B.C. Conservative leader under fire for likening teaching of sexuality, gender to residential schools

The leader of the Conservative Party of British Columbia is under fire for a social media post that critics say appeared to compare teaching students about sexual orientation and gender identity to the genocide of Indigenous children in residential schools.

John Rustad, MLA for Nechako Lakes, acknowledged the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in a Sept. 30 post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“Today we remember what happens when the Canadian government thinks it’s better at raising children than parents,” read Rustad’s Saturday post, which was also shared on his party’s official Facebook page.

“I will always stand with parents.”

Rustad’s post quickly drew criticism from residential school survivors and fellow MLAs, who said it was politicizing the deaths of children at residential schools in order to support the parental rights movement — which supports a ban on teaching B.C. students about sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in schools.

A screenshot of a Tweet from John Rustad that says: "Today is National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — or Orange Shirt Day. Today, we remember what happens when the Canadian government thinks it's better at raising children than parents. I will always stand with parents. #bcpoli"
This screengrab shows a social media post from John Rustad, leader of the Conservative Party of B.C., that has drawn criticism. (X)

Those who support parental rights say parents need more information and input about what their children are learning in school, a position Rustad previously backed in a Sept. 20 statement.

The catch-all term “parental rights” has also been used across Canada and the United States to lobby for legislation to require parental consent for children and teens who want to use different names or pronouns at schools — measures that some LGBTQ advocates say harm transgender youth.

Critics of the term say it’s a dog-whistle for anti-trans policies and is a misnomer, as it excludes LGBTQ parents and suggests parents’ rights supersede those of their children.

CBC News reached out to Rustad for comment. In a phone call on Sunday, his office said he would not be available for an interview before publication. 

Leader’s comment called ‘shameful’

Residential school survivor Celeste George, a member of the Nak’azdli Whut’en, a First Nation near Fort St. James, B.C., said seeing Rustad’s post on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a day meant to honour victims and survivors of residential schools, was “enraging.”

“It’s not even the comparison, [it’s] the actual idea that he can blatantly use the day for his own hatred, for his own agenda,” said George, who is also a former anti-racism educator.

“That was really horrific to me, knowing that hatred has taken so much from us.”

Hundreds of people attended a walk for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in the First Nations community of Aq'am on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023.
Hundreds of people take part in a walk on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in the First Nations community of Aq’am, B.C., on Saturday. (Corey Bullock/CBC)

She said Rustad’s post will fuel anti-Indigenous racism and anti-trans sentiments, a concern echoed by Florence Ashley, a transfeminine associate professor of law at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

“It’s absolutely vile for a politician to compare a deeply marginalized group asking for rights with cultural genocide,” Ashley wrote on X on Sunday.

B.C. New Democrat MLA Ravi Parmar called the social media post a “disgraceful comparison.”

“It’s shameful to co-opt this day to spread fear and attack the rights of queer kids,” he wrote on X.

Harsha Walia, a human rights advocate and former executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, wrote that “weaponizing [the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation] like this is horrific.”

“Despicable,” Walia said in a post on X. “A party leader & sitting MLA compares genocide of residential schools to anti-trans dog whistle of ‘parent rights.'”

Conservative Party newly recognized

Rustad was first elected in 2005 and previously served as minister of Aboriginal relations and reconciliation under the B.C. Liberal — now B.C. United — government.

He previously backtracked after making comments questioning why Indigenous members of his community were receiving COVID-19 vaccines ahead of older members of the population in 2021.

In August 2022, he was ousted from the B.C. United caucus for sharing an online post casting doubt on the science behind climate change.

Rustad sat as an independent until February, when he joined the B.C. Conservative Party. A month later, he was acclaimed as party leader.

Another B.C. United MLA, Bruce Banman, crossed the floor to join Rustad in September, and the two-MLA party was officially recognized in the legislature two weeks ago.

Rustad has previously supported parental rights and said he wants to end the teaching of SOGI in schools.

“Parents raise children — not government, and we have laws in British Columbia to protect children who are unsafe at home,” he said in the Sept. 20 statement.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.

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