When Premier Smith mentioned in a Saturday morning radio interview that she would be producing a parental rights policy, people went a little crazy with speculation. On Wednesday, the announcement dropped.
Her announcement accomplishes a lot. And much of it is very good.
However, as far as actual implementation goes, the devil is in the details – and those remain to be seen.
In the past, we found evidence that Calgary’s paediatric gender services clinic was willing to take referrals from school staff, without parents being informed. With today’s statement, Smith shut that down, hard. Alberta will not have reassignment surgery for children on her watch. There will be no puberty blockers for children under 16, and the parents of older children must be informed. On the other hand, she plans to get Alberta-based surgeons and long-term care for adults who have transitioned. This last will be welcome news for the trans community – but it will not silence the legions that advocate for transitioning children.
Interestingly, Smith calls for teachers to get consent each time they intend to give formal instruction about sexuality and gender – on an opt-in basis. Teachers may complain that requiring consent every time a lesson is done about sexuality introduces a burden. However, we have to ask: how many times does a teacher need to have a lesson plan focused on topics of sexuality and gender?
The most interesting part of that discussion was also that she will require third-party classroom materials and presentations to be vetted by the Education Ministry. This deals with the Prism Toolkit – in which the Alberta Teachers’ Association told teachers that “notification is not required when an instructional material contains subject matter that explicitly deals with human sexuality or sexual orientation, unless that instructional material is also primarily about one of these subjects.” So long as the list of materials allowed to be used in schools is publicly displayed, and the public can debate what can and can not be used, it is a great thing. No longer will parents suspect teachers of giving dodgy material behind their backs. This should substantially ease tensions between parents and teachers.
Smith also includes a nuanced pronoun policy. Children under 15 cannot change their pronouns without parental consent. Over 15, teachers need only inform parents of their children’s decision. It is interesting that Smith also emphasized the need for teachers who suspect abuse to report it: one wonders what implementation will be available to make this easier. The prohibition will probably generate a terrific outcry from the “progressive” advocacy community. However, the prohibition against secretly changing pronouns is again needed to keep the peace: it will help to restore parents’ confidence that teachers are not doing things behind their backs.
The last part of Smith’s announcement was a melange. Counselling services for families with trans-identified children, more robust anti-bullying programs were mentioned but not detailed. She means to forbid trans individuals from competing in women’s sports, but hopes to create unisex leagues – one wonders which sports will be included.
We are left with one major concern. Smith was part of a government that made Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) mandatory in all schools – including in religious schools, whose conscience they violate. Most public boards have secrecy policies, which prevent staff from discussing GSAs with parents in any way, including even disclosing a child’s participation or what materials are provided. Yet GSA teacher resource guides suggest that activities related to sexuality are regularly done in such clubs - effectively doing an end run around the need for parental consent, as these clubs fall beyond the purview of “formal instruction” captured by Smith’s announcement.
In general, the reforms introduced today by Premier Smith will go some distance to restoring parents’ faith in teachers. Right now, parents are aware that schools can teach their children anything they want about sex, can refer them to a gender clinic, and can even change their pronouns – and they may never hear anything about it. The situation has led to escalating tensions. Smith’s efforts may, barely, serve to keep the peace.
That being said, we are discussing policies and guidelines which are yet to be seen. And the arguments over the actual contents of any forthcoming changes will be enthralling. So far, what we have is good intentions on the Premier’s part: it is a promising start, though we will see what happens next as the rubber hits the road.
John Hilton-O’Brien is the Executive Director of Parents for Choice in Education, www.parentchoice.ca