Sask. government uses notwithstanding clause to table Parents’ Bill of Rights

Premier Scott Moe speaks to media at the Coronet Hotel in Prince Albert in April 2023. – Michael Oleksyn/Daily Herald

The Saskatchewan government has tabled a policy requiring parental consent for children to change their gender identification or be involved in sex education in schools.

The province invoked the notwithstanding clause to introduce the Parents’ Bill of Rights on Thursday.

The bill outlines a number of parents’ rights in their children’s education. If the student is under the age of 16, parental consent is required for teachers and other employees to use a change of name or pronouns related to preferred gender identities.

It also allows parents to withdraw their children from sexual health presentations. The bill outlines that parents must be informed of the content and dates in which sex education will be presented to students at least two weeks prior.

“It brings parents into the lives of children. That’s who’s best able to support children through difficult conversations and difficult decisions,” said Education Minister Jeremy Cockrill during Thursday’s question period.

The policy, which was announced in August, has received criticism from Prince Albert Pride. In a statement, the organization said it “strongly opposes the use of the notwithstanding clause to implement policies that harm trans students and limit comprehensive education.”

“We believe in inclusive, safe environments for all students that respect their dignity and rights,” it said.

The statement pointed to comments made by the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour that the policy is “dangerous and desperate” and “a threat to all worker rights and all Charter rights.”

“Using the notwithstanding clause tells transphobic people that they don’t have to be scared to be transphobic. Many in our community have been experiencing this rise in hate in the past month and a half. This hate will continue to grow and lead to dire consequences,” said Prince Albert Pride.

Just two weeks ago, a Regina judge granted an injunction that halted the policy until it was further argued in court. In his written decision, Justice Michael Megaw said the injunction was necessary to prevent any “irreparable harm.”

In response, Premier Scott Moe recalled the legislature early to invoke the notwithstanding clause.

The notwithstanding clause allows governments to override certain sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, shielding the law from “judicial invalidation.” The clause cannot be used on the grounds that it violates democratic rights, mobility rights, or minority language rights.

Moe said the Parents’ Bill of Rights reaffirms what is already happening in many school divisions.

“That’s the belief of this government, is that we are going to provide every opportunity to include parents in their child’s school, in their child’s classroom, in their child’s education,” he said.

Cockrill pointed to comments from Stacy Lair, the North East School Division’s director of education based in Melfort.

“Our administrative policy to consult with parents regarding family life and human sexuality is in line with the minister’s request,” said Lair, which Cockrill read in the legislature.

“Regarding the consent of name changes, we believe trusting relationships with students do not come at the cost of infringing on the trust of parents.”

The bill also includes parents in other school practices, such as being informed of disciplinary action, making decisions on which courses their children are enrolled in, and having access to their school files.

Neil Finch, the director of education for the Saskatchewan Rivers Public School Division, said he needed time to review the details of the new legislation.

“I haven’t had time to digest what’s all in there, and we’ll need time to see what it means for us on the operational side of things and how we communicate with parents,” he said.

The Herald has reached out to the Prince Albert Catholic School Division for comment.

A protest against the use of the notwithstanding clause is set to take place next week at the Prince Albert exhibition grounds, where the local Premier’s Dinner is being held.

Sask. Party using controversial policy to avoid accountability, says NDP

The Opposition NDP called the Parents’ Bill of Rights a “smokescreen” to avoid accountability for crises such as the lack of mental health resources.

Leader Carla Beck called for the same urgency to these issues as the pronoun policy.

“Too many people in this province are falling through the gaps because the government doesn’t care about the issues that matter most. The supports aren’t there. These are the real emergencies we should be debating,” she said.

A news release included statistics from the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years, which suggest that counsellors have increased by .7 positions, but psychologists have decreased by 1.9 positions.

For the same time period, teachers have decreased by 66.1 positions, while Kindergarten to Grade 12 enrolment has increased by 3,840 students.

Sarah McKenzie lost her 14-year-old child, Bee, to suicide. Bee changed their name after coming out as non-binary in 2021, according to the release.

“This is not just a crisis – it’s an epidemic. There is a system failure and instead of talking about that, the government is trying to divide us with smokescreens to avoid taking accountability and action,” said McKenzie.

“What happened to my child and so many others should not be happening.”

– with files from Nicole Goldsworthy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter/SaskToday