Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s comments at a Monday, Aug. 28, 2023 news conference have caused a stir among concerned parents and 2SLGTBQIA+ advocates.
The minister was in Thornhill to announce new curriculum changes for the upcoming school year and discuss the tentative agreement recently reached with the secondary school teachers’ union to continue negotiating and avoid a strike, pending a vote by union members. When Lecce took questions, he was asked about policy changes in other provinces that require parental consent for students to use different pronouns at school.
An unidentified reporter asked Lecce, “Will Ontario bring in policies like we’ve seen in New Brunswick and now Saskatchewan to require that parents be informed if their children change gender identity at school?”
For example, as the result of a recent policy change in New Brunswick, teachers in that province are barred from using a student’s preferred pronouns without parental permission. In Saskatchewan, due to a controversial change in policy this month, parental consent is required when children under 16 want to use different names or pronouns (than those assigned at birth) at school.
Lecce began by saying, “Look, I think it’s important to note that every school must be safe for every child. I think we understand, though, that parents must be fully involved and fully aware of what’s happening in the [lives] of their children.”
“I mean, often there are health implications,” the minister continued. “And I think we have to respect the rights of parents recognizing that these can be life-changing decisions, and I think parents want to be involved so that they can support their kids. And I think that’s a really important principle that we must uphold.”
Since the original question about policy had not been answered, Lecce was pressed further: “Are you going to require it, then, with legislation?”
Lecce answered, “We’re simply making clear, as a province, that we believe parents should be fully involved, fully aware of what’s happening to their children… These are significant changes and they have a right to know, and so we would expect school boards to be transparent with parents, as we always have.”
However, given the reality that not all youth have supportive families and safe home lives, Lecce was asked if he could respond to criticism that a policy requiring parental permission puts some 2SLGBTQIA+ students at risk, especially those who have not come out to family in situations that are hostile toward them.
Lecce acknowledged this, saying, “This is why I lead with the recognition that safety must prevail: the safety of the child, both at home and in school.”
Then with uncharacteristic praise of educators, Lecce put the onus for those children’s safety in their hands: “Where there are exceptional circumstances, where there can be situations of potential harm to a child, educators are well versed on exactly what to do and who to turn to if they believe that child may be harmed for whatever reason, or whatever circumstance.”
“We will always safeguard the right of children to be safe and will always ensure that that is the case,” he went on. “Educators do amazing work to recognize the signs and the changes in behaviour and energy and attitude [of their students]. They really do wear many hats, and we’re grateful for what they do. There’s a well-established protocol to ensure the safety of children, and I have every confidence that, [as] has been the case for many years, [they] will continue to leverage those protocols if they believe something potentially could put the child at risk.”
However, he qualified, “As an overarching value system I really do believe that parents need to be fully aware and fully engaged, and school boards need be transparent with with parents. I mean, [parents] are the legal guardians. They love their kids. They want to be aware of what’s happening in the [lives] of their children in their schools. And I think it is really important that they know.”
Once again the reporter questioned, for the sake of clarity, if that meant that while Lecce supported parents being told about students changing pronouns, there was no official provincial policy requiring schools to report on this to parents.
Lecce side-stepped, saying, “School boards will have policies; I’m just affirming to you the province’s position on the matter, quite clearly, which is: parents have a right to know, and we will respect parental rights. We think boards must do the same.”
Kingstonist has inquired with local school boards about whether they employ policies around gender diversity and different pronoun choices. A follow-up article on that matter can be expected in the coming days.
Clover, a local non-binary teen, expressed concern, saying, “Ontario and other provinces’ new proposed pronoun rules in schools raise important points. As a 16-year-old non-binary student, I believe it’s worth discussing the aspect of requiring parental permission. While parental involvement matters, we must acknowledge that not all LGBTQ+ students have supportive families.”
Clover pointed out, “Sharing pronouns is pivotal for personal expression and validation” and stated that “forcing parental permission” might negatively impact the emotional well-being of those in “unsupportive environments. We need to strive for a solution that values identity and safeguards everyone’s emotional health.”
Greater Napanee Pride (GNP), in a statement, acknowledged that Lecce recognized ”in exceptional circumstances, where there’s a risk of harm to the child, educators and school boards areequipped to handle the situation judiciously. However, he firmly believes that, as a general principle, parents, being the legal guardians, should be fully aware and engaged in their child’s school experiences.”
“These comments make the 2SLGBTQIA+ community nervous,” the statement read, “and we must continue to monitor the situation and pressure the government to do the right thing. Anti-trans rhetoric has led to extreme policies across the country and the world.”
The GNP statement was gracious in acknowledging that Lecce “was expressing empathy and optimistic hope that parents will be engaged and supportive of their children while encouraging teachers to use sound judgment to protect children at risk. We have no reason to believe that his answer to a press question will lead to unnecessary and uncalled-for policy at this time.”
However, the statement continues, “The truth is that trans students have existed in schools for decades, and [pronoun usage] was never an issue.”
GNP put the blame for the issue on “a small subset of extreme-right people,” saying, “Historically, we have witnessed countless dehumanizing narratives from extremist news sites and social media. First, against the BIPOC community, then offensive equivalences questioning same-sex marriages, and then the derogatory term ‘illegal aliens.’ The focus has shifted to the trans community, with harmful commentary such as referring to trans people as ‘it’ or spreading the absurd ‘litter box’ rumours. Dehumanizing language leads to a dangerous normalization of prejudice.”
“Our responsibility,” notes GNP, “Is to challenge and counteract these narratives and call on government bodies to step up and shield our trans and 2-spirit community members.”
Kingstonist reached out to Kingston Pride for comment on this matter, but no response was received by time of publication.