Ex-rights commissioner Heather Kuttai reflects on the Sask government’s “shocking” move

Human Rights Report | Gregory Beatty

On Oct. 17, Saskatchewan Human Rights Commissioner Heather Kuttai made the bold decision to resign over her concerns about Bill 137 (the so-called Parental Rights bill) which the government passed after using the Notwithstanding clause to override an interim injunction issued by Justice Michael Megaw over possible Charter violations.

Premier Scott Moe pronounced himself perplexed at Kuttai’s resignation. So for his benefit, and everyone else’s, we reached out to Kuttai to talk about that turbulent time.

Kuttai was appointed Saskatchewan Human Rights commissioner in 2014. Born in North Battleford, she became paraplegic in an automobile accident when she was six. Kuttai competed for Canada in pistol shooting at the Paralympic Summer Games in Seoul (1988) and Barcelona (1992). She holds a Master of Science degree from University of Saskatchewan, and is married with two children.

Has your life experience informed your understanding of human rights, do you think?

I think so. My parents were my first advocates. I give them credit, as they taught me how to do it. Once I started university and got involved in wheelchair sports, the two really intersected to turn me into someone who cared about democracy and human rights.

I grew up not knowing anyone else in a wheelchair. Wheelchair sports gave me a sense of community. I also found a community of other disabled women, more than I found on campus, through books by scholars such as Audre Lorde and her breast cancer journals, Nancy Mairs, people like that.

How do you see human rights fitting into democracy — which has this notion of majority rule?

I feel like democracy and human rights are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. And democracy provides an environment that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms.

How would describe your working relationship with the government during your time in office?

I would say it was neutral, or good — which is what it should be. As commissioners, we are expected to be non-partisan.

What do you think of the process the government went through to enact Bill 137?

I found it shocking that the government pushed it through so quickly, that they didn’t consult with anyone. And they pulled out the Notwithstanding clause, that rarely used provision that overrides parts of the Charter, on the backs of a small group of vulnerable kids. As much as they have tried to soften the policy with words like parental rights, what it is really about is being anti-trans. And I think that should give all citizens of Saskatchewan pause because you have to ask what is next. I worry.

This isn’t taking place in a vacuum. There’s been a huge amount of anti-trans politicking in Trump Republican states down south. And it seems the Sask. Party government is channelling that vibe.

Yeah, I think they want to leverage the voters who might be further right than they usually are so they don’t split that vote.

Could you talk about your real-life experience with the subject covered in Bill 137?

Our son is now 17, and he’s trans. Coming out isn’t like what you see in the movies, where a kid sits down with their family and tells them what’s going on and everyone hugs and life goes on. It’s not like that at all. It goes backwards and sideways, and our son came out in bits to us. He was out to most of his teachers, and his friends, and we all kind of adjusted together.

When they talk about the idea of teachers keeping secrets, that isn’t how it works. I raised two kids, and it was never teachers vs. parents. We were all working together, and you could be as involved as you wanted to be. You could go on field trips, volunteer in the classroom, or set up time to talk to the teacher. Teachers were always open and willing to talk.

I also think there may be another angle. Maybe kids don’t want to tell their parents because their home isn’t safe.  I think a lot of parents will bristle at that, and fair enough. No one wants to be thought of as a bad parent. But it could also be that kids don’t want to tell their parents because they mean the most to them. The last to know in our situation was our son’s grandparents on my husband’s side. We were sworn to not discuss it with them.  We wanted them to know, but every time we brought it up he was terrified and he would shut the conversation down. It wasn’t because they were mean, or it wasn’t safe. He was afraid they would stop loving him because he loved them so much. And I have to wonder if it’s true for other kids.

The truth is his grandparents, in their eighties and leading a pretty conservative, Christian lifestyle, handled our son’s coming out better than we did. We were in the middle of the pandemic, my health needs were high, there was a lot of stress, and that can be true in a lot of families. A kid’s relationship with their parents is complicated. It doesn’t mean the parents are bad if a kid doesn’t want to come out to them first.

What do you think about the government inserting a clause into Bill 137 that protects them from any claim for “loss or damage” resulting from the parental rights policy.

That was surprising to me too, that they would go to such lengths to protect themselves while throwing trans kids under the bus. In my mind, it gives other kids permission to harm trans kids. If the government won’t protect them, and doesn’t care about them, why should anyone else.

I don’t know how common clauses like that are, but it’s like they’re anticipating there will be harm.

Yes, I agree completely. They acknowledge that there is the risk for harm, but they are doing it anyway.

As you mentioned, things can go backwards and sideways. The consensus is youth do best when they have a safe space to explore their identity, and if they are not supported there can be negative effects, including self-harm and youth being forced out of the home to live rough on the street.

It’s very true, our doctors and counsellors have all said that to us.

I found the lack of consultation with teachers particularly striking. This province would be sunk without them, and the burden we are imposing on them is unfair. School councillors will tell us their caseloads are way beyond capacity as it is, so to assume that they will handle the difficult home — I think it’s ridiculous for the government to think that teachers or councillors are going to fix this.

Parental rights kind of sets up a dynamic where children are treated as parents’ property?

Children aren’t citizens in waiting, they are born with rights. They don’t get them when they turn 18, or 16 in this case. But it also tells me what kinds of children are valued in this province — which ones matter, and which ones don’t. It came down to me not being able to live with myself to be even perceived as going along with anything like that.

You weren’t alone, either. The Saskatchewan Children’s Advocate called for changes, and 14 University of Saskatchewan law professors wrote a letter expressing legal concerns.

One reason I did this was to send a message to the government that they should pause what they were doing and take a sober second thought, to borrow what the Senate does. It went too fast, without consultation, and I was really hoping that the voices that were joining this choir would be able to persuade the government to stop long enough to listen to some folks. ■