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N.B. Human Rights Commission concerned over LGBTQ policy review in schools

A pride flag is seen in this undated file photo. A pride flag is seen in this undated file photo.

The New Brunswick Human Rights Commission expressed concern Monday over the government's decision to review the province's policy on sexual orientation in schools.

Commission chair Claire Roussel-Sullivan said in a statement that the policy establishes minimum standards for schools to ensure a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment for LGBTQ students.

"(The commission) emphasizes that the government has obligations to safeguard the equality and dignity of all school-going children," Roussel-Sullivan said. "These obligations ensue from the government's commitments under the international, national, and provincial human rights system."

Her comments came in reaction to reports about the provincial government's decision to review the policy -- known as Policy 713 -- after it said it heard concerns from a variety of groups, including parents and teachers.

Education Minister Bill Hogan said in a statement Monday that Policy 713 will not be scrapped. "We are reviewing areas of the policy that are causing confusion and misconceptions," he said. "However, we are not in any way repealing the policy."

He said the government will look at two specific aspects of the policy that have drawn criticism from some parents. One is the provision for students under 16 to change their preferred first name and pronoun, without any communication to the parent. The other is "the process for team sport selection and participation," the minister said, without elaborating on the concerns about sport teams.

"In addition to reviewing these two aspects of Policy 713, parents have also voiced concerns about the age appropriateness of what is taught in the classroom when it comes to sexual education," Hogan said.

The province's decision to review Policy 713 has faced intense scrutiny, with former education minister Dominic Cardy accusing Premier Blaine Higgs of wanting to gut sex education.

Gail Costello, with New Brunswick LGBTQ advocacy group Pride in Education, helped write the policy and said the Education Department should not allow a small group of critics to dictate government decisions.

"Policy 713 is about creating a safe learning space," she said. "It's about letting kids use whatever names that they like or that they approve on the report cards. It's about safe washrooms. It's about a safe, inclusive learning space. It's literally about the physical space. It's not about curriculum at all."

She called the policy review "dangerous."

The policy came about, Costello said, so LGBTQ students could see themselves in the classroom environment and not be bullied or shamed.

"So when a little Grade 2 kid is sitting there, and the teacher reads a story about two moms, or a story about two dads, they can go, 'Well, that's like my family,' and if the teacher is reading it, then the teacher's a good person. It's better to prevent mental health issues than to have to treat them the rest of your life."

Anglophone East District Education Council member Kristin Cavoukian said the review was a "bewildering announcement," with parallels to initiatives curtailing LGBTQ rights in the United States.

Whe noted that the government said the policy review came after questions and concerns raised by parents. "But the truth is, we'll never know, because they'll never show us the emails that they have supposedly received," she said.

"I don't doubt that there is a small yet vocal minority of social conservatives in this province, as there are in every province," she said. "And it sounds as though this government is prioritizing their votes .... Now, as a mom, I won't stand for that. And as a district education council member, I represent a community that won't stand for it either."

 -- With files from Michael MacDonald in Halifax

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2023.

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