Sask.’s new law creates complications for support staff, gender-diverse students: mental health experts

Saskatchewan’s new law requiring parental permission before students can use a different gender-related name or pronoun at school is out of step with the principles that guide professionals who work with youth, critics say.

After the law passed on Friday, Premier Scott Moe said the bill was about “providing parents the right — not the opportunity — to support their children in the formative years of their life.”

Moe and his government have cited widespread support for the new policy, but it has also come under intense scrutiny. 

Since it was announced in August, it has been criticized and denounced by mental health experts, the provincial opposition, the children’s advocate, the provincial human rights commission, teachers, legal expertsparents and youth.

Opponents have said the law tramples children’s rights and could put gender-diverse youth at risk. 

“This is an anti-trans bill,” said Estefan Cortes-Vargas, a former Albertan politician who now lives in Saskatoon and volunteers with Trans Sask, a local organization that provides support to gender-diverse people in Saskatchewan. 

“The reality is, is that pronoun use and being called by your name … that is a preventative measure to suicide when it comes to gender-diverse people.” 

Saskatchewan’s Education Minister Jeremy Cockrill said Friday that all staff will be expected to refer to students by their “given name” until they obtain parental consent.

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According to the law, students who don’t feel comfortable or safe coming out to their parents will be connected with the “appropriate professionals” so they can develop a plan to get the parent’s permission. 

“I think it’s an ethically fraught situation for teachers and principals and counsellors to navigate,” Cortes-Vargas said, noting that not all support workers in schools have received training on how to provide gender-affirming care and counselling.

Cortes-Vargas said the government hasn’t explained how the professionals will offer a safe space to trans and non-binary students if they are forced to mis-gender or deadname students during the counselling sessions (deadnaming refers to using a trans person’s former name).

Law not aligned with support workers’ ethics

The rules put support workers in a difficult position as they try to abide by the law while also upholding their ethics and codes of conduct, said Emily Ritenburg, a registered social worker in Regina. 

“We consider deadnaming and misusing pronouns as not respecting the inherent dignity of a child, so that is definitely something that people are grappling with,” Ritenburg said. 

Dr. Sara Dungavell echoed Ritenburg’s concerns.

“If [youth] are not at risk of death or hurting someone else, then we don’t share their information without their permission,” said Dungavell, a Saskatchewan psychiatrist who offers LGBT-safe care. “Somehow the government has managed to convince people that trans kids shouldn’t have this privacy.” 

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Dungavell said the default position of care providers is to involve parents. 

“We don’t want to keep secrets from parents. We want the kids to go and talk to the most important adults in their lives, which are generally their parents. We just want to make sure that it’s happening on the children’s terms,” she said. 

She also said there is a small population of parents who would seriously harm their children if they found out they identified as non-binary or trans. She said the children of these parents deserve to be protected, and that students should be allowed to confide in a supportive adult, like a teacher or school staff member. 

Dungavell said schools have often been a safe space for youth to express or explore their identity. Now, students will potentially be outed by their teachers, deadnamed or mis-gendered. 

“We’ll see more kids with school avoidance or refusal to go because school is not the safe place it was,” Dungavell said. “That means that I’ll see either dead children or I will see adults whose mental health is a lot worse than it would have been.” 

Social affirmation can reduce harm: prof

Gender-diverse youth experience a healthier, happier life when their identities are affirmed, validated and supported in social settings, according to Travis Salway, an assistant professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University. 

Salway has studied depression, anxiety and suicide rates among 2SLGBT Canadians. He said those who aren’t validated can begin to experience self-doubt and hopelessness, and become withdrawn from their communities because people don’t see them for who they are. 

If these feelings build up over time, they can lead to depression, anxiety or suicide, he said, noting the suicide rate among transgender youth is about 10 times greater than the rate in the cisgender population. 

“It’s really important to note that when transgender youth and adults have their identities affirmed by the people around them, by their family, friends, health-care providers, that rate of suicide goes right back down,” Salway said.

A youth waves a LGBTQ2+ flag on the steps of the provincial legislature in Regina, Sask.
Students in Regina gathered at the provincial legislature to protest the Saskatchewan government’s controversial pronoun policy. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

Salway said Saskatchewan’s new law rolls back protections for 2SLGBT youth. 

“What we’re talking about here is a matter of ensuring that all youth are safe to be their true selves. It’s a matter of security, of dignity, of basic human rights.”

Prof. points to conversion therapy ban

Salway pointed out that just a few years ago, Canadian politicians passed a law that made it illegal to force anyone to undergo “conversion therapy,” which is a practice that aims to change or repress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Salway said it was a structured way to deny LGBT identities, and that the practice caused mental health problems.

“We saw our lawmakers, all members of the House of Commons, across all parties, unequivocally denounce these practices and say that 2SLGBTQ identities are compatible with happy and healthy lives,” Salway said. 

“Now we’re looking at forms of doubting or dismissing or denying young people’s identities, that aren’t quite as delineated or structured as conversion therapy, but they have the same effect.”

Cortes-Vargas said Trans Sask is looking at ways to better support people affected by the new rules, and they had a message for youth who are advocating against it. 

“We’ve been there and we’re here for you,” Cortes-Vargas said.

“I really say that with a heavy heart, because I know many of my friends haven’t made it, and the ones that are here, we’re here and we’re standing with you.”

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