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As conservative politicians follow public opinion on pronoun policies, the two sides are speaking different languages

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In a matter of months the New Brunswick government has gone from lonely pariah to trendsetter in the debate over the rights of parents to be informed when their child changes his or her pronouns or gender identity at school.

Since New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs started fighting for his political life over a policy to notify parents about these issues, the provincial governments of Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Manitoba have publicly announced they support those rights, attracting both praise and criticism.

Perhaps more importantly, the more recent announcements have followed several polls indicating the majority of respondents of all age groups support a parent’s right to be informed about a child changing his or her pronouns. Following one such poll from the Angus Reid Institute, federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has also stated that schools should leave conversations about LGBTQ issues with children to parents.

Mitch Heimpel, the director of campaigns and government relations at Enterprise Canada, says parents became far more familiar with teacher-student relationships during the COVID-19 pandemic when remote learning was the norm. 

“Parents now have an understanding of what is going on at their kids’ school versus what they thought was going on at their kids’ school, and that has, across the political spectrum, raised alarm bells,” says Heimpel. 

This slew of announcements in favour of parents’ rights by provincial governments was preceded by New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs’ government, which made national headlines in June when it revised its policies to mandate that parents be informed if their child changes their pronouns. 

New Brunswick Teachers’ Association president Peter Lagacy called the Higgs government’s moves “unfortunate,” and urged it to reconsider its stance. 

Michael Zwaagstra, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and a public high school teacher in Manitoba says a union’s leadership will not always reflect the feelings of all teachers. He also says that those who do choose to run for leadership positions within a union tend to be progressive, which is reflected in their opposition to enhanced parental rights. 

“Teachers don’t all have the same opinion on this, and that’s fine,” says Zwaagstra. “When a teacher’s union president gives a position on this, don’t assume they’re speaking on behalf of all teachers.” 

Zwaagstra worries about a decline in public school enrollment if teachers’ unions and progressive politicians push back against parental rights if polls suggest they are supported by the vast majority of Canadians. 

“It’s one of the fastest ways to undermine public education, by creating this default setting where there’s no trust between school and the community,” says Zwaagstra. 

Former Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne criticized both the Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce and Pierre Poilievre on X, formerly known as Twitter, for their statements regarding parental rights, accusing them of harbouring transphobia and homophobia. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also publicly opposed the policy decisions taken by New Brunswick’s government in June. Every government that has legislated or spoken in favour of parental rights has thus far been led by conservative premiers, who currently govern all but two of Canada’s 10 provinces.

Heimpel says many progressives who oppose a parent’s right to know if their child changes their pronouns, as proposed by those provincial governments, have been caught off guard by the broad public consensus in favour of those rights. After several decades of progress on other issues like marriage equality, Heimpel says many progressives believed that gender identity was part of the same playbook. 

“Obviously, there are complicating factors here whenever you take a group of people, especially parents, and you start involving very young children in the public policy debate in terms of how they should be educated, the values they should be taught, the information they should be given, and the maturity level at which they’re able to process that information,” says Heimpel. 

The Angus Reid Institute poll released this week showed an overwhelming 78 percent of respondents believed that parents should be informed about their child’s change of pronouns, while 43 percent believed parents must also provide consent to such a change.The Angus Reid Institute conducted an online survey from July 26-31, 2023 among a representative randomized sample of 3,016 Canadian adults who are members of Angus Reid Forum. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/- 1.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.. This follows a June poll from Leger which found 57 percent of respondents believed parents should be informed in the same situationAn online survey of 1,523 Canadians aged 18+ was completed between May 5 and 7, 2023 using Leger’s online panel. For comparative purposes, a probability sample of 1,523 respondents would have a margin of error of ±2.5 percent, 19 times out of 20.

Heimpel does not believe there will ever be a bipartisan consensus on the issue of gender identity in schools and parental rights. 

“The two sides are speaking in entirely different values languages,” says Heimpel. 

Darryl and Milena Weinberg are co-founders of School Pods, which they describe as a Canadian organization that is a hybrid between a homeschool co-op, a mini-school, and a private school. The Weinbergs are also skeptical of there ever being a consensus regarding pronouns, gender identity, and schools. 

“I don’t think at this point that too many people are going to be changing their minds on just about anything. I think the days of rational dialogue and civil debate are over,” says Darryl Weinberg. 

Zwaagstra says that communication with parents, on all issues, is one of the keys to a good education.  

“The purpose of schools is to serve communities, and to educate students and obviously to provide information to parents,” says Zwaagstra. “I’ve always felt that on any topic, you have to have maximum communication and openness between the school and the home.” 

Housing experts have presented Trudeau’s ministers with a plan to tackle affordability, but will the government listen?

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Housing experts and affordability advocates presented a plan to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet during its summer retreat this week that outlined how the federal government can take decisive action to address Canada’s worsening affordability crisis.

Western University professor and economist Mike Moffatt and Tim Richter, president & CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, were the most high-profile experts asked to present a housing plan to the cabinet in Charlottetown.

Moffatt, earlier this week in an exclusive for The Hub that laid out his message to cabinet, wrote that a “wartime effort” from the federal government will be required to tackle the affordability crisis, and that it must begin without further delay.

“We should view this strategy as an investment, not a cost, as the economic opportunities are enormous,” wrote Moffatt. “The key to this industrial strategy working is speed. The federal government must avoid setting up new approvals processes and micromanaging the system.”

Following the conclusion of the retreat, Richter, in an interview with The Hub, says he is bullish on the prospects of a federal government plan to address the sharply declining affordability of owning or renting homes across Canada. 

“I think the fact we were there is a pretty good indication that they’re receptive to our ideas,” says Richter.

It was reported following the cabinet retreat’s conclusion that the federal government still lacks a national housing strategy despite Richter and Moffatt’s presentation, leading to more criticism that the government is not serious about taking on the affordability crisis. However, Richter says it is unfair to have expected such a plan to be crafted in less than three days.

“Frankly, politicians at all levels have really been struggling to figure out what to do about the housing crisis,” says Richter. “This is a trillion-dollar problem, with a ton of complexity and they’re not going to whip together a plan in 72 hours. That said, I don’t think they have a lot of time and are going to have to put some new policy forward in the next month or two.” 

While Richter could not fully divulge his conversations with cabinet, he says he is hopeful that the government will try to get more involved in alleviating the crisis. 

“I can’t talk about the cabinet conversations directly, but I get the sense they are really seeing housing as a crisis they need to respond to quickly and with more ambition than they’ve shown to date,” says Richter. 

Experts, analysts, and others routinely appear before televised parliamentary committees to testify on issues ranging from foreign electoral interference to social media regulation, but bringing in outside experts to a cabinet retreat to provide input into the housing issue specifically reinforces how salient it has become for this government.

Polling has suggested that affordability is top of mind for many Canadian voters, and other polls conducted in recent weeks have that displayed Trudeau’s Liberals are trailing behind the Conservatives by a wide margin. 

Whether the government follows through on the discussed proposals is another matter. The cabinet retreat itself is private and subject to cabinet confidence which create a different dynamic than when experts testify before parliamentary committees. The biggest, according to J.J. McCullough, a Vancouver-based columnist and professional YouTuber, is that cabinet isn’t televised so there isn’t the same incentive for politicians to be performative.

“When you don’t have the cameras on you, you’re not scoring any sort of partisan points,” says McCullough. “No member of the public is able to engage with the performance one way or another, so I think it’s a reason to be positive about it.” 

Many televised parliamentary committee sessions have devolved into abrasive back-and-forths between witnesses and the MPs, including McCullough’s testimony last year that was critical of the government’s push to regulate social media platforms like YouTube. 

However, McCullough remains skeptical that the federal government will alter its approach to receiving testimony, even without any cameras. 

“Are the politicians engaged in a good faith effort to serve a broad range of opinions that may exist on any issue, or are they carefully curating favourable experts who tell them what they want to hear?” asks McCullough. “And, when they go ahead and do what they were going to do anyway, they can say in a disingenuous way, ‘Oh, well, we surveyed the relevant experts and they all agree with us that this was a good thing to do.’”  

Trudeau came under fire prior to the cabinet retreat after he stated that housing is not a primary federal responsibility and put the onus on the provinces instead. The federal government’s current efforts to alleviate the crisis, such as special, tax-free savings accounts for young people to put away money for a downpayment, have been called insufficient to meet the challenge.  

Richter expects housing to play a major role in the federal government’s annual fall economic statement and says he will be “badgering” them if Ottawa does not stay in touch about a housing strategy.

“With every passing day more and more people are being pushed into homelessness,” says Richter. “As we get near the end of the month and closer to rent being due, I’m kept awake at night worrying about those people and the thousands of people languishing in shelters or on the street. The government needs to feel that same urgency.”