Several hundred people marched through the streets of downtown Halifax Wednesday during noisy and sometimes tense protests and counter-protests over LGBTQ rights and education policies in schools.
The groups first gathered in the morning at Grand Parade near Halifax city hall, with police officers forming a line to keep the two sides apart.
Protesters against LGBTQ-inclusive policies in schools carried signs with slogans such as "Protect childhood innocence" and "Groom dogs not kids," while counter-protesters waved rainbow Pride and trans Pride flags, and chanted "trans rights are human rights" and "go home bigots."
Similar events were planned Wednesday across Canada, with some parents and socially conservative groups protesting LGBTQ-inclusive education policies in the classroom and in extracurricular settings.
More than 100 people also gathered outside city hall in Sydney, N.S., where counter-protesters outnumbered protesters by nearly two to one. The demonstration was smaller than the one in Halifax and both sides were respectful.
Counter-protesters wait at the corner of Esplanade and Dorchester Street in Sydney, N.S., to allow protesters to cross the street. (Tom Ayers/CBC)
Riley Nielson-Baker, executive director of the non-profit Gender Affirming Care Nova Scotia, said the "rising tide of hate" against the queer community has arrived in Nova Scotia. Those protesting against gender-identity rights in schools risk harming their relationships with their own children, Nielson-Baker said.
"I see a mix of absolute hatred and bigotry," Nielson-Baker said of the Halifax protesters. "I also see a collection of people who are just scared and want the best for their kids and are afraid. But this isn't the route to go."
Some protesters have used the banner of "parental rights" in their objections to LGBTQ-inclusive policies. 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.
The protests are also linked to emerging policies in parts of the country, including in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, that require young people to get parental consent before teachers can use their preferred first names and pronouns.
Michelle Lindsay, a protest supporter who said she is the Atlantic Canada lieutenant for the People's Party of Canada, said the march was about standing up to the "gender-identity agenda," including children being asked how they identify.
"I understand that children are being indoctrinated in the schools and they're being sexualized," Lindsay said. "Children are there to be educated — math, science, English, grammar and history and geography. Not about confusing them if they are a girl or a boy."
Counter-protesters marched through the streets of downtown Halifax. (Robert Short/CBC)
She said the protest wasn't against the LGBTQ community, but rather in support of "parental rights." There are concerns, she said, that teachers are "keeping secrets from parents" when a child wants to "gender identify as another sex."
Halifax police said a 16-year-old was arrested during the protest for assault with a weapon, causing a disturbance and mischief. A police spokesperson said the youth was throwing something, but did not have additional details.
Nabila Manna, a 13-year-old junior high student in Halifax, said she joined the protest because she doesn't want to learn about gender identity in school. Last year, she said she refused to sit in class while the subject was being taught, and said it's "crazy" that students are asked how they prefer to be identified at school.
"I don't want to learn about this," Manna said. "I believe there's two genders. They can believe whatever they want, but I believe there's two genders. There's a female and a male. That's what I believe."
During an interview with CBC News, a counter-protester approached and said "f--- you, fascist" to the teen as the two engaged in a brief shouting match.
Protesters against LGBTQ-inclusive policies are shown Wednesday morning. (Blair Rhodes/CBC)
Yvren Mestres-Wyenberg, an 18-year-old who helped organize the counter-protest, said trans health care "saved my life," and they wanted to make sure those rights are maintained.
The turnout on both sides was surprisingly large, they said, and it was a "bit surreal" to see the aggression, conflict and division between the two.
Mestres-Wyenberg said when they were in school, not much was taught about trans and queer people.
"I think if I had been taught about that, I would have spent a lot less years in conflict with myself, hating myself," Mestres-Wyenberg said.
In Sydney, protest organizer Darlene LeBlanc said they were demanding an end to sexual orientation and gender identity discussions in schools. They also want it acknowledged that parents have the right to know what is being taught in schools when it comes to gender and sexuality.
"They're sexualizing the kids in the schools," LeBlanc said. "They're confusing them with this gender ideology."
Veronica Merryfield, who identifies as intersex and transgender, organized the Sydney counter-protest. Merryfield said supporters were there to protect the rights of transgender children and youths to get information and to realize that there are others like them.
"This is why gender and sexuality education from a young age is so important, so that these children don't think that they're alone," said Merryfield, who is founder of the Cape Breton Transgender Network.
Amanda McDougall, the mayor of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, said she intentionally decided to stand with counter-protesters.
"Everybody is entitled to their opinions, granted, but it needs to be respectful," McDougall said. "It needs to allow people to live dignified lives and I love this concept of just embracing everybody for who they are.
"That's why I'm standing where I'm standing. For some folks who are elected officials, you try to remain neutral, but for me, my family, my community, this is important, to create these spaces where everybody is welcome."
Protesters and counter-protesters gathered outside city hall in Sydney. (Tom Ayers/CBC)
In 2014, the Nova Scotia government released guidelines to help ensure transgender and gender non-conforming students "have equitable access to all aspects of school life." That followed amendments to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act two years earlier that incorporated the protection of transgender people from discrimination.
The guidelines detail principles such as providing access to gender-neutral washrooms, using a student's preferred pronouns and enabling safe participation in physical education and extracurricular activities.
Health curriculum for Grade 4 to Grade 9 students includes gender identity. Teachers are encouraged to use open-ended questions in class discussions, such as how to respect ways gender can be expressed, and how societal, cultural and religious beliefs impact how gender roles are viewed.
Counter-protesters in favour of gender-inclusive rights and policies in schools are shown at Grand Parade. (Blair Rhodes/CBC)
Ryan Lutes, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, said it's up to teachers to decide how to take those questions and apply them to their lessons.
"It would be no different than teaching multiplication tables. How each teacher does that is going to look different," said Lutes. "There's tons of different ways to do that and the teacher is going to make some decisions based on the kids in front of them and their expertise and what their students need."
The Education Department said in a statement that the health curriculum takes an "age-appropriate approach to help students learn about personal safety and gives them the ability to have important conversations with their families."
If families have questions, the department said, they can ask the teacher.
Lutes also said it's a misconception that teachers are "promoting" different gender identities.
"We don't try to force kids into these different boxes. What we do is we understand that all of these types of people exist and they all bring value and they all should be accepted and loved," he said.
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