Where did the term parental rights come from? | CBC News

The phrase “parental rights” — while by no means a new term — has re-emerged during recent conflicts over sexual orientation and gender identity policies in Canadian schools.

When some parents and socially conservative groups protested LGBTQ-inclusive education school policies on Wednesday across Canada, many did so under the banner of parental rights, scrawling the words on signs and invoking them in speeches.

It’s especially come up in relation to policies that let LGBTQ kids change their name or pronouns without requiring schools to inform their parents. Saskatchewan and New Brunswick recently introduced policies that would require parental consent for children under 16 to do so, and other provinces are considering doing the same.

“I believe in parental rights, and parental rights come before the government’s rights,” Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre said during a recent interview with a Mississauga news station. 

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson have also used the term in their social media posts, while New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs kept his message focused on parental rights while greeting protesters, but not counter demonstrators at Wednesday’s March.

So what does parental rights mean, where does the phrase come from, and who is included — and excluded — under its umbrella?

Critics call phrase a misnomer

Those who are critical of the term say it’s a misnomer that excludes LGBTQ parents or parents of LGBTQ children, and implies that parental rights take precedence over children’s rights.

“I think we can think of the parental rights movement as a conservative movement to limit the influence of government in people’s lives generally,” said Jen Gilbert, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

“In the case of the marches that are happening this week and and more generally around the schooling, the parental rights movement has emerged as a movement to limit discussions of sexuality and gender in schools under the auspices of both protecting children and protecting parents’ rights to raise children as they see fit.”

WATCH | Protesters, counter-demonstrators clash over LGBTQ rights in schools: 

Thousands protest over gender identity, sex-ed policies in schools

Protests and counter-protests over LGBTQ school policies took place in Toronto on Wednesday, with many more happening across the country. The initial protests were organized under the banner of ‘1 Million March 4 Children’ to ‘protect our children from indoctrination and sexualization,’ according to the group’s website. Counter-protests took place in response, with thousands gathering at places like Queen’s Park.

As protests and counter-protests over LGBTQ rights in schools erupted across the country this week, CBC News spoke with people who had different understandings of parental rights.

“I think it’s important that we respect parental rights [and] respect parental choices,” said Nathan McMillan, a protester in Toronto. “If parents feel that sex education in a particular manner is not appropriate for their child, they should absolutely have that right to have those conversations privately offline.”

Shawn Rouse, the parent of a transgender child in Quispamsis, N.B., interpreted the phrase differently.

“I think a lot of people try to frame this as parental rights. That is a phrase that has been around for decades. Whenever a parent has something they don’t like at a public school, they say, ‘Well, I have parental rights,’ ” he said.

WATCH | N.B. parent on marches against LGBTQ-inclusive policies: 

Parent of transgender child discusses parental rights

Shawn Rouse, who is the parent of a transgender child, says that a lot of the concern around trans rights stems from misinformation because many of these protesters have never spoken to a trans person and don’t understand they’re just normal people.

“This is nothing new. Any time that a public school curriculum decides that they are going to talk about something that a parent might not be comfortable with, there’s a pushback.”

The phrase has a long history in Canada that goes back to the late 19th and early 20th century, typically arising in relation to issues of language and religion in schools, according to Jason Ellis, an associate professor of education at the University of British Columbia.

“Parents expect the school, even though it’s compulsory, will educate their children more or less in the way that they want them to be educated,” said Ellis. 

When this unwritten contract is seen to break down, he said, “is where things tend to become very contentious.”

Protesters wave Pride and trans flags.
Counter-protesters in favour of LGBTQ inclusive sex education arrived at McGill University’s Roddick Gates in Montreal Wednesday morning. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

‘None of these discussions are new’

The parental rights movement is highly active in the U.S., where hundreds of pieces of anti-transgender legislation limiting discussion of sexual identity and gender orientation in schools have been passed or introduced this year alone — and where the term has a long history.

Canada’s parental rights movement shares some DNA with that of the U.S., according to Kristopher Wells, a Canada Research Chair at MacEwan University in Edmonton.

He noted that conservative Christian activist Anita Bryant toured Canadian cities with her 1970s Save Our Children campaign, which sought to overturn Miami County legislation that would end housing and employment discrimination against gay people in the name of parents’ rights.

“None of these discussions are new,” Wells said, noting that Alberta has often been at the forefront of the parental rights movement in Canada.

The province passed a 2009 bill that — while enshrining the rights of sexual minorities — also included a provision that would give parents the option of pulling their children out of lessons when topics related to sex, religion or sexual orientation were taught. (CBC News called it a parental rights clause at the time.)

In 2014, when the Alberta clause was debated during a party leadership forum, the phrase came up again.

The controversy over sex education in Ontario that began in 2015 was also framed as a matter of parental rights. So was a 2018 conflict over sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) curriculum in B.C. schools. And during Ontario’s school board elections in 2022, many candidates ran on parental rights platforms.

WATCH | SOGI protests organized by long-standing conservative groups, says researcher: 

SOGI protests organized by long-standing conservative groups, researcher says

A.J. Withers, who researches social movements, says organizers of the anti-SOGI demonstrations have ties to COVID-19-related protests and have now ‘pivoted’ to organize against LGBTQ education and communities.

Phrase adopted by wide spectrum of groups

“We live in a very connected, networked world, so ideas about the framing of parental rights travels across national borders into Canada, to the U.S., to Australia, to the U.K. and back again,” said Gilbert.

Today, the phrase has been used by groups with a spectrum of political, social and religious affiliations. 

But it’s also been adopted by Canadian organizations like Action4Canada, a COVID-19 conspiracy group, and groups in the U.S. like Moms For Liberty, which the Southern Poverty Law Centre lists as a hate group.

LISTEN | How the parental rights movement became a massive political force: 

Front Burner23:50The origins of “parental rights”

Over the last couple of months, the provincial governments in both New Brunswick and Saskatchewan have made controversial changes to their LGBTQ+ policies at schools. Parental consent is now needed when a student under 16 wants to use a different name or pronoun in the classroom. Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has also been saying that schools should leave conversations about LGBTQ issues to parents. This is all happening at a time when the concept of “parental rights” is a top issue for U.S Republicans. A parental rights bill was passed in the Republican-held House earlier this year and more than two dozen statehouses have passed similar legislation. Today on Front Burner, the Washington Post’s Emma Brown on the origins of the parental rights movement in the U.S. and how it became a massive political force and how that might help us understand the implications in Canada. Looking for a transcript of the show? They’re available here daily: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/frontburner/transcripts

The Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a non-profit that monitors extremism in Canada, has also expressed concern about a rise in parental rights policies and how they impact trans and LGBTQ youth.

“There’s something about this language of parental rights that has really caught on at this particular moment,” said Gilbert. “It speaks to a lot of people’s sense of disenfranchisement.”

Child advocates in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan have said that parental rights policies like the ones passed in their provinces could put children in danger of being outed to parents before they’re ready.

Trans youth in particular are at a significantly higher risk of suicide than their peers.

Advocates have also warned that the policies may violate international human rights agreements regarding children’s own rights, as well as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Sask. Premier Moe recently said he’s prepared to protect his province’s rules around names and pronouns by using the notwithstanding clause, which allows a province to override parts of the Charter for up to five years.

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