A Christian camp said a transgender child couldn't stay in a boys' cabin. Then came the human rights battle

·7 min read
Caton's Island summer camp is on a 120-acre island in the St. John River across from the Kington Peninula. (Graham Thompson/CBC - image credit)
Caton's Island summer camp is on a 120-acre island in the St. John River across from the Kington Peninula. (Graham Thompson/CBC - image credit)

For parents of transgender children, normal kids' activities — like going to summer camp — aren't so simple.

Jan Gootjes, a New Brunswick mother of a transgender boy, knows this all too well. She regularly screens programs and activities to make sure they'll welcome him, will use his correct pronouns and provide the right accommodations.

That's what she did one day in the summer of 2020, when her son asked if he could go to Caton's Island summer camp and stay in a cabin with his male friends.

But because she didn't formally register her son to attend, the human rights complaint she later filed against the camp, a Christian program operated by the Wesleyan Church, was dismissed.

A piece of paradise

In the summer of 2020, Luke — CBC has changed his name for this story  — was 11, and had come out as transgender nearly two years before.

He came home one day from playing with his friends, who'd told him they wanted to go to Caton's Island summer camp.

The camp, on a 120-acre island about a half-hour drive north of Saint John, has been operating since 1985. It advertises itself as a "small piece of paradise" on its website.

Luke wanted to go to the camp too, Gootjes said, but first he had to know: would he and his friends be able to stay in the same cabin?

Gootjes decided to message the camp on Facebook before beginning a formal registration process. She explained the situation and asked whether Luke could stay in a cabin with his male friends.

Graham Thompson/CBC
Graham Thompson/CBC

Eleven days later, on June 30, the camp responded:

"Hi Jan, unfortunately at this time we are not able to place your child in a cabin with the gender they identify with. Thank you for considering us!"

Right away, Gootjes asked for an explanation. Unless there was a logistical reason Luke couldn't stay in a cabin with his friends, she wrote, she would assume the camp's decision had to do with his transgender status.

"Yes, let's talk," the camp wrote back to Gootjes that evening.

Neither Caton's Island summer camp nor the Atlantic District of the Wesleyan Church responded to requests for comment for this story.

Graham Thompson/CBC
Graham Thompson/CBC

After Caton's Island asked Gootjes to talk, she answered that evening: "My child spoke to his friends and I guess they are not attending this year so the issue is moot for now."

Gootjes maintains that says Luke's friends decided not to go to the camp to show solidarity with him.

When Gootjes told Caton's Island Luke no longer wanted to attend that summer, she encouraged the camp to be more inclusive and agreed to have a conversation with the camp.

Caton's Island asked Gootjes to reach out again in the fall since staff were busy with training and adjusting the camp's programming to align with COVID-19 regulations.

In its response to Gootjes' human rights complaint, the camp said Gootjes never called in the fall.

But Gootjes said the camp blocked her on Facebook, and shared with CBC News a Messenger screenshot that shows she was unable to continue messaging the camp.

Is a private religious camp a public service?

Although the Gootjes family had decided not to send Luke to camp after their exchange with Caton's Island, the situation still bothered Luke, according to Gootjes. He couldn't understand why the camp wouldn't have let him stay in a boys cabin.

With his consent, Gootjes filed a human rights complaint in February 2021.

New Brunswick's Human Rights Act protects against discrimination based on 16 grounds, including gender identity or expression, and applies to public services.

While Caton's Island is operated through the Wesleyan church and promotes Christianity on its camp website, anyone may apply to attend the camp.

Marc-Alain Mallet, the director of the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission, confirmed to CBC News in an interview that a private religious summer camp that accepts anyone from the public is a public service.

Graham Thompson/CBC
Graham Thompson/CBC

In the spring of 2021, both parties agreed to try mediation, which ultimately failed.

As part of mediation, Gootjes outlined what she wanted to see changed at Caton's Island summer camp, including an update of what the camp calls its discrimination policy so that LGBTQ people would be allowed to attend.

Caton's Island's current discrimination policy states it accepts, without discrimination, "all who apply without regard for race, colour, national origin, or religious beliefs."

"We do, however, reserve the right to refuse those with conditions that we deem to be of such a nature that they could be a hazard to, or affect the well-being of, themselves or others while participating in the regular camp activities," the camp states on its website.

During mediation, Caton's Island said its existing discrimination policy "already prohibits any and all discrimination including on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity," but maintained that this had not yet been posted on its website, according to an email obtained by CBC News.

Over a year since mediation occurred, the camp still hasn't posted a new version of its policy.

Another of Gootjes's conditions was that conversations with negative connotations surrounding sexual orientation or homosexuality not be had during the context of camp activities with campers.

The camp rejected this, saying it would go against its theological and religious beliefs.

'A hateful atmosphere of homophobic commentary'

When the conflict between the Gootjes family and Caton's Island began, Jan Gootjes posted about it on social media.

She received many negative comments asking why she would even bother trying to send Luke to a Christian camp, but Gootjes said she also heard support comments from other families whose children had bad experiences at the camp.

Gootjes included one family's experience in her rebuttal to the camp's response to her human rights complaint.

The letter, which the mother who wrote it agreed to share with CBC News, said her daughter went to Caton's Island for a week in both 2016 and 2017.

According to the letter, the woman's daughter described the camp in  2017 as having a "hateful atmosphere of homophobic commentary by her counsellors."

Caton's offered Luke a gender neutral cabin

As part of mediation, Caton's Island offered to accommodate Luke by providing him with a gender neutral cabin and gender neutral washroom, plus one free week of camp. But allowing him to stay in a boys cabin wasn't on the table.

For Gootjes and her family, this didn't sound like an accommodation. Forcing Luke to stay in a cabin all by himself would defeat the purpose of going to camp with his friends.

Gootjes said it would also inadvertently out him as a transgender camper and draw unwanted attention.

"We automatically said no to that," she said. "This really just affirmed that this camp was not a safe place for our child at all, or for any transgender child."

After mediation failed, the case moved forward as an investigation. On Aug. 30, 2021, the commission dismissed the Gootjes family's complaint that the camp discriminated against Luke.

The family's appeal was also dismissed.

Submitted
Submitted

Gootjes feels Caton's Island got off on a technicality.

Most of the reasons the commission provided to the Gootjes family in dismissing their complaint were about the fact that the family didn't formally apply to send Luke to camp, and therefore didn't formally request any accommodations from the camp on the basis of his gender identity.

The commission also wrote in its decision that while Caton's Island has a duty to accommodate reasonable requests for use of its services by transgender children, accommodation is a two-way process, and the seeker of the accommodation has to mutually explore the best options under the given circumstances.

While not able to speak about Luke's case, Mallet told CBC News that when it comes to a discrimination complaint, a situation has to fall within the rules of the Human Rights Act.

"The person would have to demonstrate that they were the subject to an adverse effect," he said.

Mallet agreed that if a parent actually did formally register a transgender child for a service or program, and the child was turned away based on their being transgender, it could be grounds for discrimination.

'There's so much joy'

Today, Luke is happy, Gootjes said.

He plays hockey, competes in karate, and even went to another Christian summer camp, Hockey Ministries International, that accommodated him as a transgender child.

"There's so much joy," she said.

Gootjes was disappointed in the commission's decision, but said as a mother, she went through all this to show Luke she was in his corner.

"I just wanted [Luke] to know that we would fight for him."