Education

“I couldn’t be complicit”: Why one Saskatchewan teacher is protesting the province’s pronoun law

“I was less afraid of the consequences of signing my name than the consequences of not signing it.”

(Photograph by Michael Bell/Canadian Press)

In October, after 40 hours of debate and weeks of controversy, the Saskatchewan government passed Bill 137, a law that prevents children under 16 from changing their preferred name or pronoun at school without the consent of a parent. Premier Scott Moe insisted that the legislation, also known as the Parents’ Bill of Rights, wasn’t intended to target any particular group, but rather to help parents stay involved in their child’s lives. Backlash was swift, from opposition members, human-rights advocates, lawmakers, and the group responsible for calling home: teachers.

By November, several Regina-based educators had mounted an online petition, calling the Moe government’s law transphobic and a violation of Charter rights and calling on school divisions (or boards) not to follow it. Their letter, they said, was a message of solidarity to trans youth. Alex Schmidt, an elementary school teacher based in Regina, was an early signatory of the petition, which has amassed 120 signatures to date. Here, she discusses her decision to dissent, the potential harms of pronoun laws and why she’s willing to risk her job to protect her students.


How long have you been a teacher? What do you love most about your job?

This is my eighth year. Right now, I’m teaching Grades 3 and 4—core subjects like English, math and social studies. I was saying today how much I like this age. You can get into deeper concepts with them, but they still really want to listen. That doesn’t always happen as kids get older.

The Saskatchewan government introduced Bill 137 in the legislature last fall, but there was an awful lot of talk about the ‘pronoun policy’ leading up to its passage. What was your initial reaction to the chatter?

I’m a straight, cis woman, so my experiences with sexual and gender diversity have come through people I know—friends who grew up with me outside of Regina who weren’t out until university, and an uncle who couldn’t be happy and truly himself until he left our community. Because of that, I always wanted to support students in finding their identities, in whatever way they wanted.

When the bill came out, I was working on my master’s degree, and I had just finished a summer course that was specifically about supporting gender- and sexually diverse students in the classroom. Trans youth can have difficulties at school because of their personal identity, which makes it hard for them to succeed as students. Things like microaggressions; teachers, even well-meaning ones, who made them feel different or ‘not enough’; feeling unsafe in bathrooms or changerooms. They need safe spaces. So I was a bit more fired up about the legislation than I might’ve been before that.

READ: This student is stuck in the middle of Canada’s gender policy debate

In Ontario, where I live, the sex-ed curriculum has been a huge battleground for as long as I can remember. Now, everyone’s moved onto pronouns. Do you have a sense of why this issue has caught fire across the country—and why now? 

This kind of othering—using people’s identities as a platform—has always been politically beneficial; it’s just that the targets have changed. We’ve watched parties exaggerate these worries here in Saskatchewan and out in New Brunswick, and people are buying into it. There’s this myth that teachers are pushing some kind of leftist agenda. We’re not telling kids which gender they should be, or telling them to be trans by teaching them about trans identities. A lot of people are uncomfortable talking about these issues, so they’d rather be angry than empathize or investigate. 

How did your colleagues feel about the bill? What was the talk in the staff room?

It fuelled anger in different ways for different people. The news came out a week or two before we were back with the kids, so people were nervous, like,  How do we keep students safe but also still have security in our jobs? Am I being enough of an advocate? Am I still doing enough to protect myself? Some teachers were frustrated that their colleagues weren’t as outraged as they were, and willing to just go along with it. Among my colleagues, the biggest worry was the safety piece. In Regina, we have so many kids in the shelter system who are gender-diverse. In Canada, rates of self-harm and suicide is much higher among youth who are trans—we should never go along with laws and movements that are going to perpetuate them. I just knew that, if there was the potential for harm, I couldn’t be complicit. 

How did you first find out about the petition, and why was it important to you to make your dissent public?

A group of three teachers in Regina wrote it up, then reached out to a few people who they knew would sign it, including me. They wanted to have a certain amount of signatures before they released it. In November, once they got about 20, they put it on Gopetition.com. A lot of people, even though they are allies and against the bill, were too uncomfortable to put their real names on it, so they signed it anonymously. I was less afraid of the consequences of signing my name than the consequences of not signing it.

What specific harms is the petition railing against, exactly?

Priority one is safety for students. If we have a child come to us saying they want to change their pronoun or preferred name, under the new law, we have to speak to a school admin, then sit beside that admin while they call the child’s parents. What happens after that, at home? The other consequence of the bill is that kids could stop coming to me at all. Is turning to a peer, another child, really a safer option? Safer than seeking out an adult who can provide them with resources? 

Have you seen any effects on acceptance and expression at your school already, as a result of the law? 

At the beginning of the semester, we had a really passionate group of students in our gay-straight alliance. A lot of those kids are missing now. When I talk to them about it, I’ll say, “Hey, I missed you at Allies!” which is what we call it. And then they say, “Oh it’s because it’s in a different room now,” or, “I wanted to eat lunch with my friends.” I haven’t had any kids specifically say they’re not attending because of the law, but it’s added the potential for them to be put in unsafe conditions. To be outed. 

In Saskatchewan, the alternate name for Bill 137 is the Parents’ Bill of Rights. The provincial governments that are entertaining or advancing these kinds of laws claim they’re doing so to ensure parents are involved in the lives of their children. Do you think that’s their true motivation?

No teacher is looking to take parents out of the picture. I’m sure there are a lot of parents who need time to process the gender expression of their kids, maybe because of the way they grew up. I understand that. But in this case, the law is saying to children, “You don’t actually have rights anymore, because your parents’ rights are greater.” So until they’re 16, they don’t get the same respect as adults. They don’t get the same room to explore, to know that they and their friends are safe—all because it helps political parties get votes in conservative communities. I can’t handle that.

A lot of the arguments in favour of these laws seem rooted in an entrenched belief that children are mere extensions of their parents. That autonomy is for those who are 18 and up—or, in this case, 16. 

If you think about what age you were when you had your first crush, or how old you were when you started thinking about how you wanted to dress and what suited you, you’ll recognize that those feelings—and the capacity to make those decisions—started very early. Some people think, These kids will be okay because, once they’re 16, this law won’t affect them. They’ll be able to do whatever they want. When I hear that, the academic part of my brain thinks: our developmental years are crucial. If, as a kid, you don’t have room for exploration, or adults in your life who demonstrate unconditional care, that can carry over into your adult years, whether that’s in the form of eating issues or addiction or something else. And if kids aren’t talking to their parents about their gender expression, I’m sure some part of them thinks their parents’ care is conditional. 

Has working with your students given you any insights into how young kids make sense of gender? Is it a huge, scary deal to them in the same way it seems to be for some adults?

One time, we had a CFL player come to read to my class. After they introduced themselves with their name and jersey number, one student raised their hand and asked, “What pronouns do you go by?” I think about that so often, how, a lot of the time, students are ahead of the adults. When you’re five years old, the gender identity of the person you’re playing with doesn’t matter. That mindset continues until someone stops it.

What kind of blowback, if any, have you received from the public since you made your stance known?

When I signed the petition, I didn’t really think that strangers would seek me out; maybe that was naive. I received an anonymous letter that said I was harmful and divisive and a bad teacher. Other messages said I was a groomer and a pedophile and that I should lose my job. Some called me a coward, which was funny, because a lot of that feedback was anonymous.

Well, it’s one thing to support the law in theory, or from the comfort of your keyboard, and another thing entirely to have to be the teacher calling home and potentially outing a student.

I haven’t had to make those calls, but I’ve talked to a couple of teachers who did. I have a close relationship with one of them and we were messaging back and forth. She was incredibly upset. I thought: I know how much she cares about her kids. I could just never do what she just did. It’s unacceptable to put teachers in that position, of having to deal with that guilt. And the people who’ve signed the petition, whether with their names or anonymously, feel the same.

Have you received any sanctions from the school division yet?

Not that I’m aware of. After the petition came out, Premier Moe released a statement that said the consequences for teachers are decided at a school division (or board) level. After that, our division told us things would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. It’s all a bit open-ended, but I think the division is hoping to find ways to support the child first before taking action against teachers. I hope that’s what they do, but I’m not confident enough in that to not have my name on that petition.

Teachers wear so many hats—educator, guardian and, obviously, confidante—but you’re also government employees. What do you wish Canadian politicians, like your premier, understood about the impact of these kinds of laws? And where do things go from here?

I don’t think this law is going to last. There are a lot of people—academics, human-rights groups, protesters, even children—working to make it go away. Mostly, I wish politicians would allow teachers to do their jobs. I wish these governments knew the detriment they were causing. If he wants to see what’s happening, Scott Moe can come and join me in my classroom anytime.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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