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'Preserving kids' choices': Alberta premier says transgender rules coming in fall

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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says changes underpinning new policies surrounding transgender youth will come in the fall legislature sitting, and she isn’t ruling out using the Charter’s notwithstanding clause to uphold them.

Smith declined Thursday to answer directly when asked if her new rules were developed to appease the extremist wing of her United Conservative Party. Critics have dubbed the rules as cruel and harmful to youth already facing abuse, suicide and marginalization.

Smith said the goal is to stop youth from making life-altering biological decisions before they are mature enough to do so.

Among the changes would be a ban on gender reassignment surgery for those 17 and under. There would be no puberty blockers or hormone therapies for the purposes of such surgery for anyone 15 and under, unless they’ve already begun such procedures.

“Issues involving kids’ reproductive health are not a political stunt,” Smith told reporters a day after announcing the changes in a video posted on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

“It is essential for us to show leadership in preserving kids’ choices. So if they choose to at some future point ... they want to have kids, that they haven't prematurely made a decision they can't live with.”

Smith said parental consent is at the core of the changes because family is paramount.

“The family is with you for life,” she said.

Otherwise, said Smith, “It really is going to be just up to the individual doctor, and we just don't think that that's the environment that we should be having.”

The policies are also to require parental consent for students 15 and under who want to change their names or pronouns at school. Students 16 and 17 would not need consent, but their parents would have to be notified.

And the province would clamp down on transgender female athletes competing in women's and girls sports.

The Alberta Teachers' Association says it's not common but also not zero.

Many sports organizations have begun drafting policies to cover these situations to ensure a level playing field in the rare instances it comes up.

Duane Bratt, a board member with the Alberta Lacrosse Association and the head of the Rocky Mountain Lacrosse Association, says these are very complicated, very delicate issues.

He also says sport will find itself between provincial will and rules and federal will and rules, and that could result in a loss of funding or eligibilities.

"There are a lot of different nuances at play here that we have been grappling with ... and then, all of a sudden, we get this coming out," Bratt told CTV News Calgary.

Smith said the changes will be rolled out in the fall legislature sitting in the form of legislation, regulation and policies.

Asked if her government would invoke the Charter’s notwithstanding clause should a court find the rules abridge equality provisions, Smith replied, “I hope it doesn’t come to that." But she did not rule the option out.

“We’re not stopping any (medically insured) service.”

Provincial numbers

On Thursday evening, the province provided the following information:

"Currently, the required age for genital reconstruction surgery (GRS) is 18 years of age and the required age for masculinization of the torsosurgery (mastectomy) is 16 years of age. Moving forward, all gender reassignment surgeries for minors aged 17 and under will be prohibited," the province said via email.

"The data for those 18 and older, who were approved for genital reconstruction surgery (GRS) funding is below. Albertans younger than 18 years are not eligible for bottom surgery funding through the Gender Surgery Program, therefor the province does not track the data for this type of surgery for those under 18 years old.

"2020-21: there were 104 individuals approved for funding (25 of them, age 18 to 25).

"2021-22: there were 119 individuals approved for funding (27 of them, age 18 to 25).

"2022-23: there were 89 individuals approved for funding (36 of them, age 18 to 25).

"With regard to hormone treatment, in 2022-23, nearly 2,700 claims were submitted for non-surgical interventions by minors. It is unknown how many of these claims are for gender dysphoria vs. use for other medical conditions (e.g., cancer treatment, endocrine disorders, growth disorders, obesity, fatigue). It is estimated that treatments for reasons other than gender dysphoria represent the majority of claims."  

Critics speak out

Critics — including LGBTQ advocates, the federal government and Alberta’s Opposition NDP – said the changes are cruel and would further stigmatize and alienate transgender youth already afflicted by abuse and high rates of suicide.

In Ottawa, federal Health Minister Mark Holland said he plans to meet soon with Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange to find an “off ramp” to the planned policies.

“I thought we were at a place in this country where we’re moving past this,” Holland told reporters.

“It’s extremely dangerous to engage in this kind of thing, which I think is playing politics when you’re talking about children’s lives.”

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley described the changes as “horrifying.”

She said Smith is imposing a “cynical and cruel” program that targets vulnerable youth and invades on private medical decisions to appeal to the fringe extremist wing of Smith’s UCP.

“At its core, Danielle Smith is playing dangerous politics with the lives of young people,” Notley told reporters in Ottawa.

She also criticized Smith’s promise to alter how sex education is taught in schools.

Smith said parents would have to be notified and give consent for their children to be taught about gender identity, human sexuality and sexual orientation. Third-party resource materials used to teach these subjects from kindergarten through Grade 12 would have to be approved by the Education Ministry.

“Danielle Smith is proposing to make Alberta the only province where parents have to now opt in or, put another way, actively ask for sexual health education,” said Notley.

“This will result in thousands and thousands and thousands of kids being left out of this program — a program that teaches safe sex, birth control, consent.”

Kristopher Wells, the Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth, said when parents' rights conflict with those of a child, the health and well-being of the child must come first.

"Not only is this a moral and ethical imperative, it's a legal obligation," said Wells, with MacEwan University in Edmonton.

He added, "It's hard not to believe there's no ideological motivation in these policy decisions, because there is simply no evidence to support them.

"It's very ironic that here we have a (governing) party that's all about freedoms that's very quick to act to take away freedom from young people and their families."

Advocacy groups Egale Canada and Skipping Stone Foundation said in a joint statement they would bring legal action if Alberta moves ahead.

Harini Sivalingam with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which is challenging a similar pronoun policy in New Brunswick, said Alberta's changes are a "clear and blatant attack on freedom” of transgender and gender-diverse people.

Saskatchewan and New Brunswick brought in rules last year requiring parental consent for students to change their names or pronouns, but with the age set at 16 and under.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe’s government invoked the notwithstanding clause to support its legislation in October.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Feb. 1, 2024.

With files by CTV News Calgary

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