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New Brunswick's proposed education policy change sparks backlash in Ottawa

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs speaks in Fredericton, N.B. on Thursday, February 9, 2023. The New Brunswick government is facing criticism from cabinet ministers, MPs and senators in Ottawa who say it's putting LGBTQ kids at risk with a new policy. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stephen MacGillivray

OTTAWA — The New Brunswick government is facing backlash from Ottawa over a new education policy — including from the prime minister, who is accusing Blaine Higgs's government of targeting transgender kids.

Higgs is pushing changes to sexual orientation policy in schools, known as Policy 713, that would force children under 16 to get parental consent to change their names or pronouns at school. 

The previous version of the three-year-old policy required teachers to get a student's informed consent before discussing names and pronouns with their parents, and was meant to make schools inclusive and safe for LGBTQ children.

Higgs has said he's "taking a strong position for families," but the changes have sparked anger from opposition parties and dissent even within his own caucus. 

On Thursday, eight Progressive Conservative members, including six cabinet ministers, sat out question period and other legislative business to protest the changes, which are set to come into effect July 1.

In a statement they expressed "extreme disappointment in a lack of process and transparency" in the policy's review.

Later that evening, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke at a fundraiser for the LGBTQ charity Rainbow Railroad in Toronto, saying "trans kids need to feel safe, not targeted by politicians."

"We're seeing that angry, hateful rhetoric rise on our continent, particularly targeting trans people," he said. 

"Far-right political actors are trying to outdo themselves with the types of cruelty and isolation they can inflict on these already vulnerable people. Right now, trans kids in New Brunswick are being told they don't have the right to be their true selves, that they need to ask permission."

He called on the crowd to stand against the policy and said Canada is committed to protecting the rights of LGBTQ people, but he did not specify what his government intends to do or if it plans to intervene. A spokesperson from his office referred questions to to the Department of Women and Gender Equality.

Official Languages Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, who represents a Moncton riding, called the decision appalling. 

"As we were participating in the Pride flag raising this morning on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the New Brunswick government was taking away rights from 2SLGBTQI+ people," she said in a tweet Thursday evening. 

Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan, who is gay, tweeted, "Not every kid is free to be who they are at home. Let’s make school a safe place for those kids."

Randy Boissonnault, who is also gay, weighed in to say the policy is putting lives at risk. "I cannot fully express my anger and disappointment in the N.B. (government)."

Asked about the policy on Friday at a press conference in Toronto, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said, "I'll let provinces make decisions about their education system."

In an open letter released on Friday, senators Kim Pate and René Cormier called it a "regression of rights for 2SLGBTQI+ students," and noted that provinces are subject to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as their own human rights legislation.

"As legislators, we believe that any legislative, regulatory or policy approach should at all times aim to advance rights rather than limit them. In 2020, Policy 713 was implemented to do just that," the letter reads. 

"We must not strip students of their right to non-discrimination and safe learning environments."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2023.

— With files from Hina Alam in Fredericton

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press

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