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Leg is back, but parental consent bill off to slow start

Daily Leg Update: No unanimous consent to hear parental consent bill on Tuesday, so legislation will instead be introduced on Thursday

REGINA - There was lots of action outside, but far less of it inside when it came to the proposed legislation to require parental consent for name and pronouns changes of students.

Tuesday was the first day of the special sitting of the Saskatchewan legislature, called so the Saskatchewan Party government could bring in legislation to enshrine into law its controversial parental inclusion and consent policy. 

However, the proposed legislation, officially called Bill 137 - The Parents Bill of Rights Act, only got as far as the government providing the notice of introduction of the bill on Tuesday.

That carries with it a notice period of two days before the bill is able to be presented in the Assembly. House Leader Jeremy Harrison did make a motion Tuesday to waive the two-day notice period  and move to proceed to debate on the bill immediately, but it needed unanimous consent. 

The opposition New Democrats loudly shouted their opposition in the Assembly Tuesday, which means the bill will be introduced on Thursday, as per procedure.

In speaking to reporters afterward, Harrison expressed puzzlement that the opposition denied consent, characterizing their reasons as being because they had not seen the bill yet. 

“The whole point of giving consent was so they could see the bill today,” said Harrison. “They could’ve seen the bill, the entire gallery could have seen the bill, the entire province could have seen the bill today, and we could’ve been into debate tomorrow.”

In any event, the Legislature will sit again as usual on Wednesday, even though the bill will not be introduced until Thursday. Harrison indicated that when the bill is introduced on Thursday, the government was prepared to offer 40 hours of debate on the bill instead of the usual 20 hours. He said a motion to that effect was put forward in the House Tuesday.

“We want to give the Opposition full opportunity to debate and speak to the bill,” said Harrison.

Harrison also said they are proposing extended sitting days to include Friday and Saturday this week, and sit Monday through Sunday the following week if necessary. But he also indicated it would be up to the Opposition to agree whether they would sit on those days or not.

Despite the extended hours proposed for debate, Harrison expressed confidence there was enough time to get the bill passed before the new session and Speech from the Throne on Oct. 25.

What is still not clear right now is what is or is not included in the actual legislation, as details cannot be shared until it is tabled in the House.

What has been indicated is that the government plans to invoke the Notwithstanding Clause, to override a recent King’s Bench court decision that paused the province’s parental inclusion and consent policy.

Premier Scott Moe told reporters “we’ve been clear from the very beginning we would use the tools that are necessary to ensure this policy is in place.… we want to open up those opportunities for parents to get involved in a child’s education, the child’s school, directly in the child’s classroom as well. We’ve been clear about that from the very beginning about the introduction of this policy and ultimately now with the introduction of the legislation....”

Moe also pointed to some school divisions having virtually identical policies in place today. 

He also responded to criticisms that there were other more pressing priorities to deal with, by pointing to government announcements they made in recent days on other issues. He pointed to last week’s government announcement of their mental health and addictions plan and expanded shelter spaces, to a string of infrastructure announcements in education, and to the new parkade being built at Regina General Hospital.

“The difference being with respect to the tools available to enact this policy, it does require legislation, it does require the Notwithstanding Clause.  We’ve been clear from the beginning we will utilize those tools if necessary. Today, they are necessary, and ultimately that’s why we find ourselves in the House.”

The day had seen a large amount of activity on the lawns across from the Legislature, as competing rallies took place both in favor of and in opposition to the legislation over the morning and noon hour.

On one side were supporters of parental rights who spoke in favor of the government legislation. On the other side was an even larger group of hundreds of people voicing their opposition to the government’s pronouns policy. Those included those in the LGBTQ+ communities as well as members of several labour unions including Saskatchewan Teachers Federation.

“Teachers work really hard to make safe and caring learning environments,” said Samantha Becotte, STF President. “The proposed legislation is just going to hack up teachers’ abilities to build those trusting relationships with students, to be able to help them develop the skills that are necessary to have the conversations at home and ensure that students are feeling safe and welcomed that they are coming into our schools.”

She said if teachers aren’t able to have those conversations, those students “might not be able to have those conversations with anyone.”

A trans teenager from Campbell Collegiate, Memphis Hartman, explained his reaction to being at the rally.

“In all honesty, it feels terrible,” said Hartman. “The reasons why we have to gather like this are deplorable, and they represent really poorly on behalf of our province.”

He pointed to the need for trans youth to be able to turn to their teachers. “That was the safe space. And so going to them first was essential. There’s no one else who understands you like your teacher, they see you most of the time other than your parents. And you know if my parents hadn’t been supportive I would’ve had the school to fall back on before this legislation. So to imagine my trans brothers and sisters go through that without that cushion it is a nightmare to be honest. It makes me feel so infuriated right now and I have close people in my life right now we don’t have support of the families like I do, and they are suffering right now.”

The legislature was guarded by heavy security Tuesday, with a number of fences put up in front of the entrance. A line of police officers ended up coming in to keep the two rallies separated from one another, and things got tense at one point, with the parental rights rally being shouted down by the opponents.

Inside, it was a raucous Question Period as opposition MLAs roasted the government on the proposed legislation, questioning the government's priorities. In response to opposition questions, Education Minister Jeremy Cockrill claimed the government heard from “tens of thousands” of people in support of the parental consent policy.

In speaking to reporters, Opposition Leader Carla Beck pointed out the Assembly had been called back early for the first time in a quarter century, and never under the Sask Party government.

“Yet we are expected to believe that we are here today, that it is just a coincidence that this happens just after the Sask Party lost two by-elections in Regina, and lost 20 points to the far right in Lumsden-Morse.”

Beck pointed to more pressing issues such as health care and the cost of living. She also pointed to the government’s parental consent policy having come about over a period of only nine days, after getting 18 emails from people and only seven of them from parents.

“We’re expected to believe today that this is the most pressing issue and this is something that requires this government, this Premier, to call the legislature back, again something that hasn’t happened in a quarter century.”

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