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As hate groups attack 2SLGBTQ+ youth, Canada’s labour movement rises to the moment
In Alberta and elsewhere, unions and families turned out to confront the far right.
Organized labour was out in full force outside Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) headquarters in west Edmonton last week to stand in solidarity against the far right demonstrators of the so-called “1MillionMarch4Children” protesting 2SLGBTQ+ inclusion policies in Canadian schools.
Supporters of 2SLGBTQ+ rights stood with education workers in front of the ATA building, which had been painted with a Pride flag in the days leading up to the demonstration, while the protest was held across the street.
As the day drew on, the anti-2SLGBTQ+ side swelled to be at least double the size of the counter-protest.
The nation-wide protests, organized by an unholy alliance of socially conservative religious groups, anti-vaxxers, public education opponents, and other individuals, were framed in opposition to SOGI 123 (sexual orientation and gender identity) — a series of resources provided to teachers to create safe classrooms of 2SLGBTQ+ students — under the guise of “parental rights.”
But these protests cannot be viewed in isolation from the increasingly violent rhetoricemanating against 2SLGBTQ+ people globally and the passage of hundreds of proposed legislation specifically targeting transgender people across the United States.
Closer to home, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, warmly greeted protestors in Fredericton. Higgs and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe have both introduced policies requiring teachers to receive parental permission for transgender students to change their names or pronouns in class.
Across Canada, the labour movement has played a leading role nation-wide in organizing counter-protests against this movement explicitly targeting 2SLGBTQ+ youth, which uses the same tired anti-gay clichés of yore to spread fear that the Pride movement is coming for your kids. This latest manifestation seeks to uphold rigid, traditionalist gender binaries as part of its broader exclusionary project.
One Edmonton protestor carried a sign that read, “Pedophiles get the rope,” a reference to both conspiracy theories that teachers are sexualizing students in classrooms by creating an inclusive environment, as well as the white nationalist fantasy of the “Day of the Rope,” in which so-called “race traitors” are hanged.
He was standing next to a racialized woman in a hijab, encapsulating the protest’s twisted dynamic.
While police stood between the two sides outside the ATA building, many anti-trans protestors were able to make their way over to the counter-protest, shouting epithets at counter-demonstrators.
Later, the two groups marched along opposite sides of the street. Although police accompanied marchers, some young demonstrators from the anti-2SLGBTQ+ side made their way into the plaza on the pro-Pride side to hurl invective at the counter-protestors.
ATA president Jason Schilling, whose organization serves as both a union that represents teachers in collective bargaining and a professional association that certifies teachers, observed that the protestors’ ire was “rooted really in a lack of knowledge and… deep-seated misunderstanding” of how educators address gender identity.
SOGI 123 is simply a resource created by educators “to create diverse and respectful spaces for students,” he says. “That's all it is. It's a resource that teachers and school boards can use if they want.”
Literature handed out at the anti-SOGI side claimed the resource “inadvertently teaches that parents & families should NOT be trusted unless they hold the EXACTLY [sic] same beliefs as are being taught,” which is simply false.
Schilling said it was especially troubling that the protests were “being directed towards a marginalized part of our community.”
“It's unfortunate that they're here to spread that level of hate. That's why you have all these people here today to push back against that because when we see hate and misinformation, especially today's divisive society, we need to push back on it,” said Schilling.
Joining the ATA at the counter-demonstration were members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, United Nurses of Alberta, Canadian Union of Public Employes Alberta, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, and the Alberta Federation of Labour.
Jorge Illanes, president of CUPE local 3550, which represents educational support staff in Edmonton public schools, says that it’s not just teachers who are tasked with ensuring students’ safety, whether it’s based on their religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Safety is a key priority for teachers’ support staff, and obviously society and Edmonton public schools, so we have to support it. We have to support discussions but safe discussions, not discussions based on hate,” said Illanes.
CUPE Alberta is in the midst of a province-wide campaign to win a wage increase for its education workers, who haven’t had a raise in eight years, despite making an average wage of just $34,300 annually.
Sandra Azocar, a vice president with AUPE — the province’s largest union — noted how the labour movement exists “to improve the lives of not only our members, but the members of society at large.”
“When we see injustices, when we see hate prevail over what is right, then we need to bring our voices to the table,” Azocar said.
She said she found it disturbing to see many marginalized groups represented on the other side of the street, standing beside those who otherwise have nothing but disdain for them.
“I can tell you that when they come for them, we will be standing beside them as well,” said Azocar.
Oneil Carlier, PSAC’s regional representative for northern Alberta, came to Edmonton from the acreage he lives on about an hour northwest of the city to show his support for 2SLGBTQ+ students.
Carlier, who was the NDP MLA for a rural northern Alberta riding from 2015 to 2019, noted an increasing mainstreaming of naked bigotry — especially against 2SLGBTQ+ people — that began during his time in government, which he in part attributed to the rise of U.S. President Donald Trump and social media algorithms fuelling misinformation.
“The education needs to start everywhere. It needs to start in the homes, needs to start in the church, needs to be in the schools, needs to be in the family homes and needs to be in union halls too.”
“There's folks out there — and I will use the word ‘bigots’ — who hide behind different things to spread a message of hate. They hide behind their faith. They hide behind saying they want to protect the children,” he said. “That's nonsense. They absolutely do not.”
While the labour movement since its inception has been committed to creating a “free and just society” for all, the labour movement doesn’t exist in isolation from the prejudices that occur elsewhere in society, which Carlier said underscores the need for a broad education campaign.
“The education needs to start everywhere,” said Carlier. “It needs to start in the homes, needs to start in the church, needs to be in the schools, needs to be in the family homes and needs to be in union halls too.”
Rachel Scheffelmair, a nurse who was at the protest with her UNA local, addressed a key piece of disinformation from opponents of trans rights in schools — that puberty blockers are an experimental form of “castration.”
She said she often gives Lupron, a hormone blocker that has been around for decades, to cisgendered children who go through puberty too early “because of negative effects on their health.”
It’s also used to treat certain types of hormonal cancers, such as prostate cancer.
For trans kids, too, it can be a life-saving treatment, providing a temporary solution to their gender dysphoria that is immediately reversible once they stop taking it. It just buys them time.
“There's so much trans hate and transphobia that if I don't stand up to the hate now, and possibly subject myself to hate crimes or speech right now, in this moment in time, it will just grow.”
“A lot of these kids are ending their lives. Not allowing them to have access to a drug that's proven safe is actually immensely harmful for them in so many other ways,” said Scheffelmair, who has four kids in the K-12 school system.
She expressed frustration that these basic facts are ignored by those peddling anti-trans hatred. “I can tell them but they're not interested in that,” she said.
In order to change their perspectives, Scheffelmair said, transphobic people need to have trans people in their lives. “It's easy to be afraid of somebody that you don't know — of a concept, of an idea — but it's a lot harder to be afraid of an actual person, of a child,” she said.
For Soren Gamble, who’s trans, showing up at the counter-demonstration was a matter of personal preservation and perseverance.
“There's so much trans hate and transphobia that if I don't stand up to the hate now, and possibly subject myself to hate crimes or speech right now, in this moment in time, it will just grow,” he said.
Gamble, who came out as trans in 2010 when he was 19, said “it honestly means a lot” to have the public, institutional support of people “from so many walks of life, from people with various religious affiliations, various political affiliations.”
“It just reminds me that I'm not hated for who I am simply for existing,” he said. “That's the big thing.”
The insurgent far-right group Take Back Alberta (TBA) and its founder David Parker enthusiastically endorsed the anti-2SLGBTQ+ protest.
While TBA was founded primarily to oppose COVID restrictions and vaccination, Parker, who was homeschooled, has recently pivoted to ranting about the purported “sexual indoctrination” of children in schools. The day of the protests, he called on supporters to “go out and defeat some governmental authoritarians.”
Premier Danielle Smith has previously refuted anti-trans sentiment from her supporters, noting that she has a non-binary relative and cautions against “making any child feel like the issues they’re struggling with is something that’s a political football” in response to a virulently transphobic line of questioning at a UCP leadership forum.
But TBA is a key constituency of support for Premier Smith, which has been gaining influence over the UCP apparatus. Smith and Parker are also friends, with Smith attending his wedding to a blogger for the far-right True North website earlier this year.
“There are very powerful forces who are trying to organize with deeper objectives than just hate and really it's about other things like defunding our public education system and sowing mistrust in our institutions.”
These conflicting impulses might explain the premier’s muddled September 20 statement, also posted on X, calling on “all protesters, regardless of what their position is on these delicate issues, exercise their right of free speech peacefully and to encourage their fellow Canadians to do the same.”
Independent investigative journalist Charles Rusnell unearthed an April photo of Premier Smith and Justice Minister Mickey Amery posing for a photo with Mahmoud Mourra, an organizer of the Calgary anti-SOGI protest who was charged with hate-motivated criminal harassment in July.
Meanwhile, federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has explicitly instructed his caucus not to speak about the protests to media, providing them with a series of talking points in the event a constituent inquires about it.
Bradley Lafortune, executive director of the progressive advocacy outfit Public Interest Alberta, said that he was at the counter-protest with a message of “solidarity and love” for 2SLGBTQ+ kids in the face of “misinformation and hate.”
But the movement against trans rights is part of a broader right-wing project, he added.
“There are very powerful forces who are trying to organize with deeper objectives than just hate and really it's about other things like defunding our public education system and sowing mistrust in our institutions,” Lafortune said.
Toronto Star city columnist Edward Keenan, covering the local protest, observed that the demonstrations were “nominally about the education curriculum regarding gender identity, but the turnout was heavy from the conspiracy-theory-of-the-week crowd, launching themselves into their new bid for culture-war relevance.”
Lafortune noted that these very forces were able to mobilize effectively online through the isolation of the pandemic, recruiting people who were looking for a sense of community, which often put strain on their real-life relationships, pushing them deeper down the COVID conspiracy rabbit hole, making them susceptible to other forms of conspiracy thinking.
“It's family, friends, coworkers — a lot of people who are close to you who have been fed this misinformation and really gobbling it up,” Lafortune said.
The question is how does one combat these forces. Lafortune acknowledged that a demonstration where people are fired up and tensions are running high isn’t the appropriate venue, but ultimately people need to have difficult conversations with their loved ones who’ve fallen prey to online far-right radicalization.
“If you have the patience to do it, have conversations with people and actually look them in the eye and try to get to the heart of it. That's really, really hard work and it maybe sounds a little bit Pollyannaish, but if you can find spaces where there's a little bit of goodwill and common ground, go from there,” he said.
At the same time, Lafortune added, it’s important for like-minded people to come out and make their collective voices heard in opposition to the rising tide of anti-2SLGBTQ+ sentiment.
“This is a day to show up, spread love and stand up with the queer and trans community and be allies,” he said.
A version of this piece originally appeared in Ricochet.