the way schools instruct sexuality and gender identity and how teachers refer to transgender youth.

Protesters accused schools of exposing young students to “gender ideology,” and said parents have the right to know whether their children are questioning their gender identity. Counter-demonstrators, meanwhile, accused protesters of importing United States culture wars into the country and trying to deny students important lessons about inclusion and respect for gender-diverse people.

“Trans people — they exist in society, and they deserve inclusion, just like everyone else,” said activist Celeste Trianon, who helped lead a counter-protest in downtown Montreal, where police inserted themselves between the two factions outside the offices of Premier François Legault.

“We need to talk to people, teach them the right vocabulary, the proper words, at an age-appropriate time, in order to explain that inclusion is a good thing. We need to make sure that their trans and queer peers at school feel welcome.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted about the Canada-wide protests, saying “Transphobia, homophobia, and biphobia have no place in this country. We strongly condemn this hate and its manifestations, and we stand united in support of 2SLGBTQI+ Canadians across the country — you are valid and you are valued.”

It was New Brunswick’s government that helped spark a debate across Canada about the way schools engage with transgender and nonbinary students. In June, the government changed the province’s LGBTQ+ policy, requiring students under 16 to get parental consent before their teachers can use their preferred first names. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has filed a lawsuit against the province over the policy.

Premier Blaine Higgs attended the protest Wednesday outside the legislature, in Fredericton, telling reporters that he has a hard time understanding why his government’s policy is controversial.

“I think our parents should become knowledgeable about what their kids are being taught and what is important for them to learn in schools and what’s important for parents to make decisions on with kids that are under 16 years old,” he said.

New Brunswick’s initiative was copied by the Saskatchewan government, which has also prohibited teachers from referring to students under 16 by their preferred first names and pronouns. An injunction application that aims to stop the policy is before the courts, arguing it violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by causing teachers to potentially misgender students or out them to their parents.

In Regina, hundreds of people gathered outside Saskatchewan’s legislative building for the march. Some protesters held signs opposed to SOGI 123, an educational resource that teachers in some provinces can use to create more inclusive classrooms.

Jashandeep Dhillon said she doesn’t want her children to be exposed to gender issues.

“I don’t want them to be educated on whether they are a girl or a boy,” she said. “Let them be what they want to be. If he decides in his life, when he’s an adult, if he wants to change, I’m OK with that.”

In Ottawa, thousands of people faced off in front of Parliament Hill, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh led a group of counter-protesters down Wellington Street. A heavy police presence separated the protesters from counter-demonstrators, with competing chants about protecting trans youth and keeping gender ideologies out of schools.

“We know that there’s a lot of folks that don’t feel safe because of the rise in hate and division that’s targeting vulnerable people,” Singh said. “But then you see a lot of people coming together, and it shows the strength of solidarity, of us supporting each other, of having each other’s back.”

Hours later, Ottawa police said they arrested two people for inciting hatred at the protest “by displaying hateful material,” and arrested another person for causing a disturbance. “Hate or bias-motivated crimes will be fully investigated,” police said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Halifax police said demonstrations in that city led to the arrest of a 16-year-old who is scheduled to appear in youth court on charges of assault with a weapon, mischief and causing a disturbance.

In Toronto, a large group of counter-protesters walked toward the legislature at Queen’s Park, where anti-LGBTQ+ protesters had gathered.

Protesters held up signs supporting the People’s Party of Canada and shouted slogans such as “leave our kids alone.” Some protesters held up signs promoting various conspiracy theories and criticizing Trudeau.

Adrienne Kulling, a counter-protester, said she had the day off work and came out to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community.

She said Canada has started “mimicking” the culture wars in the United States, including on gender identity. “I really think we were moving in a progressive direction, and then all of a sudden things started shifting,” Kulling said.

“We need to show support for the trans and nonbinary kids. They need help because there’s suicide, depression — all these things are coming up with queer youth.”

READ ALSO: ‘Unsafe’: Victoria police ask protesters on SOGI issue to vacate legislature

READ ALSO: B.C. Human Rights Commissioner says trans rights ‘not up for debate’