Protests against schools teaching children about gender and sexual diversity are happening across B.C. on Wednesday, while counter-protests are supporting inclusion in classrooms.
In Kamloops and Kelowna, hundreds of people from both sides met outside the courthouse and city hall, respectively, carrying signs and shouting slogans.
The rallies were prompted by a group called 1 Million March 4 Children, whose posters say participants are "standing together against gender ideology in schools" — which, in B.C., refers to the teaching of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) programs in public schools.
Similar events are planned across Canada on Wednesday, with some parents and socially conservative groups protesting LGBTQ-inclusive education policies in the classroom and in extracurricular settings under the banner of parental rights.
About 300 protesters and 75 counter-protesters were counted at a rally outside Kelowna City Hall on Wednesday morning. (Brady Strachan/CBC)
But 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.
Counter-rallies are also occurring in most communities where the marches are being held.
There is no specific SOGI curriculum in B.C., but K-12 students have subjects around human rights, respecting diversity, and responding to discrimination.
Protesters against SOGI programs in public schools in Prince George, B.C., on Wednesday. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC News)
"Teachers may include discussions around the B.C. Human Rights Code, sexual orientation and gender identity," the provincial government's website says.
Parents can also arrange for alternative ways to educate children about "sensitive topics related to reproduction and sexuality," including learning about them at home or through self-directed studies. This does not mean students can opt out of studying those subjects.
"It is expected that students will, in consultation with their school, demonstrate their knowledge of the learning standard(s)," the website reads.
In Prince George, about 120 people gathered outside city hall holding signs with slogans such as "Let kids be kids" and "Hands off our children."
They were countered by posters and chalk messages sharing messages of inclusion, including "Support trans kids" and "No space for hate."
Speaking to the crowd was Karm Manhas, a city council candidate who unsuccessfully ran on a platform that included opposition to public health measures put in place because of COVID-19.
Manhas insisted that the people gathered were supportive of the rights of gay people but they were opposed to their children being taught about gender and sex in the classroom for religious and moral reasons.
About 120 people showed up outside Prince George City Hall for a morning protest against SOGI education materials in B.C. classrooms. A counter-rally organized by educators and doctors who provide gender-affirming care is planned for the afternoon. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)
At other points, a prayer was held for the "delusions" of members of the LGBTQ community, while opponents of the rally were called "immoral" by other speakers.
In an interview with CBC News on Tuesday, David Low, one of the organizers of a rally against SOGI programs in Prince George, B.C., claimed children were being "bullied" by teachers into changing their pronouns.
Low, who unsuccessfully ran for school board in byelections earlier this year — losing to two candidates who explicitly endorsed SOGI — said he worries children are being pushed toward getting body-altering surgery without parental knowledge.
He also said he has heard stories of children identifying as a "kitty cat."
The rumour that there are children or teachers identifying as cats in classrooms is one often cited by opponents of sexual and gender education programs, and has repeatedly been denied by school boards across North America.
"It's one thing to say, well, we have various people who have different feelings about sexuality," Low said.
"It's a different thing to teach everybody that it is perfectly normal, and that you [the student] should look into that, if it's applicable to you."
Zykora Hocken, a recently graduated Grade 12 student who attended the Prince George protest, said she felt like she wasn't allowed to express her beliefs on gender identity when she was in high school and that she was upset her younger brother was asked what his pronouns were when he was 12 years old.
"They're shoving all this stuff down his throat. That's not fair," Zykora Hocken said.
Protests seem driven by misinformation: teachers' federation
Clint Johnston, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, said Tuesday that much of the support for the protests seem to be driven by disinformation and misinformation about what is happening in classrooms.
"[SOGI] is a program that's been running successfully for a long time … supported by every one of the major political parties in British Columbia," he said.
"It is just very frustrating to continue to see this type of activity happening based on what are just factually incorrect assertions and misunderstandings."
He said he's heard claims that teachers are trying to influence children to "change" genders.
Chris Thompson showed up in Kamloops, B.C., on Wednesday to counter-protest against those who do not want SOGI programs in public schools. About 300 people showed up outside the Kamloops courthouse, most in support of SOGI programs. (Marcella Bernardo/CBC News)
"Nothing could be further from the truth," Johnston said.
"There is no influence on students to do anything other than to learn to be themselves and to be comfortable with themselves and to be comfortable with everyone in their school around them.
"And to understand that there are differences in each of those people around them and how to live together and support each other to be happy and healthy."
Mikara Pettman, a social worker in 100 Mile House in B.C.'s Interior, about 120 kilometres northwest of Kamloops, started Cariboo Gender Support in 2016, where parents of trans, non-binary, two-spirit and other gender-diverse children can access support and resources.
Pettman said while children tend to be quite knowledgeable in terms of the gender spectrum, the lack of education around gender diversity historically has led to a lot of confusion now for parents.
"Really, it's a shock," she told CBC Daybreak Kamloops host Shelley Joyce. "Especially, of course, if parents are cisgender, meaning that they were assigned a gender at birth and it fit for them and they've grown up, which is many of us."
But people like her are trying to change that, she said.
"We've come to a place as a society and a culture where we're being more inclusive and understanding," she said, "and that's really good news."
Leaders condemn 'hate-fuelled marches'
B.C. Premier David Eby posted a letter on social media on Tuesday raising concerns about the planned protests and denouncing hate toward LGBTQ communities.
"It's upsetting and distressing to see misinformation and disinformation used to attack some of our most vulnerable children and youth," he wrote.
Kevin Falcon, leader of the opposition B.C. United party, said in a statement he is "deeply concerned for members of the LGBTQ community who feel targeted and attacked today."
He also expressed support for SOGI, which was introduced into classrooms under his party, then known as the B.C. Liberals, in 2016.
B.C. United's education critic, Elenore Sturko, noted that SOGI received unanimous support from the cabinet at the time.
That cabinet included the current leader of the Conservative Party of B.C., John Rustad, who issued a statement Wednesday in support of the rallies against "gender ideology" in schools, stating he would end SOGI curriculums if elected.
"First, I will end SOGI123, and I will implement a zero-tolerance anti-bullying approach in our schools. Schools must be safe for all students and the SOGI123 program is a failure; it has become a distraction and it is divisive," Rustad said in his statement.
"Second, I stand with parents who are demanding honesty, transparency and accountability from our public education system."
Leaders in at least two major cities where protest events are expected to take place released statements of support for LGBTQ residents.
Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim issued a statement Wednesday morning expressing solidarity with the LGBTQ community and condemning discrimination.
"Today, we are being confronted by ignorance and bigotry, and we must always call it out and stand with those who are impacted. We can never allow ourselves to let hate win the day. So, to all 2SLGBTQI+ individuals, know this: we see you and we value you," said Sim.
The City of Prince George said in a statement that the city values inclusivity and integrity and does not support anyone who articulates discriminatory perspectives or acts that jeopardize community safety.
"We support our residents to be who they are and we value their protected human rights. This gathering may cause some of our residents and staff to feel unsafe in our community and we emphasize our unwavering support for you to belong," said the statement.
B.C. Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender says she is disturbed by what she calls "hate-fuelled marches.''
In a statement, Govender says peaceful demonstration protects democracy and generates debate, but the human rights of the trans and LGBTQ community "is not up for debate.''
She says an inquiry by her office showed almost two-thirds of LGBTQ students don't feel safe at school, compared with 11 per cent of heterosexual students, and attempts to erase them from school curriculums are hateful.