Chants of “leave the kids alone” were met with counter-protesters’ chants of “protect trans kids” outside the Manitoba Legislature on Wednesday, as hundreds took part in the “1 Million March 4 Children” protest against LGBTQ-inclusive education and sex ed policies in schools.
Separate protests took place in other communities across Canada, including in Brandon, Steinbach, Winkler and Dauphin. There were two in Winnipeg, including one at city hall and one that started at The Forks.
Tensions rose as the group at The Forks marched to the legislature grounds, where they met counter-protesters. Police stood between the two groups as the Winnipeg Police Service’s helicopter circled above.
“We have to pick a side,” said protester Carol McGann, 68.
“What I am against is children being indoctrinated, children making decisions and choices based on an adult coming into … a school system,” she said.
She raised concerns young people will make decisions to seek transition care, such as hormone replacement therapy or gender-affirming surgery, “before they are mature enough.”
Youth must obtain parental consent and a referral from a health-care professional in order to access the sole clinic in Manitoba that provides gender-affirming care for those under 16. Some experts and advocates say a lack of access to such care can put trans and non-binary youth at risk of potentially life-threatening mental health challenges.
At similar protests across Canada on Wednesday, some parents and socially conservative groups argued LGBTQ-inclusive education and sex ed policies in the classroom and in extracurricular settings contravene “parental rights.”
But critics and researchers say the term is a misnomer, because it doesn’t address the rights and concerns of LGBTQ parents or parents of LGBTQ children.
The counter-protest at the Manitoba Legislature was “about showing up for youth,” said Laura Wiebe, a University of Manitoba social work student and LGBTQ representative in her faculty.
“I don’t know if I would be here if it wasn’t for my community and people showing me that I can be who I feel inside, and that there’s a safe space for me.”
Counter-protester Keegan Vergara, who like Wiebe is queer and an LGBTQ representative for the University of Manitoba social work students’ association, grew up experiencing “lots of hate and bullying” in grade school.
“Being queer was never something that was ever talked about so I had no understanding of what these feelings were I was experiencing. All I knew is that they were bad because this was just being thrown at me by other kids,” said Vergara, 21.
“Now they’re bringing these discussions into the classrooms and they’re providing space for youth to navigate these feelings without the worries of repercussion that I had, and without having to worry about internalizing these feelings of self-hatred and isolation. So that’s what today is about.”
The countrywide protests follow policies enacted in some parts of Canada already, including Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, that require parents to give consent before educators can refer to students by pronouns and names other than those they were born with.
Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative Party has also made “parental rights” a facet of their re-election campaign.
When asked about the issue late last month, PC Leader Heather Stefanson said she feels parents should be informed by schools in the event a student expresses a different gender identity than they were assigned at birth.
“Parents know what’s best, in the best interest of their kids, but that will all be part of the consultation process,” Stefanson said in a scrum after an Aug. 17 campaign announcement.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew on Wednesday accused the PCs of creating division through election advertising on parental rights.
Syrian Winnipegger Mohamed Hayik, who was among the crowd at The Forks that included many children, said he’s concerned school curriculum could influence young people to seek gender-affirming surgery. That would go against his religious beliefs, said Hayik, who has a two-year-old son.
“[If] the kids want to be like something they want, it’s not the right time for them to make a decision,” said Hayik.
Masroor Ansari, who identified himself as a grandparent,, also cited his religious beliefs as a Muslim, saying kids “should not be taught the sex-changing material.”
But counter-protester Theo Robinson, a transgender Anglican Church pastor in Manitoba’s Interlake, said there is a reason young people sometimes come out at school before doing so at home.
“The reason why kids are doing that at school and not at home is likely because the house isn’t safe, so now they’re trying to make laws where the teachers are forced to out [the kids to] their parents,” he said.
Robinson said he wanted to get involved after hearing about segments of the “1 Million March 4 Children” advancing “anti-queer, anti-trans” messaging.
He said as a pastor, his message to those who justify their position by saying “the Bible says this is wrong, God says this is wrong” is that “each of us are a child of God.”
“We’re all wonderfully made in the image of God and we are supposed to be loving each other,” he said. “Jesus called us to love each other, to love our neighbour, to love our enemies.”
This spring, Lorraine Hackenschmidt and others attended a Brandon School Division Board of Trustees meeting calling for the removal of “trangender books” from school libraries.
At the protest in Brandon Wednesday, she reiterated concerns about the public school curriculum.
“Some parents can’t afford to homeschool.… I am really feeling for the parents and the children,” she said.
“Most of us here, we have family, we have friends that are of the LGBTQ belief…. It breaks our heart.”
In Winnipeg’s Seven Oaks School Division, superintendent Brian O’Leary sent a letter to parents of children who missed school Wednesday, raising concerns “that misinformation is penetrating our communities.”
“We want to ensure our all members of our community our focus is always on safety, inclusion and human rights for all,” he wrote in the letter, which was posted to social media.