Sask. Human Rights commissioner resigns over school pronoun policy

Richard Marjan/Saskatoon StarPhoenix Paralympian and Saskatchewan Human Rights Commissioner Heather Kuttai speaks at the height adjustable podium on April 6, 2010 in Saskatoon.

Alec Salloum

Regina Leader-Post

A Saskatchewan Human Rights commissioner has resigned following the provincial government’s decision to utilize the notwithstanding clause to pass a policy mandating teachers attain parental consent before using a student’s preferred name and pronouns at school.

In a letter announcing her resignation effective immediately, Heather Kuttai, one of six human rights commissioners in Saskatchewan, said the decision did not come lightly, but to her, the policy itself is “an attack on the rights of trans, nonbinary, and gender diverse children.”

“A child’s rights must always take precedence over a parent’s obligations and responsibilities,” said Kuttai.

“My first concern is that this (bill) is going to hurt kids.”

Speaking shortly after submitting her resignation, Kuttai said it was a hard letter to write.

“What drove me to this is, my husband and I have a kid who’s trans.”

Regardless of that connection, she said she would have been against the policy but “being a parent makes it a bigger issue for us.”

Kuttai said she remembers seeing her son struggle, seeing how he wrestled with coming out even though he thought his parents would be supportive.

“I can’t be a good citizen of this province, I can’t be a commissioner that defends human rights, I can’t be the mother — a good mother — to a trans kid if I just sit by and let this happen,” said Kuttai.

Kuttai was appointed to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission (SHRC) in 2014. According to SHRC she is an author, disability advocate, and human rights activist. In 2021, she was awarded Lifetime Achievement Award from the University of Saskatchewan “her accomplishments and contributions to the social, cultural and economic well-being of society.”

She said even with the household she had, even though she and her husband were supportive of their child, coming out was “terrifying for them.”

When it came to supporting her son as he changed his name and came out as transgender Kuttai said “it came down to a life and death decision. I don’t want to be scared about him not wanting to be around in this world anymore.”

“You choose your child, above all things,” she said. But when it came time for her child to first confide in someone and seek support, school was the first place he went.

“If they don’t feel safe there I don’t know where they can go,” said Kuttai. “I hate to think of what would have happened if he had not had that support.”

In her letter, Kuttai said this “is something I cannot be a part of, and I will not be associated with a provincial government that takes away the rights of children, especially vulnerable children.”

Leader of the Opposition Carla Becks, speaking Monday afternoon, recognized Kuttai “for her courage,” while calling upon the government to pause its implementation of the bill.

“This is a province that once led the country when it came to human rights. The first Bill of Rights was here in Saskatchewan in 1947. Today unfortunately, the province is going to make news because of this government pulling us backwards,” said Beck. “It’s time for sober second thought. It’s time to pull away from their agenda to ram through this bill as quickly as possible.”

On Monday afternoon Jeremy Cockrill, minister of education, said he was not aware of the resignation.

“I don’t know about that specific commissioner, so I can’t speak to what that says,” Cockrill said when asked what it meant that a human rights commissioner would resign in the face of this policy.

Despite the resign, Cockrill said he is still “comfortable with where we’re at with this piece of legislation,” maintaining that his government has “heard from many Saskatchewan individuals, parents, grandparents, families, even educators that are supportive of this direction.”

The policy, Bill 137, specifically uses the notwithstanding clause with respect to sections 4, 5 and 13 of the Saskatchewan Human Rights code. The clause has historically been a rarely-used provision of the Charter that allows governments to override certain sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for up to five years.

Kuttai said the policy puts teachers in a position where refusing to call a student by their preferred pronoun and name is tantamount to bullying, saying it can cause harm to the students.

“If this proposed legislation is enacted, using the notwithstanding clause, Saskatchewan will no longer be a place that takes care of all its kids,” she wrote.

“I cannot tell you the depth of my disappointment in the government I have worked for and supported for the last nine years.”