Edmonton

Alberta premier says legislation on gender policies for children, youth coming this fall

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says legislation will come this fall to codify her planned policy changes affecting transgender and non-binary youth and adults.

'We're putting this forward with the best interests of the child in mind,' Danielle Smith says

A woman stands behind a podium.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks to media in Calgary on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. (Emilio Avalos/Radio-Canada)

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says her government will introduce legislation this fall to support the planned policy changes affecting transgender and non-binary youth and adults.

At a news conference Thursday, Smith defended her rationale for planning to restrict health-care options for youth and inform parents of any name and gender identity changes students request at school.

"I am confident that Albertans do not want children to make irreversible decisions that impact their reproductive health," Smith said.

"I am confident that they don't think those are child decisions to make; that those are adult decisions to make."

In a seven-minute video posted to social media Wednesday afternoon, Smith announced that her United Conservative Party government will implement a slate of new policies and guidelines relating to transgender young people and other children and youth.

Among the measures:

  • Top and bottom surgeries will be banned for minors aged 17 and under. Doctors say bottom surgeries aren't performed on youth and top surgeries are rare.
  • Puberty blockers and hormone therapies for gender affirmation will not be permitted for children aged 15 and under.
  • Youths aged 16 and 17 will be permitted to start hormone therapies for gender affirmation "as long as they are deemed mature enough" and have parental, physician and psychologist approval.
  • Parental notification and consent will be required for a school to alter the name or pronouns of any child under age 15. Students who are 16 or 17 won't need permission but schools will need to let their parents know first.
  • Parents will have to "opt-in" their children every time a teacher plans to teach about gender identity, sexual orientation or sexuality. Alberta law currently requires parental notification and gives them the option to opt students out.
  • All third-party teaching materials on gender identity, sexual orientation or sexuality will need to be approved in advance by the education ministry.
  • Transgender women will be banned from competing in women's sports leagues. Smith said the government will work with leagues to set up coed or gender-neutral divisions for sports.

At Thursday's news conference, Smith said the science around the safety of puberty blockers and hormone therapy in children is not settled and that other jurisdictions are moving away from recommending their use.

WATCH | Alberta plans to table the new legislation in the fall: 

Gender health practitioners weigh in on Alberta's policy changes

3 months ago
Duration 2:00
Medical experts and patients weigh in on gender-affirming care and the potential impact of Alberta's proposed new law on affected youth. Limiting their access to care will put some kids at risk of self-harm, they say.

The proposals go further than policies introduced last year in both Saskatchewan and New Brunswick. 

Saskatchewan made changes via legislation. New Brunswick opted to make policy changes. 

The Saskatchewan Party government passed its Parents' Bill of Rights, which requires consent from a parent or guardian "when a student requests that their preferred name, gender identity, and/or gender expression be used" at school.

New Brunswick's recent changes to its policy mean it's no longer mandatory for teachers to use the preferred pronouns or names of transgender or non-binary students under the age of 16.

Asked if she would resort to using the notwithstanding clause, as Saskatchewan's government has done, to circumvent parts of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Smith said she hopes it doesn't come to that.

"We're putting this forward with the best interests of the child in mind," Smith said.

Jeff Park, executive director of the Alberta Parents' Union, told CBC News that the provincial government consulted with the organization, but he was still surprised by how many of the issues raised were included in the policy.

"It reflected a deep and thorough amount of work on a lot of the concerns and issues that parents have been bringing up to us for the last two years," Park said.

"This has been something that we knew the caucus had been talking about for a long time, and you can see that in the announcement."

He said he was particularly glad to see measures addressing materials from outside organizations.

Opponents see grounds for legal challenge

Some medical and legal experts dispute Smith's assertions.

Calgary psychiatrist Dr. Joe Raiche, who sees gender-diverse youth and adult patients, said prescribing puberty-blocking medication to youth helps prevent the irreversible development of some characteristics.

Withholding the medication from children 15 and younger is "forcing them to undergo a puberty that may not necessarily align with their gender identity and it's going to be extremely unsettling, extremely dysphoric for them," he said.

That could lead to depression, anxiety and increased thoughts of suicide, he said.

Raiche said the proposal to outlaw access to puberty blockers ignores best practices, guidelines and international standards of care endorsed by major medical associations.

Bennett Jensen, director of legal for Egale Canada, says the organization will be ready to fight the Alberta policies in court once they are official. Egale is among the groups challenging the legality of New Brunswick's policy.

WATCH | Reactions to Alberta's policy changes affecting transgender and non-binary youth and adults. : 

Reactions to Alberta’s gender policies for youth show polarized province

3 months ago
Duration 4:02
Premier Danielle Smith says the government’s sweeping and controversial gender policies will ultimately protect young Albertans from making decisions they would later regret. Critics, however, have accused the premier of politicizing an issue that should ultimately be personal, and say the move will further marginalize LGBTQ youth.

Jensen says the group is likely to argue policies requiring parent permission for pronoun and name changes violate students' rights to be free from cruel and unusual treatment from the state and their right to equality.

Egale, transgender, human rights, Bennett Jensen
Bennett Jensen, director of legal for Egale Canada, says he sees multiple legal grounds for challenging Alberta's proposed new policies concerning trans and non-binary people. (Submitted by Egale Canada)

Jensen said denying access to gender-affirming medications would be discriminatory denial of access to medically necessary health care.

"This is the most blatant regression of legal protections for 2SLGBTQI people in our country's history … We know firsthand the real harm that is going to result," he said in an interview from Toronto.

 "It would be unconscionable for me in the position I'm at for Egale to sit back and watch this happen."

University of Calgary law professor Jennifer Koshan sees other potential legal snags with Smith's proposals. On Thursday, Koshan told Alberta at Noon there is no firm age at which doctors deem youth mature enough to make their own medical decisions. Smith's proposal to draw the line at age 18 is "not consistent with our current law," she said.

Koshan said the Alberta proposals may also clash with some the ethical obligations professionals like doctors and psychologists follow.

Swift reaction to ideas

The premier's video on Wednesday drew immediate condemnation from advocates for transgender youth and the wider LGBTQ community, but the head of a parents'-rights group called Parents for Choice in Education called it "reasonable."

Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teacher's Association, said teachers are primarily concerned about the safety of their most vulnerable students.

"We are concerned about the chilling effect placed on classrooms and schools, impacting our ability to provide safe, caring and inclusive spaces for all students," Schilling said Wednesday. 

"We are concerned about how students may feel forced to suppress their identities and to be afraid of reaching out to teachers as an avenue for support."

Rachel Notley, leader of Alberta's Opposition NDP, spoke to reporters about Smith's policy announcement earlier in the day from Ottawa.

Notley said Smith is taking choices away from gender-diverse youth and their families, and interfering with medical judgments best made by patients and health-care workers.

"The decisions being made by Danielle Smith and her government are designed to further divide those who have been subjected to misinformation and conspiracy theories generated by a wing of the UCP," she said.

Last fall, United Conservative Party members voted overwhelmingly in favour of a non-binding policy recommending schools require the written consent of parents before changing the names and pronouns they use to address students 15 and younger.

Members also approved a policy asking the government to ensure schools and third parties don't provide students "inappropriate" material, including sexually explicit, racist or bigoted content.

WATCH | Smith announces measures to limit gender-affirming care to transgender youth: 

Alberta to put limits on gender-affirming care for trans youth

3 months ago
Duration 2:07
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith announced policy changes that would put minimum legal age limits on surgeries and hormone therapies for transgender youth. It will also require parental notification — and permission, depending on the student's age — if a student wants to change their name or pronoun at school.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.

With files from Judy Aldous

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