Saskatchewan passes school pronoun bill using notwithstanding clause

Kayle Neis/Regina Leader-Post Minister of Education Jeremy Cockrill, Premier Scott Moe and Ministry of Justice and Attorney General Bronwyn Eyre answer questions at a press conference after passing Bill 137 at the Saskatchewan Legislative building on Friday, October 20, 2023 in Regina.

Alec Salloum

Regina Leader-Post

Pre-emptively using the notwithstanding clause, Saskatchewan’s bill requiring parental consent for children under 16 to change their names at school has passed after an emergency session prompted eight days of debate.

The final vote for Bill 137 split 40-12 with all present Saskatchewan Party members and the Saskatchewan United Party’s sole member voting in favour.

Afterwards, Premier Scott Moe said the bill is about “providing parents the right, not the opportunity, to support their child through the formative years of their life and some very important decisions that our children are facing.”

Two notable Sask. Party MLAs were not present for the vote — Don Morgan and Minister of Advanced Education Gordon Wyant.

Moe said he was “100 per cent” confident his absent MLAs were in support of the bill.

On Friday morning, NDP Opposition leader Carla Beck started the day’s proceedings by saying the government “was using its majority to ram through a bill that will sow division and strip vulnerable kids of their rights.”

“It’s undemocratic and it’s shameful,” Beck said.

Debate in the legislative assembly has concerned section 197.4, which requires students under 16 to obtain parental or guardian consent “before the pupil’s teachers and other employees of the school use the pupil’s new gender-related preferred name or gender identity at school.”

There are provisions stating that when getting that consent “is likely to result in physical, mental or emotional harm” to the student then a school principal is to direct students to resources “and assist the pupil in developing a plan to address the pupil’s request with the pupil’s parent or guardian.”

Cockrill said “this legislation is not retroactive.” At the same time, he said the expectation is that teachers follow the Education Act.

“We want to get children comfortable, to at least, where they’re comfortable having a conversation with their parent,” said Cockrill. He said the door was open for school divisions to bring forward “specific situations.”

The NDP Opposition used the full allotment of their 40 hours to discuss the bill. Over the course of the week, a human rights commissioner resigned, the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission (SHRC) issued a statement urging a pause on the legislation, a group of University of Saskatchewan law faculty urged government to allow for the “normal legal process to take its course” and some Regina students held a walkout.

Before the final vote Nicole Sarauer, opposition justice critic, said those 40 hours, while double the normal time for debate, where carried out over a much shorter time. She also said “debate is a loose term here in this province” citing how there has been one entry during the second reading and one entry during third reading.

“This is your legacy,” Saruaer told government.

The NDP almost exclusively used the time to criticize the bill, reading into the record accounts of people affected, citing a justice’s order granting an injunction on the grounds the policy could cause “irreparable harm” to children, questioning the use of the notwithstanding clause and questioning the urgency of the bill.

For the government, there were references to tens of thousands, then thousands of people who were in support of the bill but over the course of the none came and spoke at the Legislature or offered their opinions. A group rallied outside of the Legislative Building on Tuesday of last week, but a much larger group rallied in opposition of the bill.

Moe and the government has been resolute that it would use every tool on its belt to pass the legislation as quickly as possible to avoid confusion in school settings and to make the policy uniform. The government announced its pronoun policy in August. Lawyers representing UR Pride, a Regina LGBTQ organization, sought an injunction until a challenge could be heard in court on the policy.

The injunction was granted and the same day Moe announced his government would use the notwithstanding clause to pass the bill.

Former Minister of Education Dustin Duncan said “these policies were announced in the summer … prior to the school year.”

Moe frequently said similar rules have been in place “by policy or practice” across Saskatchewan before to the bill.

On the penultimate night of debate Matt Love, opposition education critic, brought forward two amendments. Love proposed a “Do No Harm” amendment that would have allowed for an exemption for children “where a mental health professional determines that there is absolutely no way” to develop a safe plan to tell a parent. He also proposed a “Parental Engagement Strategy.”

Both failed.

Eyre said Thursday night that Love “was on his feet for seven hours and never raised the amendment that he just refer to.”

Love replied saying he did stand for seven hours during which he did discuss the parental engagement strategy.

“In teacher language, we call that foreshadowing,” said Love. “Maybe members opposite were too busy watching Netflix and playing Candy Crush.”

“I’m not going to comment on the Netflix issue,” Eyre told reporters earlier in the day.

Throughout the debate, Megaw’s injunction was frequently mentioned. He wrote “there is no indication” that the Ministry of Education “discussed this new Policy with any potential interested parties such as teachers, parents, or students. There is further no indication any expert assistance was enlisted to assist in determining the effect of the Policy.”

Through five hours of debate in committee, Cockrill said there has been considerable input from the public on the bill.

“We’ve heard from tens of thousands of individuals in this province,” said Cockrill. “Whether that be emails, whether that be calls, whether that be petitions, whether that be conversations, as I’ve indicated at grocery stores or hockey games.”

Moe and Cokrill have both stated the policy’s aim is to bring parents closer to their children’s education.

On Thursday afternoon Armin Eashappie, a grade 12 student from Carry the Kettle First Nation, spoke about how he came out to a teacher first because he was afraid his parents would kick him out.

“It took them four years to accept me. In the beginning, they said that I will never be who I was to them,” Eashappie said.

Eashappie said he feels the policy erodes a student’s ability to have a safe space at school. He said he knew when he was five that he was trans, and a teacher was the first person he told.

“If I didn’t have that teacher, I probably would not be here right now.”