Five things to know about the changes to New Brunswick’s LGBTQ school policy

Click to play video: 'Experts wondering about future of Higgs government amid Policy 713 debate'
Experts wondering about future of Higgs government amid Policy 713 debate
The debate over Policy 713 had New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs saying he’s willing to go to the polls over the issue. That has experts wondering about the future of the Higgs government and the Progressive Conservative in the province. Zack Power has that story – Jun 13, 2023

The New Brunswick government’s recent changes to the province’s policy on sexual orientation in schools have created an uproar among LGBTQ students and advocates, sparked dissent within the cabinet of Premier Blaine Higgs and so far led to one cabinet resignation. Policy 713, introduced in August 2020, establishes minimum standards for schools to ensure a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment for LGBTQ students.

Here are five things to know about the controversy.

Three major changes to Policy 713

Scheduled to take effect July 1, the changes to the LGBTQ policy include making it no longer mandatory for teachers to use the preferred pronouns or names of transgender or non-binary students under the age of 16. A teacher or school would need to obtain parental consent of a child who wants to change their name at school. A student who refuses parental involvement would be referred to a school psychologist or social worker to develop a plan to inform the student’s parents “if and when they are ready to do so.”

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Another change removes wording allowing students to participate in extracurricular activities “consistent with their gender identity.” Starting July 1, students will be able to participate in curricular, co-curricular and extracurricular activities “that are safe and welcoming.”

The third change says that “private, universal changing areas” will be available in all schools across the province.

Click to play video: 'Discussion around Policy 713 with Pride in Education'
Discussion around Policy 713 with Pride in Education

Motivation for the changes 

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Higgs has said that gender dysphoria — defined as a state of distress caused when a person’s gender identity doesn’t match their biological sex — has become popular and trendy, especially among young people. Last week, he suggested there has been a rise in youth with gender dysphoria because elements of society have become accepting of people changing their names and genders.

The premier has said that the changes reflect the government’s desire to ensure parents play a role in the “formative years” of their children. “Parents are the foundation of our society; families are the foundation of our society,” he recently told the legislature. “And what we’re seeing is that erosion of the family role in children’s upbringing.”

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Reaction and criticism

Gail Costello of LGBTQ advocacy group Pride in Education said the changes and Higgs’s comments about them are “transphobic.” She said the original policy affected a small number of students and was implemented to respect young people.

“This is nothing about keeping secrets from parents. This is just respecting students,” she said Thursday. “I do attendance in class, someone tells me they’d like to go by Johnny instead of Jonathan, I say fine. I don’t say well, I have to call your parents first. They’ve twisted this all around.”

Meanwhile, New Brunswick’s child and youth advocate issued a scathing 21-page report on the changes, revealing in May that the government’s decision to review the policy came after three complaints. Kelly Lamrock said he wasn’t sure any government policy would survive if three complaints over a 30-month period were enough to lead to its reconsideration.

Dissent within the party

Dorothy Shephard, the member of legislative assembly for Saint John-Lancaster, resigned last week as social development minister after cabinet debated the proposed changes to the policy. She told reporters that her decision to quit was not just about Policy 713 but also about Higgs’s leadership style. The week before, eight Progressive Conservative dissidents — including Shephard and five other ministers — sat out question period in protest of the changes.

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On June 15, six members of Higgs’s party voted with the Opposition to require the province’s child and youth advocate to review the changes made to Policy 713. The Tory rebels caused the motion to pass 26-20.

Click to play video: 'Higgs government faces caucus revolt over changes to LGBTQ school policy in N.B.'
Higgs government faces caucus revolt over changes to LGBTQ school policy in N.B.

Election call and leadership review

Last week, Higgs said he was willing to call an early election over his government’s reforms to the policy, but he seemed to have changed his tone in a recent interview with CBC News, during which he said he had “no intention” to call one. His government’s mandate ends in October 2024.

The premier also told reporters last week that he was ready to face a leadership vote. He said if his stance on giving parents a voice in the upbringing of their children leads to a leadership review then, “It’ll be what it’ll be.”

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2023.

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