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Sask. teachers prepare to navigate new name, pronoun policy as school year begins

Teachers in Saskatchewan now have to report to parents or guardians every time a student wants to change their name or pronouns at school, but the repercussions for not following those rules remain hazy.

Consequences for those who don’t follow policy still unclear

Two signs in the air above a crowd of people. One reads Kids have a right to privacy and autonomy. The second read I'd rather a trans kid than a dead kid, acceptance saves lives

Before a typical school year, Regina elementary school teacher Steve Boutilier's mind is filled with lesson plans and hopes for his new class. But this September, that's overshadowed with uncertainty about how best to support his transgender and non-binary students.

Two weeks ago, then-education minister Dustin Duncan announced several new policies in schools throughout Saskatchewan. That includes students under 16 needing permission from their parent or guardian to change their name or pronouns at school. Consent is not required for students 16 or older.

Under the minister's directive, teachers are now obligated to inform the student's family of these changes, regardless of whether they have permission from the student. That doesn't sit well with Boutilier.

"In my mind, that's the kid's information to share," he said.

The new policy "has made the return to school for many students feel less safe. And it's created a division before the students have even returned to the building."

The province told CBC News in a statement that it's up to local school divisions to ensure their staff complies with the policy.

"The Ministry of Education is committed to working with school divisions on implementing this policy and any challenges that may arise in implementing it," the statement said.

"It is the Ministry of Education's expectation that the policy is followed, and parents should notify their local school division if there is an instance where it hasn't been."

Despite classes starting this week, some school divisions tell CBC News they're still looking for clarity from the province on the policy directive. Others declined to comment on how they plan to enforce the changes, citing the ongoing court action.

Court challenge

In the wake of the ministry's announcement, the University of Regina's Pride Centre for Sexuality and Gender Diversity and Egale Canada filed an application against the provincial government. It says the policy violates the rights of gender-diverse students under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Lawyers from both sides are expected in court on Tuesday.

The Saskatchewan School Boards Association has also stepped in, saying school divisions were not consulted about the changes and requested the policies be paused pending a review — something Premier Scott Moe said last week he is not considering.

"This isn't a policy that was dreamt up by a couple of elected members. This is a policy that many, if not all, of the government caucus MLAs have had discussions with parents, and ultimately with constituents, over the course of the last number of years — not just the course of the last number of months," Moe told reporters after announcing Battlefords MLA Jeremy Cockrill would be replacing Duncan as education minister.

Cockrill will be tasked with overseeing the implementation of this policy.

"If you have a child that is looking to transition, looking to identify by a different name or pronoun, that parent is, I think, in the best position to help support that child not only just at school but in all aspects of their life," Cockrill said last week.

When asked about children who may not feel safe disclosing a wish to be called by a different name or pronoun, Cockrill said the province will "make sure that in the implementation plans with the 27 school divisions that there are supports offered to those students."

'Goal is never secrecy': Teacher

Boutilier, who's been teaching for more than a decade, said he and many of his fellow educators have been supporting students in their gender identity journeys for years.

"The first thing that I would do if a kid told me they wanted to use different pronouns is I'd ask them, 'Do your parents know?' … And if the answer is no, then we unpack that conversation and see if we can find a way to reconcile that or find a way to make that possible. And if that's not the case, then we would involve either the school counselor or larger support systems in order to make sure they're getting the support they need," he explained.

"The goal is never secrecy. The goal is always the safety and the well-being of the child."

Manmeet Singh, a Regina father of two, said the well-being of his daughters is top of mind for him when he advocates in favour of the policy.

"Parents are responsible for their children up until the age of 18 when they can leave the house," Singh told CBC News.

"I am involved in their life financially, emotionally and I'm going to be there for them through their early years. Why should I not be the one holding their hand, guiding them, rather than [teachers] doing it for me?"

Boutilier said he sees many parents rooting for the new policy are largely coming from a place of compassion, but he noted that's not the case for all students.

"I totally understand the perspective of the importance of the parental relationship. But we need to acknowledge that not every parental relationship is created equal and we need to create policy that allows for that," he said.

LISTEN | CBC Radio host Stefani Langenegger talks with former education minister Dustin Duncan after the announcement:

The Morning Edition – Sask17:02Sask. education minister talks new policy requiring schools to get parental permission for pronoun changes

The province's education minister is making some changes ahead of the new school year. Dustin Duncan will require schools to get parental consent if a child under 16 wants to be called a different name — or have different pronouns used. Host Stefani Langenegger talks with education minister Dustin Duncan.

Keeping queer educators safe

Even with a loving and accepting family, Mike Megenbir said it took him more than 30 years to tell them he was two-spirit.

"No one could have forced me to do it. I had to do it when I was ready — I had to be ready in my head," he said.

"And now, that may not be happening for some students."

Megenbir — a former Regina elementary school teacher who's now working toward his masters in counseling and mental health therapy at the First Nations University of Canada — said in the aftermath of this policy announcement, he'd be nervous returning to school this fall as both an educator and student.

Having come out at school while teaching a few years ago, Megenbir said having a positive work environment was integral for him to feel open about his true identity. Now, he fears that won't be the case for others in Saskatchewan schools.

"We [teachers] need to keep ourselves safe, but keeping the kids safe is just as important," he said.

WATCH | Teacher who came out at school inspires students and colleagues to live their truths:

Michael Megenbir's coming out story inspires students and colleagues

2 years ago

Duration 4:57

Regina teacher who came out publicly as transgender while teaching didn't expect how his openness about his identity would pave the way for further inclusion in schools

As a Regina high school teacher who's openly gay and uses he/they pronouns, both of those thoughts have crossed Brendan Dickie's mind.

"I feel far more uncomfortable now even saying my own pronouns in a classroom because there's this platform of hate now that kids have. And if there's a child who's transphobic or homophobic, they can essentially now use that against other people in the building without any consequences because it's almost like invalidating those identities," they explained.

Consider teachers, students: STF

The Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation said it stands behind educators who are against the province's new rules.

"The government's message with this policy is strictly about parents; they haven't really taken any anyone else into consideration," said STF president Samantha Becotte in a news conference last Thursday.

"While parents are an important part of education, students are always our number one as a federation and teachers are our priority, so we want to make sure they are supported. And it's the underlying message that comes with some of these changes that are harmful to not just students but teachers as well."

While he's still unsure how he plans to navigate the new policy this upcoming school year, Dickie said that he'll find a way to keep validating his students — and he knows he's not the only one.

"A lot of teachers have built their careers on being welcoming and supportive," he said.

"It's not that we're trying to wrestle away this authority from parents, it's just that we want to be able to support those kids."

Boutilier said one way he plans to back gender-diverse students this school year is by raising a three foot by five foot transgender flag in his classroom.

"I hope that they feel that it's a space where all people are welcome," he said.

"I'm making it very clear: acceptance and inclusion are the way — and the path forward."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessie Anton

Journalist

Jessie Anton is a Regina-based journalist with CBC Saskatchewan. She began sharing stories from across the province on television, radio and online in 2016, after getting her start in the rural weekly newspaper world. Email her at jessie.anton@cbc.ca.

With files from Janani Whitfield and Adam Hunter

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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