Canada’s federal and provincial Conservative Parties are suddenly joining American-style culture wars centered on transgender issues, announcing new policies to crack down on access to medical care and women-only spaces, and restricting trans children from using chosen names and pronouns in schools.
At the federal Conservative Party’s policy convention in Quebec City this past weekend, 69% of delegates voted to bar trans children from receiving gender-affirming care, while 87% of delegates voted to define “woman” as a “female person” and to demand that trans women be barred from women-only spaces.
The policy vote, which was initiated by the party’s grassroots, will only become a part of the Conservative Party’s official platform if current leader Pierre Poilievre decides to include it. The party has been riding high in the polls for several months as Canadians deal with a growing cost-of-living crisis, but a federal election isn’t scheduled for two more years.
While the federal Conservatives had recently tried to focus on economic issues rather than culture-war issues, the convention vote is emblematic of how social conservatives have come to dominate the party’s agenda.
The vote also comes as a wave of anti-trans and anti-drag protests has appeared across Canada.
The latest salvo in the culture war battles against trans Canadians was ignited this spring, when the deeply unpopular Conservative premier of New Brunswick announced a new policy that would bar students from changing the name or pronoun they use at school without written consent from their parents. Two cabinet ministers resigned in protest over the new rule, which was immediately criticized by LGBTQ activists and teachers unions, who pointed out that it would be impractical to enforce and would violate trans students’ human rights. Nevertheless, the policy came into effect in September, although it has faced a court challenge by the Canadian Civil Liberties Union.
Shortly after, the conservative-affiliated government of Saskatchewan introduced a similar rule that has also been subject to a court challenge. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe has announced he intends to bolster the regulation with a “parental rights” law this fall as it prepares for an election next year. An anti-LGBTQ Christian organization called Action4Canada has claimed credit for lobbying the government to introduce the school reforms.
That was followed by the Conservative government of Ontario led by Premier Doug Ford announcing that it was developing a similar policy. Ford’s government has been mired in a series of scandals recently, including most prominently a land reclassification that saw a handful of party donors receive billions of dollars in land value uplift while degrading environmentally sensitive land around Toronto.
Ford and his ministers have repeatedly described the new policy as protecting parents’ rights in speeches and campaign-style events, although a provincial election isn’t scheduled for another two years.
“Parents rights. They need to be … informed when they [students] make a decision. It’s not up to teachers and school boards to indoctrinate our kids. I can’t even figure out what school boards do anymore,” Ford said at an event in Kitchener, Ontario, last week.
Many activists have pointed out that Ford appears to be attempting to use the new policy to shift attention from the corruption scandal that has already led to the resignation of one cabinet minister.
“Shame on Premier Ford. Schools are not indoctrinating students. This ‘parental rights’ rhetoric is just a good slogan hiding an anti-trans and social conservative agenda. And — right now — it’s a desperate distraction from his scandal-plagued track record,” tweeted Fae Johnstone, a trans activist and president of the advocacy group Queer Momentum.
Five of Canada’s other seven provinces are currently governed by conservative-leaning parties, though none of the others have announced plans to copy the student name and pronoun policy yet.
Although Canada’s Conservative Party and its provincial cousins have a long history of pursuing policies that have harmed LGBTQ communities, the sudden wave of anti-trans policies has come as something of a surprise, after what appeared to be several years of détente on culture wars.
In 2021, the federal Conservative Party allowed Parliament to pass a bill banning so-called conversion therapy by unanimous consent and in 2017, dozens of Conservative MPs joined the government in passing a bill that banned anti-trans discrimination and hate speech. Saskatchewan’s conservative government banned discrimination against trans people in 2014, and Conservative parties also gave unanimous consent to provincial conversion therapy bans in Ontario, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Yukon in the last decade.
In the last federal election in 2021, the Conservative Party fielded its first ever openly trans candidate, Hannah Hodson, who ran in the district of Victoria, British Columbia, placing third with 13% of the vote. Though Hodson served for years as a staffer for conservative politicians, she announced this year that she was leaving the party due to its turn to anti-trans policies.
“To all the [Conservative Party of Canada] people who have told me they love me, support me, and would fight for me, and who are now telling me to calm down and just go along with this, or worse, telling me to stay quiet. I see you and I will not forget,” Hodson wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, in response to the convention vote on anti-trans policies.
While the federal government doesn’t generally control health services, Health Canada could regulate the use of medications and treatments for trans children. The federal government also doesn’t generally have the ability to regulate access to women’s spaces in schools or businesses, but does control prisons, airports and federal government offices.
Nevertheless, trans activists say that if the proposed policies are enacted by a future federal Conservative government, they would greatly harm trans people.
“I would like everyone to recall, quite simply, that trans people are generally poor, more likely to be homeless, and experience a whole lot of hate for being ourselves. This is the community that the Conservative Party of Canada is picking on. Because they can,” says Johnstone.
The new provincial policies around trans kids mirror legislation proposed or passed in several U.S. states that require schools to out students to their parents if they appear to be LGBTQ.
It’s somewhat whiplash-inducing to see Conservative legislators who just a few years ago supported banning conversion therapy now call for parental consent over gender identity. Under the federal and provincial laws that Conservatives previously supported, it would be illegal for parents to try to change their child’s gender identity or expression by forcing them to undergo conversion therapy. But under the education policies enacted by Conservative provincial governments, parents would essentially hold a veto over their children’s gender expression.
Children and youth advocates, LGBTQ activists, as well as teachers unions have pointed out that the new rules violate the rights of trans students to a safe learning environment. The rules also put educators in an impossible position of policing the gender identities of their students.
“While we believe that the ideal situation would include parents and guardians in the conversations and decision-making, we support current school board policy in Ontario that centers the students in the decision-making and honors their right to self-identify, even when parental consent is not given, to support an equitable and inclusive learning environment,” wrote the Ontario Principals’ Council in a statement on the proposed rule.
“Students who do not have parental, family and community support that respects and validates them face higher risks of self-harm, emotional distress, isolation, deteriorating mental health and increased bullying. Gender-affirming practices such as honoring preferred names and pronouns help to reduce those risks and contribute to greater inclusion, belonging and success at school,” the statement says.
Washington Blade courtesy of the National LGBTQ Media Association.