The Sask. Party’s so-called ‘parent’s rights’ law tosses queer kids under the school bus. Will Moe and co. pay a political price?

Pride | Stephen Whitworth

As Saskatchewan strides gleefully into Pride month, you might notice a faint, funky stink in the wind.

That’s the odour of putrid politics. And this Pride season, it’s wafting like the nostril-shriveling scent of skunk soup through the 2SLGBTQIA+ community and allies’ parties, performances and parades.

Let’s recap.

Part One: Right-Wing Rampage

For all the astounding progress the queer community has made in a world that once oozed unchecked bigotry and ignorance, there’s still a ton of homophobia out there.

In parts of the United States it’s open season, as openly hostile right-wingers vomit venomous verbiage that can and does escalate to violence, including occasional and horrific mass shootings at queer nightclubs.

From anti-drag queen laws to book bans, from political meddling in school classrooms and libraries to legislative attacks on transgender health care, the American right’s so-called ‘freedom lovers’ have fully committed to total war on the LGBTQ+ community — human consequences be damned.

On June 5, USA Today ran a headline that reads “Colorado Republican Party calls for burning of all Pride flags as Pride Month kicks off”. This in a state where five people were murdered and 25 more injured in a 2022 shooting at a queer nightclub.

Incidents like this are hard to even comprehend. Despite massive blowback and condemnation — including from other Republicans desperate to conceal their true toxicity — the fact politicians and political operatives even think they can get away with this kind of hatred-stoking and unhinged banana-pantsery is gobsmacking. Gobsmacking.

More generally, pro-Pride social media posts by any U.S. public figure or organization get instantly swamped with hateful replies. Some commentors try to disguise their bigotry by pretending they only oppose pride because it’s “reverse prejudice” or somehow “divisive”. Others are more chillingly direct in their language. A lot are Russian bots.

Canada is miles — er, kilometres — better, but we still have problems. Federally, we have Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, a beady-eyed weasel who will apparently say anything to get his greasy paws on the Prime Minister’s office. When Poilievre — an oil stooge and career politician who literally has “lie” in his name — isn’t launching dishonest and childish attacks on his political enemies, he’s cozying up to bigots and saying transphobic things like, “”Female spaces should be exclusively for females, not for biological males.”

(Pro tip: Don’t call trans women “biological males”. Leave that garbage to haters like J.K. Rowling.)

It’s bold of the wannabe-PM to risk reminding Canadians that the Conservative party has been a writhing nest of antigay sentiment since its takeover by Western social conservatives after the Great Mulroney Implosion of 1993 (yes, Kim Campbell lost that election but come on).

Does Poilievre want everyone remembering, for example, how hard his party fought against legal same-sex marriage? Does it matter? It’s still ignorant and dangerous, even if it’s likely to backfire.

Provincially, conservative premiers like Alberta’s Danielle Smith and New Brunswick’s Blaine Higgs have eagerly joined the antigay jamboree with attacks on school curricula and even trans health care.

And then there’s Saskatchewan.

Oh, Saskatchewan.

Part Two: Suddenly Last Summer

Saskatchewan’s current complications with the LGBTQ community started last summer. On Aug. 10, 2023, voters in three Provincial constituencies cast ballots in byelections.

The results were not what the governing Saskatchewan Party wanted. Two Regina ridings flipped to the New Democratic Party, which wasn’t surprising for an old government owing its success to rural rather than urban support .

But the government must have been alarmed by the Lumsden-Morse results.

While Sask. Party candidate Blaine McLeod won handily, right-wing fringe parties captured 23 per cent of the vote — slightly more than even the NDP, which came in third.

Vote splitting is scary for conservatives. Almost a quarter of a century ago, competing federal conservative parties split votes, blocking any path to national power. Provincially, a 2015 vote split between Alberta’s Wildrose Party and the Progressive Conservatives handed government to Alberta’s NDP.

Conservatives remember this. The Saskatchewan United and Buffalo parties capturing almost a quarter of a mostly rural constituency’s vote must have been ominous news in Sask. Party offices.

With their urban support shrinking, Scott Moe and his crew must have decided the best move was to shore-up support with their socially conservative, right-wing base.

And an earlier, minor controversy in a Lumsden school gave them an opening.

On June 22, Lumsden High School grade nine students were visited by Planned Parenthood as part of a sexual health course. After the lesson, one student picked up and took home a set of informative cards called Sex From A to Z, which uses cartoons to illustrate factual descriptions of various sexual activities and terms.

(This writer actually has the card set, and he can assure readers that none of the illustrations show realistic depictions of sexual activity. The pictures are all metaphors — a smiling, erupting volcano for “Orgasm”; a hopping rabbit for “quickie”. That kind of thing.)

The cards hadn’t been used in the presentation. Nevertheless, a “B is for butt-sticked” parent saw the set and had a “think of the children!” meltdown. Then-Education minister Dustin Duncan quickly banned Planned Parenthood from Saskatchewan classrooms over the “N is for Nothingburger” controversary, but the Lumsden-Morse election results seem to have driven home the conclusion that the Sask. Party needed to lurch farther to the right and aggressively enact social conservative policies.

And this brings us to Saskatchewan’s ill-conceived, divisive and dangerous school pronoun law.

Part Three: Pronouns And Parents

The Saskatchewan Government’s Parents Bill of Rights — which was introduced as Bill 137 in an Oct. 10 emergency session of the Legislature — states that any student under the age of 16 must get parental consent before school officials can use their preferred name or pronouns.

The rule affects nonbinary, genderfluid and transgender children and youth who wish to be called by a different name than the one they use at home.

The law has been slammed by medical and health professionals, mental health experts and even Saskatchewan’s children’s advocate. A big problem, say critics, is that 2SLGBTQ+ children rarely come out to their parents first, because the stakes — even in the most loving home — are just too high.

“So much of the exploration of who people are happens in our friend groups,” says NDP Nathaniel Teed.

“It happens in our schools with your friends as you’re learning. I think a lot of folks might not go to their parents as the first point of contact,” adds Teed.

This is why critics say the law essentially forces teachers to “out” 2SLGBTQ+ kids to parents. The law takes a queer child’s choice to come out at a time of they’re choosing away — whether they’re ready or not.

More seriously, some LGBTQ kids live in homes that are hostile to queer people — possibly out of ignorance or religious beliefs that such identities are sinful.

“I wasn’t elected to come between any parent and their child,” says Teed, who represents Saskatoon Meewasin and is Saskatchewan’s first openly gay MLA. “I want every parent of a queer and trans kid to have that amazing experience and to be able to have those conversations at home. But I know sometimes it’s not going to happen. And I know some kids have to really work through that.”

Teed worries about the potential consequences of outing children and youth to parents or guardians with anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs.

“There are some families out there that would kick their queer child out on the street,” says Teed. “And we know this, because queer and trans kids make up some of the highest numbers of homeless youth out there.

“Even in the most supportive environment, the stakes are just so high with your parents,” Teed says.

“It just seems to me that it would be incredibly rare that someone would come out first to their parents.

Along with being dangerous, opponents say Bill 137 is also a likely Charter infringement of children’s rights — a stance the government apparently agrees with, because it pre-emptively invoked the Canadian Constitution’s Notwithstanding Clause to protect the law from the courts.

Through all of this, the government and current Education minister Jeremy Cockrill (actual name) continue to insist Bill 137 was an appropriate recognition of so-called ‘parental rights’.

Children’s rights? Not so much.

Part Four: Stock Vs The Gay Agenda

Conservatives throwing tantrums over 2SLGBTQIA+ rights isn’t new. From House of Commons scraps over same-sex marriage legalization (which Conservative leader Poilievre voted against in 2005), to social media posts accusing the community of being “radical” and “divisive”, animus against queer Canadians is a core Conservative trait.

Homophobia is as much a staple of right-wing politics as privatizing public services, giving tax breaks to the rich, denying climate change, pandering to gun extremists and anti-choice zealots, and despising legal marijuana.

(An aside: it’s disappointing how Trudeau-hating potheads ‘conveniently’ forget which political side legalized their favourite foliage. And which fought to keep it criminalized).

Take Stockwell Day. The Alberta PC politician, former Canadian Alliance leader and Conservative MP, and devout Christian fundamentalist has a history of attacking LGBTQ+ interests.

A July 26, 2000 article in the national LGBTQ+ magazine Xtra reported Day’s antigay activities included opposing queer people joining the military, demanding a grant for a museum show about Alberta’s queer history be revoked and, as Alberta’s social services minister, establishing an informal policy blocking LGBTQ+ Albertans from fostering children.

Day also supported using the Notwithstanding Clause to block both same-sex marriage and the addition of sexual orientation to Alberta’s human rights code (sound familiar?).

I mention the ol’ creationist dinosaur because last week, social media algorithms force-fed me a homophobic Stockwell Day post —  just in time for Pride month.

“Polls now showing declining support for LGBTQ, etc. rights,” said Day. “Most people are also tired of the LGBTQ activists weaponizing and forcing their agenda,” he added.

Ugh.

I wasn’t surprised by Day’s butthurt whingeing, but his “polls now showing” comment seemed… inaccurate.

Is mainstream Canada fed up with the ‘gay agenda’?

“I have never seen any of these studies that claim this,” says Queen City Pride’s Riviera Bonneau. “I’ve never seen any of these polls that claim that there is declining support.

“If anything, we as a Pride group have noticed a drastic opposite,” she says.

Bonneau is on Queen City Pride’s board of directors and represents the organization at things like the Cathedral Village Arts Festival and the Regina’s Farmers Market.

Bonneau meets a lot of people. Declining support? Hardly, she says.

“We have so many more groups coming through every single year wanting to partner with us, wanting to be part of our celebration,” says Bonneau. “It just doesn’t factually make sense.”

“The math doesn’t work,” Bonneau says. “Like, there is a vocal minority of people who claim there’s less acceptance, or whatever,” she says. “They’re just loud, they’re not correct. We see something completely different. And we see that every day.”

And what does Bonneau see?

“People will come up to us and say, ‘We’re so happy you guys are doing this work, that you are a voice in the community’. And we get that from all ages and so many different people. [Day’s post on X] just doesn’t make sense with what we’re seeing — more people talking to us and happy with us, and trying to learn.”

QCP was the first provincial Pride group to ban the Saskatchewan Party from this year’s festivities in response to the pronoun legislation. “We will not allow them to masquerade as allies and supporters, then put our community in danger for the other eleven months of the year,” the organization said in a press release. It was quickly joined by Pride outfits in Prince Albert and the Battlefords.

On June 5, Saskatoon Pride also banned Sask. Party MLAs who voted for Bill 137: “They are not allies to two-spirit, trans, or other queer people in this province,” the organization said.

Bonneau makes a distinction between the specific case of the Sask. Party and conservatism more generally. But she takes off her Queen City Pride ‘hat’ to share her thoughts on the political right’s ongoing problems with the queer community.

“I can give my personal opinion,” says Bonneau says. “As an individual, I do believe the majority of the [political] issues we see come from conservative-type governments. There’s people in the federal [Conservative Party] that claim things like, ‘transgender women aren’t women’ — which is false. There are things locally, like the pronoun policy from the conservative Sask. Party government, which harms our community.

“There’s room for improvement everywhere, right?” says Bonneau. “Like, no political party is perfect. We would never say that.

“But it does feel like the most harm to our community is coming from conservative or conservative-leaning governments,” she says.

Part Five: A Full Circle Of Stupidity?

Gary Varro has an interesting perspective on conservatives’ historic problems with queer culture.

Varro is the executive and artistic director of Regina’s long-running Queer City Cinema film festival. He founded QCC in 1996, in a decade when the fight for 2SLGBTQIA+ rights and recognition picked up steam on the prairies.

The festival faced right-wing opposition early. Varro remembers one conservative politician protesting solely based on QCC’s focus on LGBTQ+ culture — something, he suggests, we’re far less likely to see in 2024.

“In 1996, the very first year, some dude, I forget his name, from the Saskatchewan Party — it wasn’t called Saskatchewan Party yet — essentially took the festival to task just because it was a queer film festival,” says Varro. “There was no other reason, just because it was queer.

“What I’m trying to underscore here is that there was a time, not so long ago, when [doing] something that was queer that was supported by the government was viewed as controversial, irresponsible governing,” Varro says. “If you think about that now, it’s kind of preposterous and almost unbelievable that a government representative would feel fine voicing their disgust for something because its queer. That person would be fired.

“NOW they would be fired,” he adds. “Back then, they thought they had the support—and they somewhat did.”

Queer City Cinema’s biggest brush with conservative outrage happened with the 2000 festival. That year, a political firestorm erupted in Saskatchewan’s legislature over the festivals’ funding after QCC programmed a controversial panel discussion called “Pornography and community — what’s up with that?”

“I don’t know if it was so much my idea to push buttons, but it’s not difficult to push buttons here and, you know, especially these days in North America,” says Varro.

Unlike 1996, the then-Opposition Saskatchewan Party attacked the ‘pornography’ aspect — specifically, a government grant to a festival with programming on the topic — rather than the festival’s queer identity.

“Essentially, it was the focus on pornography that got a lot of folks riled up,” says Varro. “Which, you know, I understand. Pornography is very triggering and still has a kind of stigma and taboo around it even to this day.

“It’s kind of hard to imagine with all the content everywhere, even on TV to some extent,” Varro says.

“So anyway, that’s what it was. It was pornography and government support for it. [The Sask. Party] just thought they had a very good platform to bring shame to the NDP and the festival. I think that they thought they had a really good position to discredit the government, and it kind of threw back in their face.

“As we know, it didn’t really go according to plan,” Varro says.

It sure didn’t. The besieged festival was supported not just by the LGBTQ+ crowd but by the larger community, as well as by funders and the then-NDP government, which defended arms-length funding decisions against the Sask. Party’s position that government should interfere with Saskatchewan Arts Board grants.

Even the Saskatchewan Party’s own website poll showed overwhelming support for Queer City Cinema, a result that “surprised us”, the Sask. Party said at the time.

One doesn’t know what happens in internal meetings, but it’s very safe to conclude the Sask. Party learned a lot from their 2000 Queer City Cinema experience. Over the next several years, the party seemed to moderate its social conservatism. After its 2003 election loss, the party replaced founding leader Elwin Hermanson with the charismatic, well-spoken and moderate-seeming Brad Wall. And the rest, it seemed, was history.

Or so it seemed until the events of summer and fall 2023.

Has the Saskatchewan Party government under Scott Moe traded a commitment to at least some moderate policies in favour of an all-in appeal to hard-right voters? The pronoun policy suggests so. So too does the never-ending support for radical religious private schools and escalating conflicts with public sector workers like teachers and nurses, and the hostility to fact-based, public health approaches to social issues like crime, addiction, homelessness and poverty.

Toss in bizarre behaviour from MLAs who act more like deranged Elmer Fudds on cocaine benders than professional politicians, and increasingly reckless attacks on climate change action in a province prone to drought and wildfire, and you have to wonder if we’re seeing the beginning of the end for this government.

“What it just boils down to is they’re just out of touch,” says Varro. “They were out of touch [in 2000] — they didn’t realize there was a queer community that would support and rally, and that governments and funding agencies are there to support these kinds of discussions in an informed and intelligent way. And they’re out of touch now with the gender pronoun thing because it’s just part of the world.

“It’s changed, and it is changing, and it will continue to change,” says Varro. “Dear lord, there’s Pride flags hanging on lamp posts. Do you know how big a deal that is in my lifetime? Like, to see a city actually pay for people to make those flags, put them up, take them down, store them? I think it’s disconcerting that people don’t understand how profound a shift that is. How things can change almost without anyone noticing.

“It’s almost like science fiction to me. It’s like fantasy,” says Varro. It’s like, ‘how is it now that you go into a grocery store and on the door there’s the LGBTQ-trans flag combo that says Everyone Is Welcome? That alone speaks so much to what has happened. And I’d like to think Queen City Cinema has contributed to it in some way.”

This story has been updated since publication.