Premier Blaine Higgs and his education minister joined a noisy march against LGBTQ policies in schools on Wednesday, a decision that was quickly denounced by supporters of gay and trans rights.
Higgs waded into a crowd of about 250 people on the front lawn of the New Brunswick Legislature, shaking hands with people carrying signs denouncing sex education and LGBTQ rights.
"Nice to see you," he was heard telling one marcher.
One person the premier greeted was holding a sign that said "Stop normalizing sex and nudity." A woman Higgs spoke to carried a sign that said "I need real education, not sex."
Around 250 people gathered on the front lawn of the legislature, many carrying signs denouncing sex education and LGBTQ rights. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)
About 100 people supporting LGBTQ rights and inclusive school policies to protect them held a counter-protest across the street from the march.
"I asked him if he was going to come over to this side, to get some selfies with the people over here," said Jeanne Currie of Fredericton, one of the counter-protesters with the Pride group.
"I think as the premier of the province, he should be over here as well. These people are just asking to be safe in schools. They're just asking to live their lives the way they want to live them, and no one should take that away from them."
In fact, Higgs left the legislature lawn without crossing the street to meet the counter-protestors.
"This situation is about parents and about the role parents play with their kids, and obviously that is not the position the others are taking," he explained.
The march was one of dozens held across Canada described by organizers as a "1 Million March 4 Children" protesting LGBTQ-inclusive education policies in the classroom and in extracurricular settings under the banner of parental rights.
Critics and researchers say the term "parental rights" is a misnomer because it doesn't address the concerns of LGBTQ parents or parents of LGBTQ children.
At one point Wednesday morning, the marchers and the counter-protesters in Fredericton shouted loudly at each other for several minutes from sidewalks on two sides of Queen Street, with several police officers standing between them on the closed roadway.
About 100 people supporting LGBTQ rights and inclusive school policies to protect them held a counter-protest across the street from the march. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)
"The premier has created a situation where New Brunswickers are yelling at each other in the streets," Opposition Liberal leader Susan Holt said on social media.
"The only way forward is listening, with love and respectful dialogue."
Green MLA Kevin Arseneau contrasted Higgs's appearance with a social media post by Nova Scotia PC Premier Tim Houston that said LGBTQ Nova Scotians "deserve to live without fear and intimidation."
"A premier and an education minister going out there and taking a side, clearly pushing this kind of division and discrimination towards part of the population … I can't help but feel disgusted," Arseneau said.
But Higgs told reporters it wasn't up to him to cool off the increasingly polarized atmosphere, arguing he had provoked a much-needed debate that others had avoided.
"The situation is pretty straightforward," he said. "It's kind of amazing that there's even a discussion of what the role of parents should be with their kids' lives."
The issue of LGBTQ content in schools became a flashpoint in the spring when Higgs made changes to the province's Policy 713.
Education Minister Bill Hogan, who also shook hands with marchers, said there were 'probably some extreme views that I wouldn't endorse' at the event, but 'I do endorse parents' rights.' (Ed Hunter/CBC)
After further tweaks in August, the policy is now clear that teachers will need parental consent before allowing children under 16 to use a new name or pronoun they choose in classrooms.
MLA Jeff Carr, one of six Progressive Conservatives who voted with the opposition on a Liberal motion on Policy 713 in June, said Wednesday that politicians who greet marchers at the legislature should not contribute to polarization.
"I think it is important to try to find a middle ground between whatever sides are out there, rather than continuing to allow them to divide," he said.
Sharon Lee Saulnier, one of the leaders of the march, said Higgs should go further than the changes to Policy 713 with "more investment in what's happening now," though she wouldn't specify what she wants.
Sharon Lee Saulnier, one of the leaders of the march, said Higgs should go further than the changes to Policy 713 with 'more investment in what's happening now,' though she wouldn't specify what she wants. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)
"To be frank, it's nice to see his presence. However — there's always a however — it would be nice to see him more involved and not just show up for photo-ops," she said.
Saulnier insisted the march was not "spreading hate. We are only standing up for the children who have no voice. We are not 'anti' anything."
Higgs wouldn't tell reporters whether he agrees with marchers who said the province should go further and remove all LGBTQ discussion from schools.
"There are lots of signs that show up at rallies," he said. "My position has been clear all along. I don't believe that our education system should be teaching kids to be untruthful with their parents.
"We are going to be insistent that there's a process here where parents are informed, parents make decisions, and they decide. It's not the system deciding for them."
Queen Street in Fredericton separated the counter-protesters from the protesters. At one point Wednesday, the marchers and the counter-protesters shouted loudly at each other for several minutes (Ed Hunter/CBC)
Education Minister Bill Hogan, who also shook hands with marchers, said there were "probably some extreme views that I wouldn't endorse" at the event but "I do endorse parents' rights."
He rejected, for example, a sign nearby that alleged schools were "grooming" children to become gay.
"I don't think children are being groomed in our schools, but I think we have an issue in terms of the curriculum and in terms of some individuals in our school system that take things just a little bit too far … so we're working on that and we have to deal with that."
That includes letting parents decide what kind of sex education children learn in school, he said.