'Chilling effect': Some teachers say Saskatchewan pronoun policy creates uncertainty

REGINA — Saskatchewan high school teacher Nick Day normally requests his students fill out a survey at the start of the year, asking them to write their hobbies or interests, as well as their names and pronouns.

The Regina photography teacher offered the same survey this September, but he's now hesitant to look at his students' answers. The surveys are a chance to get to know them better and ensure their rights are being respected, he said.

"I know it sounds silly, but I'm nervous to read the results," Day said in an interview this week.

"And I think that's part of an intended effect, that we'll all just be anxious and uncertain about these things, when it should be quite simple and straightforward."

Day is among many teachers in Saskatchewan navigating the province's new policy that requires children under 16 to seek parental consent if they want to go by a different name or pronoun at school.

Some teachers have said the policy has created a sense of uncertainty, causing them to question how they should approach their jobs and whether they are being forced to break ethical codes.

Day said the policy, which came into force immediately, has had a "chilling effect."

Regina high school music teacher Brendan Dickie said the policy has made it difficult to develop meaningful relationships with some students.

Dickie also offers a survey to students. He said last year's survey asked students their pronouns, but this year's does not.

"They didn't have to answer the pronoun question, ever. But oftentimes, you get kids that would, because it's probably the one place where they can put that down," he said.

Human rights groups have criticized Saskatchewan's policy, saying it could out children to their parents or cause teachers to misgender them at school if they don't get permission.

An injunction application recently went before a judge requesting the policy be halted, with the applicant's lawyers arguing it violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The judge has reserved his decision.

The province argues the policy is meant to include parents when children make decisions about their names and pronouns at school, and that a child's age should also be taken into account.

Premier Scott Moe has said he's considering all tools to keep the policy, including the notwithstanding clause, a provision that allows governments to override certain Charter rights for up to five years.

The Ministry of Education took nine days in August to finalize a draft of the policy, releasing it four days later to the public and school divisions.

The Saskatchewan School Boards Association declined to comment on Friday, as the policy is before the courts.

As teachers navigate the changes, many are grappling with how they are supposed to follow it when they have a code of ethics that suggests they shouldn't.

In her review of the policy, Saskatchewan children's advocate Lisa Broda said teachers may be violating their professional standards of conduct by not honouring a student's chosen name and pronouns. Broda has said it also violates rights to gender identity and expression.

The code of ethics requires teachers to "respect the right of students to form their own judgments based upon knowledge" and to "support each student in reaching their highest levels of individual growth across intellectual, social-emotional, spiritual and physical domains."

A provincial learning resource for teachers says all students, including those who are gender and sexually diverse, should feel safe, protected and respected in Saskatchewan's schools.

Day said he would be violating the code when following the policy.

"What do I do about that and what are the implications?" he said. "That's been stressful."

Broda's report also questioned whether the policy would go beyond names and pronouns, and apply to students with different hair, clothes and makeup, if this is viewed as their gender expression.

She said the lack of clarity around what constitutes gender expression "raises some of the most pressing privacy concerns."

The province has said children would be provided with school counselling if they're worried they won't receive parental consent.

However, the policy requires counsellors to not use students' chosen names if they don't receive consent. Broda's report notes counsellors are also bound to standards that state they shouldn't impose stereotypes onto clients based on behaviour, values or roles, including gender.

Further, the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation has said there's only one counsellor for every 3,000 students, suggesting children could face long waits to receive help.

The federation wasn't immediately available for comment.

Dickie said the two guidance counsellors at his school are extremely busy and stretched thin.

"They don't really get that time to dedicate to the students," he said.

Dickie said he has felt exhausted since this school year began.

"I haven't had energy, even when I've left the school to just do anything that I find joy in, because it's aggravating," he said.

"I feel like all of my ability to actually support kids from that emotional and mental side is being stripped away slowly."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2023.

Jeremy Simes, The Canadian Press