The leader of the Conservative Party of British Columbia has defended his social media post that critics say appeared to compare teaching students about sexual orientation and gender identity to the genocide of Indigenous children in residential schools.
John Rustad, MLA for Nechako Lakes, acknowledged the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in a Sept. 30 post on X, formerly known as Twitter.
"Today we remember what happens when the Canadian government thinks it's better at raising children than parents," read Rustad's post on Saturday, which was also shared on his party's official Facebook page.
"I will always stand with parents."
Rustad's post quickly drew criticism from residential school survivors and fellow MLAs, who said it was politicizing the deaths of children at residential schools in order to support the so-called parental rights movement — which supports a ban on teaching B.C. students about sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in schools, and says parents need more information and input about what their children are learning in school.
Rustad has said he backs these positions and wants to ensure anti-bullying policies create a safe environment for all students.
This screengrab shows a social media post from John Rustad, leader of the Conservative Party of B.C., that has drawn criticism. (X)
In an interview with CBC News on Monday, Rustad stood by his post and denied that it made a comparison between harms caused by residential schools and concerns of some parents about SOGI being taught in B.C. schools.
"My tweet was not about the children and the impact that had on on the Indigenous people," said Rustad, a former minister of Aboriginal affairs and reconciliation with the B.C. Liberals, the party now known as B.C. United.
"What happened to Indigenous people is obviously a very stark reminder of what happens when government does decide to interfere with the raising of children. And it's a very tragic.
"But in no way was I trying to compare students today to what students went through, but rather that what parents went through, and parents having their rights taken away, is not right at any level."
When asked what damage he thinks parents are experiencing now due to SOGI being taught in schools, Rustad said he had heard from parents who said their daughter didn't feel safe using the universal washroom in her school, but did not provide further details.
When asked if he regretted his comments in light of criticism from survivors, he said, "I made my statement with the greatest intent, with the greatest respect, to point to the issue of government interfering and government thinking it knows best in terms of how children should be raised."
The term "parental rights" has been used across Canada and the United States by groups lobbying for legislation to require parental consent for children and teens who want to use different names or pronouns at schools — measures that some LGBTQ advocates say harm transgender youth.
Critics of the term say it's a dog-whistle for anti-trans policies and is a misnomer, as it excludes LGBTQ parents and suggests parents' rights supersede those of their children.
Leader's comment called 'horrific'
Residential school survivor Celeste George, a member of the Nak'azdli Whut'en, a First Nation near Fort St. James, B.C., said seeing Rustad's post on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a day meant to honour victims and survivors of residential schools, was "enraging."
"It's not even the comparison, [it's] the actual idea that he can blatantly use the day for his own hatred, for his own agenda," said George, a former anti-racism educator.
"That was really horrific to me, knowing that hatred has taken so much from us."
Hundreds of people take part in a walk on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in the First Nations community of Aq'am on Saturday. (Corey Bullock/CBC)
She said she is concerned Rustad's post will fuel anti-Indigenous racism and anti-trans sentiments.
B.C. Greens MLA Adam Olsen, a member of the Tsartlip First Nation whose grandparents and relatives were sent to the Kuper Island Residential School, said Rustad's post was disrespectful to survivors and their families.
"For a former minister of Indigenous relations, now leader of the Conservatives, to throw out a tweet into the middle of a discussion where British Columbians are reflecting on a very serious part of our history, and trying to conflate the two, is astonishing, first of all, but it's [also] completely inappropriate," Olsen told CBC's The Early Edition on Monday.
"There is absolutely no comparison between what happened with residential and day schools in this country and a public education system."
B.C. New Democrat MLA Ravi Parmar called the social media post a "disgraceful comparison."
"It's shameful to co-opt this day to spread fear and attack the rights of queer kids," he wrote on X.
On Sunday, B.C. United MLA and education critic Elenore Sturko called on Rustad to apologize for both his post and also for referring to being LGBTQ as a "lifestyle" in an interview with CTV News on Saturday.
Sturko says Rustad's post was a misappropriation of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and a "dog whistle to hate."
"We don't need to use what happened between Canada and Indigenous peoples in any form of analogy. We need to recognize that these events deserve, and rightfully so, their own time of reflection," she told CBC News.
"It's actually offensive that he would bring up — especially to myself, as a member of the gay community — to bring up an analogy about LGBTQ people."
B.C. United supports SOGI but leader Kevin Falcon has been criticized for an unclear party stance on parental rights. Sturko says the party supports increasing information and transparency for parents around what their children are learning.
Conservative Party newly recognized
Rustad was first elected in 2005 and previously served as minister of Aboriginal relations and reconciliation under the B.C. Liberal — now B.C. United — government.
In 2021, he backtracked after making comments questioning why Indigenous members of his community were receiving COVID-19 vaccines ahead of older members of the population.
In August 2022, he was ousted from the B.C. United caucus for sharing an online post casting doubt on the science behind climate change.
Rustad sat as an independent until February, when he joined the B.C. Conservative Party. A month later, he was acclaimed as party leader.
Another B.C. United MLA, Bruce Banman, crossed the floor to join Rustad in September, and the two-MLA party was officially recognized in the legislature two weeks ago.
On Monday, Banman and party president Aisha Estey defended Rustad's comments.
Estey called SOGI curriculum resources "very sexualized material" and said, "when teachers are teaching young children about sexuality, it opens up the opportunity for abuse."
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.