The leader of the Conservative Party of B.C. is taking heat from both Indigenous communities and LGBTQ2 activists for a social media post critics say compares the province’s SOGI 123 resources to residential schools.
John Rustad, the MLA for Nechako Lakes, made the post to X, formally Twitter, on Sept. 30’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
“Today is National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — or Orange Shirt Day. Today, we remember what happens when the Canadian government thinks it’s better at raising children than parents. I will always stand with parents,” the post reads.
Parental rights in Canada were recently brought to the forefront due to protests over the SOGI 123 resource.
SOGI 123 is a resource package designed to help teachers and school administrators reduce discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in their curriculum. It provides guidance and tools teachers can weave into their lessons and language but is not a fully-formed curriculum in itself.
Some B.C. parents have expressed concern with the gender-inclusive educational resources, saying it is taking away their right to decide what their children learn in public schools.
Some groups have used the banner of parental rights to argue for a ban on teaching sexual orientation and gender identity in B.C. schools.
However, some organizations like the BC Teachers’ Federation say critics of the program are using parental consent as a “dog whistle for rising homophobia and transphobia.”
Rustad denies he is making a comparison to SOGI 123, arguing his statement was “historically accurate.”
“I’m not comparing that. What I’m talking about is the fact that what happened with the Canadian government interfering and making a decision that they knew best in terms of the children’s education and taking away those rights from parents, obviously led to very tragic results,” he said.
When asked if he believed the rights of parents were being taken away now, Rustad said what he saw was that parents were speaking out because they did not feel they were being engaged.
However, even the spectre of comparing the educational tool to the systematic removal of Indigenous children from their homes, communities and culture does not sit well with Indigenous leaders like Squamish Nation councillor Wilson Williams (Sxwíxwtn).
“I think it was insensitive. I think it was undermining his political views and his platform, but at the same time driving a narrative that sort of rattles people,” Williams said.
“I think he’s purposely rattling people (and) trying to control the narrative when he publicly speaks, but it’s not going over well.
“From an Indigenous perspective, when we have members who are vulnerable and are part of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s very, very hurtful. We’re in a time and place today where we want to protect our people, but at the same time, empower them for who they are.”
When asked about Williams’ response, Rustad said, “There’s going to be lots of people who are gonna say lots of things. And that’s fine. That’s what free speech is about.”
BC United MLA and LGBTQ2 advocate Elenore Sturko criticized Rustad online for the post.
“John Rustad not only needs to make an unequivocal apology for his misappropriation of NDTR but also for calling homosexuality a ‘lifestyle’ in media interviews where he doubled down in his ignorance,” Sturko posted.
“John Rustad’s attempt to liken the cultural genocide of Indigenous people with arrests of LGBT people – as a means of justifying his political dog whistling – is incredibly insulting to Indigenous people & to members of the LGBT community.”
B.C. New Democrat MLA Ravi Parmar also took to social media to call Rustad’s post “a disgraceful comparison” and an attempt to “co-opt this day to spread fear and attack the rights of queer kids.”
Williams says if he could speak to Rustad, he would invite him to meet and build a relationship, with the hope of fostering understanding around the significance of Sept. 30 and Orange Shirt Day.
“Hopefully that’ll help him as a leader in his motivation to be a leader, but at the same time, help expand this peripheral in regards to indigenous history.”
Rustad has previously called for an end to the SOGI 123 program in schools.
“Parents need to be engaged in their (kids’) education. It is not the government’s responsibility to raise children. It is parents’ responsibility and those need to be supportive,” he said Monday.
“Having said that, our schools need to be safe. They need to have anti-bullying, like it should be zero tolerance. Everybody should be able to feel safe in our schools.”
Rustad was first elected in 2005 with the then-B.C. Liberal party — now B.C. United — and served as minister of Aboriginal relations and reconciliation. He was removed from the BC Liberal caucus in 2022 for suggesting carbon dioxide emissions were not a factor in climate change.
He sat as an independent until this past February before joining the Conservative Party of B.C. and being acclaimed its leader a month later.