Source: Cam Steeves/Flickr

On June 8, the New Brunswick government rolled back protections for trans students in public schools. Policy 713, which implemented reforms aimed at making schools safer and more welcoming for LGBTQ+ students, was revised so that students under 16 must have parental consent for their preferred name and pronouns used in an official capacity at school. When the school can’t get consent from parents, students are referred to mental health professionals. This is an attack on the rights of trans people which will inevitably harm vulnerable children. 

The culture war rhetoric we’ve seen mobilized to roll back trans rights across the US has made its entry onto the Canadian political scene. How this plays out represents an important marker in the struggle for LGBTQ+ liberation in Canada. The revision has not been uncontroversial—the province has seen protests and walkouts, and had two ministers resign over the decision, and some in the party are trying to depose Higgs as leader. 

What is Policy 713? 

Policy 713 is a policy which “sets the minimum requirements for school districts and public schools to create a safe, welcoming, and affirming school environment for all students, families, and allies who identify or are perceived as LGBTQ+”. The policy, adopted by the Higgs government in 2020 under former minister of education and early childhood development Dominic Cardy, affirms that LGBTQ+ students have the right to express their identity, see themselves reflected in education, and feel supported by school staff. Policy 713 also ensures that all schools have gender neutral washrooms and change rooms, professional learning opportunities for school staff on gender and sexuality, and student-run Gender and Sexuality Alliances . 

When it was passed, Policy 713 required school staff to use students’ preferred name and pronouns. The revision adopted on June 8th changed this section of the policy. Now, students under the age of 16 require parental consent to use their preferred first name, and for it to be officially used for record-keeping purposes and daily management. When school staff can’t obtain consent or talk to the parent, the trans student is referred to a school mental health worker to develop a plan to speak to the parents. This will certainly have negative repercussions on trans youth. Many trans kids face unsafe environments at home and do not feel comfortable telling their parents about their gender identity, and forcing the school to “out” them to their parents places these children in danger. It is salt in the wound that children who refuse to be outed to their parents are referred to mental health professionals in the schools. As was rightly stated by Susie Proulx-Daigle, president of the New Brunswick Union, which represents mental health professionals in schools, these children are not mentally ill because they want to change their pronouns. The Higgs government has made the decision to treat children, who often correctly assess that disclosing their gender identity to their families as a serious risk to their safety, as mentally ill. All this represents a sly way of attacking the rights of trans youth.

Moreover, it’s been widely acknowledged that the changes to this policy are in direct conflict with best practices in education. Mental health workers, the provincial child and youth advocate, and advocacy groups have all stated that rolling back Policy 713 presents a direct and immediate harm to vulnerable kids

When asked for comments on the review of Policy 713, Progressive Conservative (PC) premier Blaine Higgs and Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development Bill Hogan have both made little effort to veil their feelings on the LGBTQ+ community. Higgs has refused to condemn conversion therapy (which is illegal in Canada), as well as openly stated that children should not be exposed to drag queen story time, because it’s a promotion of their “lifestyle”. In a consultation meeting on the policy review with an 11th grade student Logan Martin, Hogan repeatedly used the term lifestyle to refer to gay and trans students. Martin recalled Hogan saying that gender expression and identity leads to a “lifestyle”, though he did not elaborate on what that meant. Nonetheless, the derision and disapproval with which he considers LGBTQ people was made clear. 

Why revise Policy 713?

When the review was publicly announced, Hogan said that the review was triggered by hundreds of complaints from across the province on Policy 713. This was a lie. In the Child and Youth Advocate review of the decision to review Policy 713, the province produced four written complaints about the policy over its 30 month life. The other three contained right wing rants claiming that the Department of Education is discriminatory to Christians and claims that acknowledging the existence of transgender people is unscientific. Notably, none of these three emails even mentioned Policy 713, and none of the complaints in the emails even directly relate to the content of Policy 713. The one complaint that was specifically about Policy 713 was from the parent of a trans child advocating for Policy 713 to be enforced more strongly.

The biggest justification for the revision is that parents have a right to be involved in their child’s education. This argument is copy pasted from the far right mobilization of parent’s rights in the U.S. However, the same week Policy 713 was revised, the PCs introduced changes to the education act that remove the decision-making power of elected district education councils in anglophone school districts. If the Higgs government truly defended so-called “parents rights”, then maintaining district education councils elected by those parents would be top of mind. 

The reason why Blaine Higgs’ government has attacked Policy 713 is the same as all other right-wing politicians in the U.S. and elsewhere in Canada attack trans people. Higgs has the second lowest approval rating of any premier in the country at 28 per cent. His gamble is that by whipping up a “culture war” around what had been a rather uncontroversial issue, he can bolster up his support among a more rabid part of the population, and better divide and rule over the working class. Attacking Policy 713 is an attempt at distracting from Higgs’ unpopular policies of cuts and austerity. If the ruling class can point the finger at trans people and the “woke left”, they can distract from the true roots of the problems the working class is facing. 

However, this attack on trans rights has backfired spectacularly. In fact, the announcement of the review of Policy 713 drew hundreds into the streets in defence of the policy. Days after the announcement of the review, more than 350 protesters rallied in front of the New Brunswick legislature in Fredericton in support of the policy. This was followed by protests of hundreds of people—many high school students—in Saint John, protests in Riverview, and a walk out of highschool students in Quispamsis. This is an indication that significant layers of the New Brunswick youth and workers are not falling for the transphobia of Higgs.

Fractures in the New Brunswick PCs

It seems that so far, by attempting to distract the population and divide and rule, the only thing that Higgs successfully divided is his own party. On June 8, the day the policy was officially revised, six ministers and two MLAs refused to attend the morning sitting of the legislature as a way to express extreme disappointment in a “lack of process and transparency” over the proposed change. Cabinet minister Dorothy Shephard went so far as to resign, citing mismanagement of the caucus. Less than two weeks later, Minister Trevor Holder resigned, saying that Higgs had little concern or respect for the opinions of his caucus. Higgs is remaining steadfast though, responding to calls for him to step down by saying at one point that he’s willing to take the issue to an election. Having gone down the rabbit hole of whipping up a culture war over trans rights, Higgs is going all-in and putting his political career on the line.

Not only have two cabinet ministers resigned, a majority of riding presidents (25 out of the 49) have signed letters calling for a leadership review. This doesn’t mean the leadership will be reviewed—the party requires letters from 20 riding presidents and 50 party members to put the question on the party provincial council’s agenda. But it does indicate a crisis within the party. The crisis in the party progressed further late in June, when cabinet ministers Daniel Allain and Jeff Carr were ejected from the PC cabinet. Both had signed a letter expressing serious disappointment in the process of the review, which Higgs cited as the reason for dropping them. The New Brunswick conservatives are fracturing—there is a developing split between those who can make peace with Higgs’ increasing reliance on “culture war” issues, and those who think that the PCs should rule through traditional establishment politics. The latter are probably very concerned about the backlash and for their own seats.

Class war not culture war

 This political storm shows that no rights of the workers and oppressed can be guaranteed under capitalism. Any protections afforded under capitalism can be clawed back. Already, far right group Action4Canada has indicated that the revision of Policy 713 is a test case for rolling back protections in schools across the country. A defeat of the movement against transphobia in New Brunswick would be a green light for other right-wing politicians to follow suit.

Moreover, as the system enters into a deeper crisis, the capitalist politicians look for anything that can distract the workers and divide them. In doing so, they whip up the worst prejudice and hatred we find in society. As the recent knife attack at the University of Waterloo proved, the political escalation against trans people will ultimately embolden extremist violence.

The labour movement should reject these attempts to divide us, and combat the “culture war” with the methods of class war. 

The only way to struggle against this is through a militant movement of the workers. The New Brunswick Union has already stepped up to condemn the revisions to the policy, and back its members who do choose not to implement the revisions. Hundreds have gathered in protest across the province. This is a good start, but the struggle cannot stop there. If all teachers and school staff refuse to apply the change, then the revision of Policy 713 will remain a dead letter. This would be a tremendous example of workers’ solidarity in the fight against oppression for all others to follow.

It must be highlighted that Higgs’ latest manoeuvre is just the latest in his general program of attacking workers and the oppressed. This is the same government that used COVID-19 emergency measures to force striking public sector workers back on the job, introduced pro-scab legislation, and has been withholding funding from New Brunswick’s one abortion clinic for years. 

Organized labour and the working class more broadly must reject the politics of culture war, and call it out for what it is: an attempt to misdirect the anger of ordinary workers towards the vulnerable and oppressed. Labour must direct the struggle against the real enemy—the capitalists who oppress and exploit the vast majority of the population.

To end once and for all the divisive politics of the ruling class, and truly fight oppression in all its forms, we need to fight to tear down the capitalist system which is the breeding ground for these evils. It is time to struggle to replace this system with something better: For a socialist society that can emancipate all of the working class.